There is an increased danger of terrorist attacks, especially in the Balkans, linked to the rise of Islamic State.
Photo: Dabiq/Planet Pix
Eastern Europe has experienced a low level of terrorist threats for the last few years, especially the Balkans, which have a sizeable presence of radical Islamists and where the difficult conditions of life in places such as Bosnia, Macedonia and Kosovo have provided fertile ground for radicalisation. However, the danger has increased significantly since the outbreak of conflict in Syria, the rise of Islamic State and the subsequent pledge by an international coalition to destroy the organisation.
The threat to Eastern Europe derives from two main sources. The first is from local radicals, especially in the Balkans, where foreign-financed Islamic foundations and madrassas have been free to spread radical Islam since the 1990s. Already, there is some evidence of this translating into violence in the form of recent lone wolf attacks in Albania, Bosnia and Serbia, in some cases fatal. Those who have travelled to Syria to fight for Islamic State pose a particular threat, having gained frontline combat experience, sharpened radical beliefs and the intent to continue the struggle on home soil. As Islamic state enters into demise and radicals from the Balkans return to their countries of origin, the threat posed by this category could increase.
The second source of threat derives from outside extremists arriving in the region. This threat has risen in the wake of the migrant crisis, which has allowed large numbers of people from the Middle East to enter Europe, often through the Balkans, with minimal checks on their background or identity. Attacks in Western Europe over the summer indicate that Islamic State has already exploited this to insert foreign fighters into Europe, in some cases via Eastern Europe. Following attacks in France, Belgium and Germany, the authorities in Macedonia, Slovenia and Hungary variously confirmed that attackers had passed through their countries, indicating their presence in the region, if only temporarily.
There are a number of potential terrorist targets in Eastern Europe. One is an attack on a Western interest such as an embassy, cultural centre or private commercial operation whose activities offend Islamists. Another could be a moderate Muslim community, such as Albania’s Bektashis, which are seen as heretics by radical adherents to Islam. A third potential target could be a local politician, especially a leader, whose death would create shock waves across the region. Terrorists could also stage an attack on the growing number of NATO troops posted to states bordering the former Soviet Union.
However, the emerging evidence is that the primary target for any terrorist attack is most likely to be the region’s local Christian communities, especially those with whom local Muslims are engaged in territorial disputes. In Bosnia, Islamists have staged two low-key attacks on Serb security personnel in the last year, while a video recorded by followers of Islamic State in Bosnia in July contains images of two masked men threatening to attack the enemy within and burning a Serbian flag.
In this respect, the threat from terrorism risks aggravating the underlying nationalist conflicts in the Balkans. Already, Bosnian Serbs have downgraded security co-operation with the Bosniak-dominated national security services, which they suspect of harbouring terrorist sympathisers, and instead deepened their co-operation with the security services in Serbia. Following the July video, the president of Republika Srpska stated that Bosnia was not a desirable place for Serbs to live.
Almost all countries in the region have taken steps to mitigate the terrorist threat. Balkan states have all prohibited mercenary activities abroad, providing a pretext to clamp down on anyone returning from Syria. And in the wake of the Paris and Brussels attacks, other states in the region, such as Estonia, the Czech Republic, Slovakia and Romania, have tightened their security measures by, for example, imposing closer checks on borders, expelling foreign terrorist suspects and changing rules on the length of time that terrorist suspects can be detained.
This has been accompanied by attempts to disrupt extremist groups, arrest suspects and bring them to justice. At the present time, major trials are taking place in Kosovo and Macedonia, while Bosnia has extended long jail terms to various radical preachers who have encouraged and facilitated the passage of local extremists to Syria. Meanwhile, regional leaders have committed to international attempts to co-operate in security, most notably the so-called Brdo-Brijuni Process, which helps to involve the US in countering terrorism.
The evolution of the terrorist threat depends on various contingent variables, ranging from the resolve of radical Islamists to attack Eastern Europe; the willingness of locals to serve the interests of Islamic State; the availability of weapons and explosives; and the ability of the local security forces to crack down on extremist activity. The most important variable, however, will be the durability of Islamic State, which has hitherto served as a locus for local Islamists but whose impending demise now threatens to spread the terrorist threat away from the battlefields of Syria and Iraq and back to the countries from where IS fighters originate.
The main defence against this threat will be efforts by local authorities to tackle the problem of extremism and protect their states from external attack. While in most cases these efforts will be successful, there are practical limits to the protection that any state can give, especially when the security services are badly resourced or, in the case of Bosnia, ethnically divided. Although the risk of attack in the region will be lower than in Western Europe, which contains large radicalised communities, there is a significant threat of continued low-level incidents and potentially a major attack in the near-term future.
There is a risk of sporadic incidents, including shootings and bombings, that target Westerners or Western interest in the region.
Governments will implement more onerous security measures, especially at international borders, which could delay the passage of people and goods.
An intensified terrorist threat in the Balkans could sharpen hostilities between Muslims and Christians who are locked into long-standing ethnic disputes over territory.
There is the potential for a major terrorist incident caused by the presence of radicals and the inability of the local security forces to counter the threat.
This could cause serious damage to an economic sector such as tourism or to the functioning of international government in the region.
A sustained terrorist threat could inflame nationalism and contribute directly to fragmentation of states along ethnic lines.