Over the past two years there has been a marked increase in the attention given to the issue of preventing and countering violent extremism in the Balkans. This reflects global worries about ISIS- inspired violence in Syria and Iraq, but also attacks committed in ISIS’s name in other countries, especially European countries which struggle to maintain free and open societies while protecting citizens from such random violence. There is a particular concern about foreign fighters, trained and hardened while fighting in “the Caliphate,” returning to European cities to perpetrate violent acts, as well as of at-risk individuals in and from western countries being groomed and radicalized to commit acts of violence as a part of organized terror campaigns or as lone wolves.
While the actual number of individuals from the Balkans going to Syria and Iraq are low compared to other countries such as Belgium or France, they are proportionally significant, especially in the case of Bosnia and Herzegovina or Kosovo. In the first half of June, reports that a key Kosovo Albanian ISIS leader was killed in a drone strike in Syria, and that ISIS sent a targeted message threatening violence in the cities of the region, served as reminders that despite the absence of significant terrorist attacks, the region is not immune. In a region with unresolved ethno-national challenges such as the Balkans, domestic risks of other variants of extremism – e.g., far-right, neo-Nazi – remain on the radar screen of policymakers and security professionals as well, with the understanding that such social trends can dangerously feed off one another.
This essay considers the “new” efforts aimed at preventing and countering violent extremism and argues that they are quite often the same kind of actions taken to establish the basic elements of democratic, resilient societies. Efforts aimed at post-war democratic consolidation or European enlargement support - ranging from strengthening local communities, working with youth, improving education systems, strengthening the independence of the police and justice sector and more – are becoming more overtly securitized. While such efforts in support of democratic reform have been viewed as a laudable goal in their own right for two decades, now they are linked to terror prevention.
After an introduction on efforts to prevent and counter violent extremism, specific nuances in the Balkan region are explored. Three sets of challenges that limit genuine reform in the region – identity politics, the state of civic values and civil politics, and pervasive broken governance systems – are examined as both byproducts and drivers of unresolved conflicts. A brief assessment of whether the countries in the region are resilient enough to resist the most damaging social consequences of not only violent extremism, but peaceful extremism, follows. Three potential future scenarios that could shape efforts to prevent and counter these phenomena are presented. The concluding remarks argue that comprehensive security can likely only be achieved in the region through a recommitment to liberal democracy and accountable and inclusive governance; no easy task when quick-fix projects and activities are the default option in a regional strategic policy vacuum.