Thursday, 14 December 2017 | News today: 14

Volunteers from this region leave to Syria for money and adventure

Muslim communities from the entire region have issued several clear messages in which they hedge themselves off and condemn departure of their followers to fight in Syria and Iraq, since, above all, it is a fratricidal war. The statements clearly underline killings in Syria and Iraq have nothing in common with the Muslim religion that might justify it

Andreja Bodganovski, security analyst at ‘Analytica’ organization, and one of the top graduates of his class at the renowned British “Kings College”, believes Muslim community, in general, does not provide support to ISIS. On the contrary, in his opinion, they actually condemn followers who leave to fight in Syria and Iraq. He says there are volunteers from this region who leave to Syria and Iraq from religious drives, but he also underlines there are many who do that for financial benefits and adventure. According to him, no more than twenty persons from  Macedonia have gone to fight in Syria.

Radical Islamism has been the top media topic lately. How come in just a couple of years it became equally dangerous as natural disasters or civil wars?

Bogdanovski: This should be observed from a few different aspects. First, 2014 is neither 2004, nor 1994. The Western Balkans region posts improvement in regional cooperation, building mutual trust and consolidation. For instance, the Police Cooperation Convention for Southeast Europe, which grants the countries right to enter the territory of the neighboring state when going after a perpetrator, which was inconceivable ten years ago. 

The problem with volunteers who leave to Syria and Iraq is not only a national issue, but also regional and global. Most of the European fighters who leave to Syrian battlefields nowadays are from Great Britain and France. This, in a certain manner, makes it easier to push for agendas for prevention of radicalization here and it would be one way to address this occurrence. Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbot has recently initiated introduction of international measures within UN for combating foreign fighters.

This global response disables national manipulation with citizens to a large extent, such as claiming that the measures only refer to a certain ethnic group etc.

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What is the medium-term regional security assessment?

Bodganovski: Similar to Western Europe, potential leaving and returning of volunteers to and from Syria and Iraq pose a potential threat to the region. Although Syrian civil war has begun since 2011, there are no terrorist attacks which are directly connected to the war in Syria. However, considering our surrounding of NATO member states or contributors to their missions, which increases the risk due to the Alliance involvement in Afghanistan, the region should not completely exclude the possibility of terrorist attack in the following years.

If those who want to leave are actively distracted from such intentions by prevention measures, and those who have returned are being monitored and assisted in the reintegration process, the risk would be reduced to minimum. The risk is bigger with countries from the region where more persons leave to fight, such as Bosnia and Herzegovina, Albania, Kosovo and Serbia.

Which of the following poses greatest danger: terrorist attacks, political influence, armed conflicts or something else?

Bogdanovski: The trend of leaving to Syria and Iraq is a threat to common values which our societies strive to build. The reason for their departure is very important. Motives and fighting to establish caliphate under the auspice of Sheriate law is problematic, because those are not the values which this country rests on.

Unfortunately, we can still not exclude terrorist threats, which would be of a limited size. Macedonia is not the exception in the region or Europe, regarding this matter. The question here is that if someone still decides to commit terrorist attack in their own country, than how and what amount of weapons and materials would they have at their disposal?

Are local Balkan governments powerful enough to deal with potential returnees and the network of radical Islamist groups, which evidently exist?

Bogdanovski: Political will of political elites, religious groups and civil organizations addressing this problem, are of a great importance. We have been witnessing a more or less coordinated approach in dealing with returnees to this region. It has all begun with the criminalization of the recruiting procedure, which evolved into developing legal sanctions for participants in foreign military conflicts. Furthermore, neighboring Albania, Kosovo and Serbia conducted actions in cooperation with public prosecutors offices, which resulted in dozen arrests and weapons confiscation. The Albanian Prosecutor’s Office has led a ten-month investigation and arrested a couple of self-proclaimed imams from Tirana, who were suspected of involvement in the believers recruiting process for Syria.

By rendering this phenomenon an act of crime, the authorities have additional tools at their disposal to address the challenge. However, we lack utilization of the existing resources for prevention or by establishment of counseling citizen’s groups, an opportunity for debate on this topic to raise public awareness.

According to high American representatives, even the USA cannot deal with this phenomenon by itself and it requires everyone’s coordination…

Bogdanovski: The threat from ISIS is not traditional, but asymmetrical in terms of war tactics and ideology. Days ago, terrorist movement “Boko Haram” from Nigeria has proclaimed a caliphate in the northeastern parts of this country. In Syria and Iraq, there is a territory at the size of Great Britain, led by ISIS. Due to the complexity of this matter, joint action is required to include different groups of states, including Russia and Turkey, even Iran.

What are the odds of establishment of an Islamic caliphate, which would include the territory of Macedonia, besides other countries from the region?

Bogdanovski: This is not first time for us to see maps of the region with altered borders under somebody’s influence. Maps are often being used by various structures as a trial balloon to test the reactions of the target group. I think we should not exaggerate the size of this matter, which, to be realistic, does not even exist at the moment. Medium-term movements of the region do not refer to the fact that our neighbors, which are already NATO and EU members, would become part of the Islamic caliphate, led by the Sheriate law. Also, I do not think there is a fruitful ground in the region for materialization of such radical idea. On the occasion of the aforementioned map, official Ankara stated in  a press release it does not consider terrorist organizations, such as ISIS, relevant.

Why do, traditionally moderate Muslims from the Balkan countries, support ISIS, ISIL so fiercely? What is the large number of volunteers who die in Syria and Iraq due to?

Bogdanovski: Firstly, I would not say the general Muslim community of this region supports ISIS. My impression, from the research conducted thus far, is quite the opposite. Muslim communities from the entire region have issued several clear messages in which they hedge themselves off and condemn departure of their followers to fight in Syria and Iraq, since, above all, it is a fratricidal war. The statements clearly underline killings in Syria and Iraq have nothing in common with the Muslim religion that might justify it. True, there are volunteers from this region who leave due to religious motives, but it is equally true there are such who do that for financial benefits, as well as adventure.

Why do most of the pro-western political parties of Albanians in Albania, Kosovo and in Macedonia, as well as most of the media and intellectuals, keep silent?

Bogdanovski: Up until recently, a debate on this matter in Macedonia did not even exist. Authorities used to refuse to discus or admit to our citizens fighting in Syria, until the media unearthed fighters from this region have lost their lives. Political leaders in Kosovo and Albania were noisy on this topic, since they had news to report to the public. They tried to use the numerous arrests in Kosovo (November 2013, June, August 2014), as well as Albania (March) to draw the electorate nearer and to score political points. Some even presented the arrests in Kosovo as sensational, which, allegedly, took place to increase the rating of Prime Minister Hashim Thaci home and abroad.

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Part of Kosovo’s religious leaders were arrested, while it seems as if Macedonia’s IRC does not want to openly oppose this occurrence and, in a certain way, it flirts with them. To what extent is this dangerous, both long-term and medium-term?

Bogdanovski: It is true that few religious leaders from Kosovo were arrested, but that does not mean it should be compared to the situation in Macedonia. Kosovo authorities assessed these had strong indications which required such reaction. Macedonia’s Interior Ministry position is that there are no individuals in Macedonia who recruit persons for battlefields in Syria and Iraq, but these persons have been recruited from abroad – from neighboring countries and some EU member states. It is worth mentioning IRC addressed the Macedonian public on multiple occasions (a bit shy,  though), condemning leaving to fight foreign wars. However, reticence and meager amounts of information of security institutions and religious groups makes more precise analysis and projections on this matter more difficult. It also makes taking statement of authorities with a grain of salt.

In Great Britain, for instance, representatives of the counterintelligence unit MI5 and women’s Muslim organizations conduct joint activities to divert those who intend to join al-Nusra in Syria. In Macedonia, though, things are different. IRC head recently stated for ‘Dnevnik’ that nongovernmental organizations should not interfere with its business.

Do relations of Macedonian Muslims to radical structures back in 2001 make the process of dealing with this forces more difficult?

Bogdanovski: Considering the age structure of those who fight in Syria, it is evident this type of an adventure is more attractive for the younger population (18-29). Consequently, direct correlation to 2001 does not make much sense.

What kind of an indicator is it that violent protests on the “Monster” case verdict have started from a mosque from the center in Skopje, and IRC admits to losing control of two mosques?

Bogdanovski: Without going any deeper into whether the protests on the “Monster” case verdict were justified or not, Macedonia guarantees everyone’s right to protest peacefully, regardless of whether it will start from a mosque or Macedonia Street. Considering that protests against the verdict have ethic and religious tone, since the mobilized mass is mostly members of the Albanian community in Macedonia, time and space of protests start, in my opinion, are used to catalyze higher turnout, which with render the protests more successful. It is worth mentioning that during Friday prayers in Macedonian mosques lately a message of leaving to Syrian battlefields has nothing to do with the Islam is being conveyed.

How many persons from the Balkans take part in battles in Iraq and Syria, how many of them are Macedonians and how many of them will return to this country and the region?

Bogdanovski: According to the analysis of regional media reports up to date, we are talking of about 300-600 persons from the Western Balkans, most of whom from Bosnia and Herzegovina, Albania, Kosovo and Serbia. Way less from Macedonia and Montenegro. According to assumptions, no more than 20 persons from Macedonia currently fight in Syria. This only refers to Syria. Opening of the Ukrainian battlefield could additionally alter the numbers for Serbia, having already registered cases of Serbian citizens who are fighting over there. Judging by previous experiences, large portion of those who fight in foreign military conflicts do not return home. Most of them get killed, as evidently, while some of them move to another battlefields (such as the transfer from al-Nusra to ISIS etc.).

How do they reintegrate in the society?

Bogdanovski: Countries from this region make efforts to address this problem, mostly by legal sanctions. However, there are almost no evident efforts in prevention and rehabilitation programs for those who took part in the war regions abroad. Listing this act a crime itself will not completely prevent this occurrence. It requires another factors: local communities, religious groups, social services etc. The German Counterintelligence Service, Federal Office for the Protection of the Constitution, for instance, has a special programme for Islamic radicalism, dubbed HATIF, which offers support for abandoning these radical groups through locating programmes for further education and developing skills for these persons to return to the labor market. At the same time, the civil sector plays a major role. In Macedonia, for instance, there is no NGO that might offer reintegration programmes, such as “Exit” in Germany.

How can the law stop people who leave to fight in foreign wars, although they are aware they might get killed?

Bogdanovski: In my opinion, implementation of such legal amendments will be very difficult. There are certain challenges for complete focusing on legal sanctioning of leaving to these battlefields, to Syria in particular. The can be identified by the regional court’s expertise to make decisions on acts committed in this Near East country. The other question concerns collecting evidence and their utilization in the court process itself. What kind of evidence does the prosecution has at its disposal? Would there be any difference between fighters for al-Nusra or the Free Syrian Army (which was directly supported by the West)? Therefore, I think a comprehensive approach requires bigger efforts. Since this is a regional problem, this can be an excellent opportunity for a joint action plan, which would include both prevention and reintegration, similar to the one of the EU, passed in July. Sharing intel among regional intelligence services of of a crucial meaning. In my opinion, the region should hold a meeting to discuss this matter as soon as possible.

What is the potential danger of these people if they decide to continue their ideology here?

Bogdanovski: It must be mentioned that not everyone who returns from Near East battlefields will be involved in terrorist attacks of their own country. However, although minor, there are several reasons as to why the risk still exists. After their return, there is a high probability they had suffered a psychological trauma from the military activities, which refers to the need of rehabilitation and reintegration. They can act as a medium for recruiting others who are interested to join the war. Moreover, they have acquired terrorist skills, which can also be a problem. A small percent of the returnees have  accepted various extremist ideologies. They can also act individually, without participation in terrorist networks, cells etc.

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By: Goran Momirovski

Photo: Igor Angelovski