Events Reports

Radicalisation in the Balkans –Executive Summary

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The TACTICS Institute’s “Radicalisation and Social Exclusion” report makes the case that Islamic extremist discourse fills a vacuum left open by a state unable to develop policy that meets social needs. In this sense, Salafi indoctrination is often uncontested, as preachers move into regions and social circles that are “left behind,” socially, politically and economically, where education is de facto if not in principle segregated, where unemployment and underemployment limit access to housing and there is little scope for social mobility. Often, radicalised individuals have a superficial grasp of the Islamic faith and way of life, and this report shows that Salafism emerges from a basis of personal crisis rather than theology. There is no direct link between terrorism and social exclusion, but there is strong evidence suggesting a direct link between radicalisation and social exclusion.


Salafi radicalisation typically begins by consolidating a narrative of victimhood, offering a path of redemption and self-help that bolsters an “us versus them” worldview that is not dissimilar to ethno-nationalist rhetoric. Building on a broader narrative of government neglect and corruption, radical discourse goes on to question the legitimacy of the state and the rule of law.


In the Roma communities of Bulgaria and Northern Macedonia, the Syrian civil war emerged as both an ideological battle and a big industry. Individuals would be trusted to host fighters and transport them to the battlefield. In a revolving door with organised crime, the same jihadi networks then engaged in “international trade” on behalf of the Islamic State, selling vehicles and distributing ancient artefacts from Syria and Iraq, eventually expanding into gold smuggling. In these communities, Salafi ideology underpins trust-based peer-to-peer networks, cementing communities with bonds that are not merely religious.


State-sponsored investment from countries like Saudi Arabia and the UAE feeds into the radicalisation process, through traditional avenues of religious endowments, charities, mosque construction, the printing of specific literature and support for preachers of a theology. These communities foster bonds of trust and common purpose that allow them to exchange small sums of money in a manner that is virtually undetectable without human intelligence and community liaison. Radicalisation activity is increasingly moving underground as Wahhabi activists employ a so-called portable Dawa infrastructure; preaching in private sessions at the homes of would-be converts.

As noted by the Director of the TACTICS Institute, Thomas Charles, from a radical mindset to violent action, there are several triggers but no linear causality. Across Europe, radicalised Muslims are more likely to be young and male, often second or even third-generation migrants or recent converts with no cultural link to Islam and a superficial understanding of theology. They are also likely to have a petty criminal background and will enter radical networks seeking a sense of belonging (identity), retribution (justice), meaning and purpose. In some respects, radical discourse strategically fills the vacuum left by the state, latching on to individuals who lack a sense of direction.


The transition from radicalisation to terrorist activity is a numbers game. A 2016 Bulgarian survey-based study indicated that 4.4% of Bulgarian Muslims are radicalised, i.е. 25,000 people; of that number, only 1.45% assert that political violence (terrorism) may be justifiable under certain circumstances (8,000 Bulgarian Muslims). And according to Dutch studies cited in this report, violence continues to have individual triggers, such as an absent or abusive father. However, social exclusion creates an environment conducive to radicalisation and the experience of war widens the pool of individuals who are psychologically disposed towards violence. And there is always a political context in which radicalisation evolves.


The Salafi targeting of socially excluded communities is a time honoured. The social periphery of Europe has become a recruitment ground for successive generations of Jihadi fighters, rising from the ranks of the Salafi movement. In the 1970s and 1980s, Saudi Arabia funded the recruitment and training of the Mujahedeen in their battle against the USSR in Afghanistan. Countries like the UAE and Bahrain joined the Saudi-led Salafi movement, supporting the enlistment of battle-hardened jihadi recruits for the war in Yugoslavia. These fighters often stayed on, marrying local and becoming part of local communities.


During the height of the Syrian conflict, Salafi fighters from Western Europe, the Balkans, and the former CIS were recruited to fight in the ranks of Jabhat Al Nusra, as the Salafi network became transnational and, by going online, omnipresent. The region had a core group of battle-hardened fighters passing the torch to the next generation. This experience is not wholly foreign to communities in Western Europe, including the UK, where radicalisation discourse has deep roots. From a policy perspective, there are two British policy experiences of direct relevance to South-eastern Europe.


First, the UK’s Prevent policy contains elements of community outreach that are crucial in developing counterterrorism policy. The only alternative to reaching out directly to communities is to resort to “security cooperation” with state actors that have had a tradition of harnessing radical networks. Undoubtedly, security cooperation of this kind yields valuable intelligence. However, it also comes with an opportunity cost because investors in radical discourse become partners in security policy development. That contradiction may be unavoidable but creates an ever-greater challenge for social cohesion.


Southeastern Europe faces a challenge of cheque book diplomacy comparable to the UK. Following the 2008 economic crisis, there were several reports of wealthy Arab states such as Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, and the UAE pumping capital into European lenders and corporations, as well as investing directly in political campaigns. In South-eastern Europe, Gulf states play a strategic role as investors and contractors. The role of these states is a recurring theme throughout this report.


The full report will be available online soon.