According to the 2021 European Union Terrorism Situation and Trend Report, the self-proclaimed Islamic State (IS) and al-Qaeda networks have continued to inspire “lone wolf” attacks in Western countries, while most jihadist terrorist attackers used unsophisticated attack methods.
Most of the attacks that took place in Europe during 2020 were carried out by individuals that had connections with jihadist networks or were self-radicalized via the internet. Stabbings occurred in London and Reading in the United Kingdom (8), Romans-sur-Isère, Paris, Conflans-Sainte-Honorine, and Nice in France (14), and Dresden, Germany (2). The only 2020 mass shooting took place in Austria, carried out by a 20-year-old man, in Vienna, resulting in four dead and 22 injured, before the perpetrator was shot dead by police.
Are Jihadi Networks still active?
The 2020 jihadi assailants expressed sympathy with, or allegiance to, jihadist ideology via social media networks or online blog posts. In some cases, the individual perpetrators were indeed in contact with jihadi networks but received only psychological or religious “spiritual” support. Fund-raising networks were largely in a period of hibernation. Except for the attack in Vienna, in which firearms were used.
The modus operandi of jihadists often entail rudimentary, low-intensity methods. There are indications that jihadist activity is partially financed or facilitated through criminal activity, including theft, extortion, drug trafficking, money laundering and trafficking in human beings.
The occasional illegal acquisition of weapons by jihadist terrorists points to the fact that these networks condone criminal means for procurement purposes. According to Austrian authorities, this tendency can be observed particularly among members of the Chechen, Afghan, and Western Balkan communities. In some cases, individuals involved in the facilitation of terrorism have been noted to provide false documentation and small amounts of funds.
How West Balkans Became a Jihadist-Recruiting Hub
In June, Kosovo and Germany arrested four suspects on terrorism charges. Earlier that month, Kosovar authorities made two further arrests, including a Belgian citizen of Kosovar heritage suspected of planning attacks on NATO peacekeeping troops in the country, raising the spectre of lone-wolf attacks in Southeastern Europe.
Tactics Institute discussed the spread of religious extremism in the Balkans Region with Mitko Arnaudov, an international relations researcher at the University of Belgrade, and an analyst who has worked for the Tanjung News Agency and the Serbian Economy magazine.
Mr. Arnaudov has written articles and conducted research related to the securitisation of the Balkans, radicalization and propaganda policies regarding EU integration, and socioeconomics related to international relations.
AK: Religious Fundamentalism from the Balkans made its way to Syria and Iraq. Some of them returned while others are immigrating to Western Europe where they might become lone-Wolf attacks. What feeds such kinds of terrorist activity in the region?
ΜΑ: The strong influence of religious fundamentalism has its roots in the 1990s, in the regions’ nationalist civil wars. This was a period that saw social and economic polarization and the surge of religious and national intolerance that created a vast pool of recruitment for terrorist organisations. These are primarily marginalized young individuals who, in the era of pervasive global digitalization, are in search of belonging, affiliation, and contact. Such organisations step in to fill the gap, offering them a sense of membership, a concrete role, and a fundamental purpose. In substance, the Balkans is not a suitable ground to carry out terrorist activity, but it is fertile soil to recruit or set up dormant terrorist cells that can be activated at any time, primarily in Western Europe.
AK: EUROPOL officials have hailed the level of cooperation between EU institutions and the Balkans. Despite several initiatives though, the challenge remains significant.
MA: Despite strong international cooperation in counter-terrorism policies, Balkan states find it very difficult to cope with this pervasive challenge for two reasons: first, it is difficult to gather evidence on terrorist activity outside the region; secondly, because most of the illegal activity these individuals engage in does not take place in the Western Balkans.
To the question ’why the Western Balkans is an excellent recruitment region for terrorists,’ the answer is polarisation. Intolerance at all levels is still pronounced, leading to extreme marginalization of certain groups. Such tendencies prevail for more than 30 years, perhaps more so among the young than among older generations. The young see themselves as being at the bottom of the social ladder in economic, social, political and even spiritual-religious terms. This is something terrorist recruiters understand and exploit: the values of modern terrorism are popularized as a project of destroying what exists today to create a utopia tomorrow.
AK: So, what is the future of terrorism in the region?
MA: This trend will not end quickly because there is less and less social integration on the ground. Without the inclusion of the Western Balkans in an EU framework, at all levels, terrorist organisations will maintain a hold over the region, particularly as regards recruitment.