Tighter relations to the West are going to help fight jihadism, extremism and Islamic radicalization in the Western Balkans against the backdrop of the still existing issue of returning foreign terrorist fighters. 17 years after the end of the Yugoslav wars, many Balkan countries are still faced with the aftermath of a blend of ethnic conflicts, organized crime, extremism and border disputes. The Regional Cooperation Council (RCC) estimates that around 1,000 individuals from the Western Balkans went to fight in Iraq and Syria between 2012 and 2017 out of which around 200 were killed, 300 returned and around 400 are considered missing.
RCC reports that the pace of departures of citizens from Balkan countries, however, completely stopped by mid-2016 – “contrary to widespread expectations and alarming media predictions, a massive and uncontrolled influx of foreign fighters returning to the Western Balkans from Syria and Iraq is unlikely to occur”. To compare, the EU “sent” some 5,000 of its nationals to join the extremists in the conflicts across the Middle East. The reasons why foreign fighters return to their home countries vary but “disenchantment” with the ideology is cited as the most common reason.
Yet, experts agree that the threat from extremists with “ultra-conservative view of Islam” has not disappeared. “The rise of Islamist radicalisation and other extremist ideologies in the region is very worrying,” commented Vlado Azinovic, Associate Professor of the University of Sarajevo. The most vulnerable countries are Bosnia, Kosovo and Macedonia. Albania was also susceptible to the threat but came up with a comprehensive strategy to deal with radicalization – as the first country in the region. Yet, weak judiciary and prevalent corruption thwart these efforts.