TIRANA, Nov. 22 – The run-up to the Nov. 12 Albania-Israel World Cup qualifier leading to several arrests in Albania and Kosovo over an alleged planned terrorist attack proved terrorism is not only a potential but also real threat to Albania, the country of origin for more than 100 foreign fighters that joined the so-called Islamic State in Syria and Iraq until 2015. The comments came a regional round table on radicalism and religious extremism in the Western Balkans bringing together experts from Italy, Turkey, Macedonia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Kosovo and Albania in an event organized in Tirana by the Albanian Institute for International Studies, one of the country’s top think tanks.
“Albania cannot be immune to global and regional developments on terrorism which is threatening a centuries-long tradition of religious harmony,” said Enri Hide, an AIIS associate researcher and author of a 2015 report on violent extremism and religious radicalization in Albania.
“The threat to the national security is potential if not tackled correctly but after the match with Israel we can say that it is both potential and real,” he added.
Police in Albania and Kosovo arrested several men suspected of planning a coordinated attack on the Albania-Israel qualifier originally scheduled to be held in a newly reconstructed stadium in Shkodra, northern Albania, but later moved to Elbasan, a central Albania city, on security grounds. The arrests came after Albanian authorities were tipped off by Israeli intelligence services over an ISIS-linked possible terrorist attack which led to the match being played under extremely tight security measures.
The AIIS associate researcher said the possible finalization of the terrorist attack, apart from the victims it could claim, would have negative consequences for the country’s national security, economy and the emerging tourism industry and shift attention from the current debate on strengthening rule of law.
Paolo Quercia, the director of Italy’s Center for Near Abroad Strategic Studies, said the strong presence of Western foreign fighters in Syria and Iraq, whom he called a special category, and the societies producing them are a clear point for research.
“The paradox is the countries producing these foreign fighters, mainly northern European countries such as Denmark, Sweden and Norway. Europe is more likely to produce foreign fighters compared to the Middle East. The Balkans region stands somewhere in between Europe and the Middle East,” said Quercia.
The Italian scholar says the radicalization of citizens from Western Balkans, known for their strong Diaspora, also happens outside their countries of origin.
“The picture is very complex. The radicalization of Albanians also happened in Belgium, Sweden and other European countries in mosques where they are more likely to come to contact with radical Somalis,” he added.
Sanjin Hamidicevic, a representative of the Bosnia and Herzegovina-based Centre for Security Studies said regional cooperation is really important to tackle the phenomenon which also originates from mosques outside the control of the official Muslim community.
Bosnia and Herzegovina has one of the region’s highest number of foreign fighters with an estimated 200 to 400 nationals.
Filip Stojkovski, a research fellow with Macedonia’s Analytica center, said the Macedonia foreign fighters were not a new phenomenon but the scale of their participation in hundreds was new.
Neighboring Macedonia, where a quarter of its 2 million population is ethnic Albanian, leads the region in terms of foreign fighters it produces compared to its population.
“The re-socialisation of returning foreign fighters is one of the most difficult tasks and custom-tailored strategies are needed for each regional country,” Stojkovski said.
Skender Perteshi, a researcher with the Kosovo Center for Security Studies, said foreign fighters was a new phenomenon in Kosovo where an estimated 316 people have travelled to Syria and Iraq in the past five years but only 70 are still believed to be fighting there.
As elsewhere in the region, poverty, the low level of education and religious knowledge, isolation but also in some cases Islamophobia contribute to recruitment of foreign fighters joining ISIS.
“The ongoing strong desire to join the war remains a challenge,” said the Kosovo researcher, also blaming Macedonian authorities for not doing enough to tackle this phenomenon.
“Sarajevo and Skopje are the basis of extremism which in Kosovo mainly spread because of four of five imams from Macedonia serving in Kosovo border regions,” said Perteshi.
According to him, the Macedonia government has released several key extremists from prison whom they allow to continue preaching even though Kosovo has banned entry to them.
Hamdi Firat Buyuk, a researcher with the University of Ankara, also shared Turkey’s experience with foreign fighters as a crossroads to Syria.
Agron Sojati, the national coordinator against violent extremism, said Albania is endangered by terrorism and this has been clearly expressed in the 2014 strategy on security and antiterrorism and the strategy on combating violent extremism and its action plan approved in late 2015.
Albert Rakipi, the director of the Albanian Institute for International Studies, elaborated on the external and internal factors driving Albanians to join ISIS which the AIIS has been researching into in the past three years.
“Weak presence of the state in remote economically disadvantaged areas of the country is one of the main drivers for helpless individuals who want to give a meaning to their lives,” said Rakipi.
“The debate comes at a time when ISIS is losing territory in Syria and Iraq and ISIS members are have changed strategy and are focusing attention in the West,” he added.
The Albanian Institute for International Studies has been researching on radicalism after more than 100 Albanian citizens were reported to have joined ISIS until 2014, focusing on what drives them to join extremist violence. There have been no new reported cases of Albanians travelling to Syria or Iraq as of 2015.
The late 2015 AIIS study unveiled most of Albanian fighters in Syria came from poor undeveloped areas where they live in isolation and are lured to join ISIS because of socio-economic conditions.