Countering the Terrorist Threat
By By Fatmir Mediu
Albanian Daily News
Published May 14, 2016

The Balkan states are facing a series of problems.Geopoliticalrivalry is stoking tensions in the region, Turkey has become more assertive in promoting its interests, and theU.S. still wants to incorporate the Western Balkans into NATO, while Russia considers the Balkans its own backyard. EU membership remains the main goal for Balkan countries, but EU fatigueon new member states has raised a lot ofskepticism.

The Balkans are especially vulnerable to infiltration from terrorist groups like the Islamic State, also known as ISIS or ISIL. Our diverse ethnic and multi-religious region has seen a number of historic conflicts, some still simmering and others dormant, which could be ignited by this new seed of radicalism. Most of the states in the region have very unstable political situations - weak governments and security institutions - stretched thin by economic crisis, war, political infighting, corruption, and the increasing numbers of refugees and migrants trying to get to the EU. Prolonged economic crisis and high unemployment have alienated many, exposing youth especially to radicalization. The increasing return and presence of fanatical fighters trained in Syria, Iraq, and Libya creates a serious and immediate threat.

In Albania, people who areallegedly recruitingforeign fighters and offering them money to go to Syria have been arrested and put on trial. These foreign fighters are playing a very active role in Syria and Iraq. Some have appeared on TV, conducting killings and beheadings.

The appearance of ISIS flags in Bosnian villages; involvement of individuals from the region in foiled terror plots in Sweden, Germany, and Austria (for examplethe case of four Bosnian nationals and an Arab trying tosmuggle a bombfrom Bosnia into Sweden); and more importantly, the links to actual attacks in Spain, France, and in the Balkans itself (such as those on a police station and the military in Bosnia) all point to the urgency in increasing regional efforts to contain and eliminate this threat.

According to somemedia and intelligencesources, the Balkans have become one of the largest recruiting grounds for ISIS. No one really knows how many fighters from the region have made their way to Syria and Iraq, butestimatesrangefrom 700 - 850 or more.The volunteer flow from the region continues despite local efforts to prevent recruitment. These fighters are determined to join ISIS,regardless of the risks and legal punishments they may face. Many have already been killed in combat in Iraq and Syria. All of this shows the extent of their radicalization and commitment to the ISIS cause. Once returned, they represent grave threats to our societies. Most of them have passports which give them access to the EU because of visa liberalization and the Schengen agreement, extending the geography of the threat.

The Balkans has a special role to play in combating this threat, being a major route into Europe and a bridge for ISIS funding, supplies, and recruitment, and for other radical terrorist groups.

Radical Islamic indoctrination over the last two decades has not only created shelters, indoctrinationcenters, training hubs, and safe transit routes, but it has also destabilized the Islamic tradition of the region, known for its secular character, historic tolerance, and cultural integration. Now a foreign, radical, and heretical interpretation of Islam has taken root and is destabilizing the region already troubled by ethnic and national strife.

However, with all of the various issues plaguing the Balkans, ISIS is not getting the full attention of EU and Balkan decision-makers or the U.S. The EU and the U.S. are concerned about the ISIS capacity to organize and launch terrorist attacks. But when it comes to the Balkans, Europe and the U.S. are distracted by other issues - the attacks in France and other western states, the ongoingglobal economic instability, the war in Syria, and the flood of refugees and migrants into Europe. This has reduced support and understanding for the gravity of the terrorist threat in the Balkans.

How can regional leaders more effectively and decisively address these challenges and how can they contain and eradicate ISIS? Despite all of the factors of instability that besiege this region, a response is possible, and it begins with increasing cooperation and communication. I believe the following initiatives would create a better foundation for dealing with ISIS and other terrorist threats to the Balkans:

A Balkan Intelligence Coordination and Cooperation Centre must be established that will better coordinate the collection and sharing of vital information between states and contribute to building cooperation with EU and U.S. intelligence services andEuropol.A database (clearing house) system must be built that begins a more serious and comprehensive screening of refugees and migrants traveling through the region. This system must combine all aspects of intelligence acquisition that are more easily accessible to states in the region and that will help identify potential ISIS infiltration in a more timely and efficient manner.Regional leaders and institutions must cooperate in developing an immediate reaction plan and proposals for resolving the migrant crisis.States should, with support and expertise from NATO and the EU, immediately start working on developing a more adequate cyber security strategy, addressing ISIS propaganda and communication.The EU must provide a clear strategy for Euro-Atlantic integration of the countries in the Balkans. This would eliminate uncertainty, fear, and frustration within regional states and would give more space for addressing the ISIS and refugee challenges in a more confident and efficient manner.A more open and serious discussion about the ISIS threat to our nations must begin. States should better inform citizens through education and cooperate better with local religious leaders, in order to close public space for ISIS recruitment and indoctrination.Greater efforts should be made with religious communities to identify the groups and mosques that are under the influence of extremists.A coordinated strategy should be developed for dealing with returning foreign fighters and their families.

These steps would not only build a better foundation for dealing with the ISIS threat in the Balkans but would also bring broader benefits to the region. Greater cooperation would contribute to peace and stability, while at the same time it would help the EU better deal with its own challenges tied to the refugee crisis. The states of the region will need greater support from the EU and the U.S., but it should be recognized that investment in building institutional capacity and regional cooperation will also improve EU and U.S. security. The time to act is now.

* Fatmir Mediu, the Head of Republican Party

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