Western Balkans Extremism Research Forum



TUESDAY 29TH JANUARY 2019



The British Council’s Western Balkans Extremism Research Forum recently held a half-day conference in London. The event was hosted jointly by the Global Strategy Forum and the British Council and was supported by a grant from the UK government’s Conflict, Stability and Security Fund. The Forum discussed violent extremism in the Western Balkans and its potential impact on the UK. Its aim was to “strengthen understanding and raise awareness of extremism threats to the UK and ultimately remove the Western Balkans as a region of threat from the UK Counter-Extremism Strategy” (1).


Researchers from six Balkan nations with Muslim populations - Albania, Bosnia, Kosovo, Macedonia, Montenegro and Serbia - were asked to examine the root causes of radicalisation in their respective countries and to assess the effectiveness of the measures taken to combat it. The researchers presented their findings at the Forum and then answered questions from the audience. Although the states had many problems in common - weak political structures, limited employment, poor access to education - it soon became clear that each country faced a different set of challenges.


Media coverage of violent extremism in the Balkans tends to focus on the three Muslim-majority nations, Albania, Bosnia and Kosovo. Kosovo in particular has attracted lurid headlines describing it as a “cauldron” or “hotbed” of radical extremism (2). One of the purposes of the Forum is to counter these narratives by creating a body of evidence-based research with a consistent methodology that provides a more accurate picture of what is happening on the ground. According to the Forum, in the five years from 2012-2017, 723 males from the Western Balkans travelled to Syria or Iraq. Kosovo had the highest number, 255; Montenegro had the smallest number, 18. In-between were Bosnia, 177; Macedonia, 140; Albania, 96; Serbia, 37 (3).


On the face of it, it does seem that in Kosovo’s case there is a correlation between its population - more than 90% from a Muslim background - and radicalisation. But if population is a principal driver, why has Albania produced fewer violent extremists than Bosnia or Macedonia? (4) Senior Researcher for Kosovo Shpend Kursani warns against generalisations that demonise an entire nation. Basing his analysis on interviews with returning fighters, Kursani dismisses the idea that their radicalisation was due to poor education. On the contrary, the fighters he spoke to struck him as “generally smart” with a level of education similar to the population at large or even slightly higher. He also questions the assumption that poverty is a key factor in radicalisation. At the conference, Kursani argued that even if the official figure was tripled and we say there were a thousand radicalised individuals in Kosovo, that is still a tiny percentage of the total population. Hundreds of thousands of Kosovars live in poverty. So why, asks Kursani, haven’t they become radicalised?


Acknowledging that the causes of radicalisation are “incredibly complex and multifaceted”, Kursani believes that “identity” is a crucial factor. If a young person has an “identity vacuum”, membership of a radical group can fill the gap. It is true that religious extremism provides both a sense of belonging and a “radical outlet”. But Kursani argues that there are “many indications” that violent extremism is more attractive than religious doctrine. He suggests that a religious outlet could be “just an accident of fate”; in different circumstances those same people could have joined a violent Marxist-Leninist or Fascist group.


Kursani believes that family ties are another major radicalising factor. According to his data, 70% of those who went to Syria “were in close or extended family relations”, and 40% “were from the same nuclear family”. At the Forum, Kursani spoke specifically about Klina, a Kosovan village that has been described as a terrorist hotspot. But when you look at the data, you see that all ten people suspected of violent extremism came from the same family (5).


The situation in Albania is equally complex. Senior Researcher for Albania Gjergji Vurmo says that it is not possible to explain radicalisation “by a single variable alone”. As well as corruption, economic privation and external factors such as Islamophobia, Vurmo highlights the opportunities for radicalisation that stem from a weak state. If the state cannot provide services for its citizens, “radical players” can fill the gap. As well as providing much-needed public services, these players are in a strong position for “spreading ideas about the “state as the other side” or even as the “enemy””.


Although Albania is a Muslim-majority country, Vurmo characterises it as a “predominantly secular society” where most people have little knowledge of religion. That ignorance can also include religious authorities. At the conference, Vurmo described a visit he made to Librazhd in eastern Albania, one of the towns where, between 2012 and 2014, recruiters had had some success. The average age of the imams there was between 60 and 65; three of them were over 90. Not only was their knowledge of Islam sketchy, but they had no idea of social media or how to respond to youngsters. Vurmo believes the recruiters were successful in Librazhd because they could exploit these weaknesses and promote more radical forms of Islam (6).


Since then, both Kosovo and Albania have adopted legal measures to discourage citizens from joining terrorist organisations abroad. In Kosovo, there is also a government initiative to reintegrate returning fighters and their families. Kursani notes that the programme is “still in its early phases” and as yet there is little information on specifics. At present, Albania has no official programme for the reintegration of returning fighters. Kursani and Vurmo agree that in both countries the religious community has a vital role to play in deterring violent extremism. In Vurmo’s opinion, the biggest single step Albania could take would be “the restoration of religious authorities”. The Albanian Muslim Community which represents all Albanian Muslims is “very vibrant and very vocal” and works at community level to deter radicalisation. In Kosovo, religious communities have also been active. Kursani believes that community-level involvement is one of the reasons why Muslims in Muslim-majority Balkan states have been “less vulnerable to radicalisation than Muslims in non-majority countries”. He added that proportional to population far more Belgian Muslims have been radicalised than Muslims from Kosovo.


In conclusion, Kursani said that in Kosovo younger people continue to be at risk of radicalisation because they are more likely to “show signs of social alienation and detachment from the established social setting”. Young people in Pristina are even more at risk because the capital is “highly politicised and polarised among different political and social elites” and that could exacerbate a sense of alienation. Vurmo says that in recent years Albania has made “great strides” in combatting radicalisation. But there are still areas of concern. More needs to be done in prisons, and greater efforts are needed to help local communities recognise the threat. In Vurmo’s view, the key to controlling violent extremism lies in “community-based actions”.


For an interested outsider, this was a thought-provoking event. Importantly, the presentations challenged commonly-held assumptions about the links between Muslim populations and violent extremism. As Lead Researcher Vlado Azinović said in his closing comments, we should be very cautious about characterising the Western Balkans as a “springboard for radicalisation”. Coincidentally, the presentations also threw light on the governance of Balkan states. Combatting violent extremism is only one of a multitude of problems they face.



1. British Council mission statement at:

https://www.britishcouncil.org/partner/international-development/news-and-events/june-2017/western-balkans-understanding-threats-of-extremism-to-the-uk

You can read more about the work of the Conflict, Stability and Security Fund at: https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/conflict-stability-and-security-fund-cssf/conflict-stability-and-security-fund-an-overview

2. See for instance:

Inside Kosovo's Islamist Cauldron (June 2016)

https://www.rferl.org/a/inside-kosovos-islamic-cauldron/27825148.html


How a European hotbed of Islamist extremism deals with returning fighters (March 2018)

https://www.irinnews.org/feature/2018/03/02/lessons-kosovo-how-european-hotbed-islamist-extremism-deals-returning-fighters


3. Extremism Research Forum, Western Balkans Report, p.4 - report available for download at:

https://www.britishcouncil.rs/sites/default/files/erf_report_western_balkans_2018.pdf


4. Albania’s most recent census (2011) recorded 58.9% of its population as Muslim. Bosnia’s most recent census (2013) recorded 50.7% of its population as Muslim. Macedonia’s most recent census (2002) recorded 33% of its population as Muslim.


5. Quotations are taken either from Shpend Kursani’s comments at the Forum or from his Kosovo Report which can be downloaded at:

https://kosovo.britishcouncil.org/sites/default/files/erf_report_kosovo_2018.pdf


6. Quotations are taken either from Gjergji Vurmo’s comments at the Forum or from his Albania Report which can be downloaded at:

https://www.britishcouncil.al/sites/default/files/erf20albania20report202018.pdf