Briefing Paper VI:
EXTERNAL INFLUENCE IN EXTREMISM & RADICALISM
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The sixth briefing paper covers Russian, Turkish and the Gulf States’ influence in spreading extremism and radicalism. It mostly explores and analyses Russia’s role in the spread of right-wing and nationalist extremism and the Gulf States’ imprint in the support of the Islamist extremism. Turkey’s role in spreading religious or nationalist radicalism has turned out to be very limited. Chinese involvement in this sphere has not been identified, so it is not discussed in the paper.
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Analysing external actors’ influences on supporting radicalism and extremism in the Western Balkans is a difficult task. Given the sensitivity of this issue and the difficulty in accessing credible information, it is very complicated to determine in which cases foreign governments, state institutions, or secret services are directly involved. In most of the cases, no direct links beyond suspicions can be established, sub-state or transnational groups with certain but unclear connections to the states are involved, or ideology of external actors serve only as an inspiration for local groups.
The issue is further complicated by divergent, and often conflicting views, as to what consider extremist or radical, both in the expert community and among lay citizens. The confusion partly stems from the fact that other than Islamist forms of extremism have been largely overlooked over the past several years. The abundance of research and reports on Islamist extremism among Muslim communities in the former Yugoslav states and the departure of several tens of people to Syrian or Iraqi battlefields have created a general perception of a great and imminent Islamist threat.
In contrast, much less attention has been focused on the threat posed by right-wing radicalism and extreme nationalism, which is often challenging the territorial integrity and sovereignty of the post-Yugoslav countries, particularly Kosovo, and Bosnia and Herzegovina. The paper, therefore, explores both these phenomena, the first being predominantly linked to Gulf States’ activities, and the second to Russian.
Russia has been linked with both violent and non-violent extremism across the Western Balkan countries. Besides the coup in Montenegro aiming to topple Djukanović’s government before the parliamentary elections in 2016, in which the participation of two Russian intelligence officers has been confirmed by the court, direct involvement of Russian officials is difficult to prove and establish. The influence mostly takes the form of connections to Russian far-right organisations, such as Night Wolves or Cossacks, and individuals, who often have close links to the Kremlin, and the reception of financial donations from Russia. This is in line with a broader Russian foreign policy strategy of the past years which relies on the support of conservative and far-right political groups in Europe.
Pro-Russian nationalist groups are most widespread and active in Serbia, but they often operate across borders or establish branches in the Serb-inhabited areas of neighbouring countries, particularly North Kosovo, Republika Srpska in BiH, or Montenegro. The form of extremism advocated by these groups primarily seeks to promote inter-ethnic hatred, spreads anti-Western narratives, challenges territorial integrity and legitimacy of the post-Yugoslav states and questions their capacity to protect their citizens.
A worrying development of the recent years has been the militarization of some of these extremist groups, with a few individuals undertaking training in Russia, and the indoctrination and radicalization of the youth. Pro-Russian extremist organisations have been able to prey not only on the persistent inter-ethnic tensions in the region, but also on the deteriorating economic situation and increasing political and social dissatisfaction among the citizens. Taking this into account, one of the main concerns related to Russian influence on the extremist scene in the Balkans is linked to citizens who have joined pro-Russian forces in the conflict in Ukraine.
Russia relies on its political links with Milorad Dodik, the current Serb member of BiH Presidency and former President of the Serb-dominated entity of Republika Srpska (RS), to indirectly support extremism in Bosnia and Herzegovina. Dodik’s radicalism, anti-Western rhetoric, and threats of RS secession give Russia significant leverage to destabilise BiH, should it suit its interests. At the same time, several right-wing extremist groups, often local branches of Serbian nationalist organisations with links to Russian extremist organisations have operated in BiH. There has been speculation that Russia is involved in their military training and the formation of paramilitary units in RS. This information has not been confirmed, however. Read more...
Russia plays a destabilising role in Kosovo as it employs a variety of non-military instruments to aggravate tensions between the Albanian and Serb communities in the Northern municipalities. Through these means, Russia directly supports the right-wing nationalism in the country which poses a threat to the internal stability of the country, and further hampers the Serb community’s integration. Russian involvement in Kosovo can also be linked to a few far-right Serbian nationalist organisations operating in the North, also often having close connections to the Serbian extremist scene. Read more...
Russia has been linked with both violent and non-violent extremism in Macedonia. In both instances, Russia has maintained a relatively low profile and served as inspiration for Macedonia, rather than a direct facilitator of extremism. In the political sphere, a pro-Russian oriented political party purposely resembles that of President Vladimir Putin’s party, United Russia. The party has been promoting anti-Western narratives and a pro-Russian political orientation of the country, while also being vocal about its negative stance towards the name deal between Macedonia and Greece. On the other hand, the Christian Brotherhood, a relatively low-profile yet vehemently nationalistic Macedonian movement, encourages the abandonment of secular politics and advocates for closer alignment of Macedonia and Russia on the basis of their shared Orthodox religion. While much of its tactics are not of a violent nature, there has been an increase in the provocative incidents that involved violence. Read more...
While Islamic radicalisation is the most prominently perceived form of extremist radicalisation in Montenegro and in the region, it is, in fact, right-wing nationalism that has been on the rise and posed a greater threat to the country. Russia remains effective in boosting activities of the radical pro-Serbian, anti-NATO and anti-EU groups, and by enhancing ethno-nationalist political forces in Montenegro, regardless of its NATO membership. The attempted coup in Podgorica on 16 October 2016 on the day of the parliamentary elections represents the most visible instance of such right-wing extremism. Read more...
Far-right nationalist groups with links to Russia aiming at the promotion of militarism, homophobia, anti-Western narratives, or Russophilia are quite widespread in Serbia. One such example is the organisation Serbian Honour, whose members participated in military training at the Russian-Serbian Humanitarian Centre in Niš, and in Russia itself, and which is affiliated with the Russian motorcycle club Night Wolves, known for its close ties to Putin. A relatively new phenomenon is the engagement of some tens of Serbian nationals fighting with pro-Russian forces in Ukraine, organised in a unit called the Serbian Chetnik Movement. Moreover, many of these fighters have also joined the conflict in Syria alongside Assad’s forces through the engagement of a Russian private military company called Wagner. Read more...
Read more about Russia's links to extreme nationalist groups in the individual Western Balkan countries in the full BRIEFING PAPER.
Turkey under Erdoğan’s leadership is mainly trying to influence Muslims of the Western Balkans in ways that enhance its political and business interests. Turkish influence in the region has never been associated with the support of violent extremism or radicalism. Moreover, Turkish support and cooperation with local Islamic Communities, and official Muslim religious institutions, have a counterbalancing effect on the spread of Salafism and other radical interpretations of Islam. The only exception to this is in Serbia, in which Turkish influence has helped to divide the official Islamic Community which facilitated the spread of radical interpretations of Islam not backed by official Muslim institutions.
So far there have been no indications that Turkey has been involved in support of extremist elements of any kind in BiH. Nevertheless, taking into account the ever-growing political engagement of Turkey as well as its physical presence in BiH, no one could rule out a possibility of its support for radical positions if it suits Turkish interests in the future. Read more...
Turkish institutions and organisations have been active in recent decades in supporting the official Islamic Community in Kosovo, which enabled Islam to gain a strong foothold in Kosovo´s society. There is, however, no evidence that Turkish activities had any effect on the emergence of a relatively small number of radical Islamists in the country, some of whom went to the Middle Eastern battlefields to join radical Islamic groups. Read more...
There has been no evidence of the support of extremist groups by any of organisations coming from Turkey. Even though the Turkish ambassador to Macedonia has implied that a private high school is associated with Gülen´s movement, Yahya Kemal College, and raises terrorists, it is more of a testimony of an internal Turkish power struggle than of the actual state, as there is no evidence of any extremist inclinations among Yahya Kemal schools. Read more...
Traditionally, there is a good amount of cooperation among the Islamic Community of Montenegro (ICM), which is moderate and pro-active, and their Turkish counterparts and officials, including Erdoğan. Fears of the potential spread of Islamic radicalism are not related to Turkish activities, but to the forms of Islamic teachings and support coming from the Gulf States. Read more...
Turkey and its institutions have never directly supported the spread of extremist ideas in Serbia. However, Turkey’s religious influence partly led to the breakup within the Islamic Community in Serbia in 2007. In that year, the Islamic Community split into two official structures: the Islamic Community in Serbia with headquarters in Novi Pazar, which operates under the auspices of the Islamic Community in Bosnia and Herzegovina, and the Islamic Community of Serbia based in Belgrade, which is supported by Turkey. Both Islamic communities are fighting for the hearts and minds of Serbian Muslims which brings confusion, and opens space for the spread of radical interpretations of Islam. Read more...
Read more about Turkish influences in supporting extremism and radicalism in the Western Balkans in the full BRIEFING PAPER.
The Gulf States
The wars of the 1990s opened doors for the Gulf States’ imprint over the former Yugoslav countries which brought to the region new ultraconservative and intolerant forms of Islam, particularly Salafism. As in Russia’s case, however, direct involvement of the Gulf States’ governments and authorities remains obscure in most cases. Frequently, radicalisation begins with education at the Gulf States’ religious institutions, or has been spread through various charities and NGO’s, with certain but unclear links to the state institutions and political elites, assisting in the post-war reconstruction.
Teachings of radical Islam were introduced to the moderate Balkan forms of Islam with the arrival of the Islamic fighters, Mujahideen, who came to fight alongside their Muslim counterparts in the Bosnian war. After the war, some Mujahideen stayed in BiH and established closed communities in which they educated their local supporters on Salafism. A similar trend was to be seen during the war in Kosovo.
Activities of Islamic charities and NGO’s decreased after the 2001 terrorist attack in the US and the following war on terror, which led to the exposure of their suspicious activities, including the support of terrorism or illegal arms trade. Despite that, the Gulf States had, throughout the years, financed the reconstruction of many mosques and construction of new ones and invested into other cultural and commercial projects. Salafi communities living in remote areas remained, and Salafi influences have also penetrated Muslim communities in other countries of the region, especially in the Serbian and Montenegrin Sandžak region. Their overall numbers, however, remain very low and estimated numbers of Salafists with the potential for violent extremism are marginal.
The main concerns related to Islamist extremism in the region have been recently related to the departure of tens of radicalised Balkan Muslims, many of whom are known to have spent some time in closed Salafi communities, to Syrian or Iraqi battlefields. As a response to this worrying phenomenon, the Western Balkan countries have passed new legislation outlawing such practice, and several foreign fighters have already been prosecuted.
Following the war of the 1990s, there is plentiful evidence of the Gulf and other Islamic countries’ goal to establish a religious, and cultural foothold in BiH. Such events as the establishment of remote religious communities around radical Islamic preachers across the country, or the highest number of foreign fighters leaving for Syria or Iraq support this. BiH has also seen a number of terrorist attacks carried out by local Islamic extremists, with the last being carried out in 2011 in Sarajevo. There is, however, little evidence that the Gulf countries and their regimes were directly behind terrorist, or any other radical activities, which were mostly promoted and carried out by adherents of extremist groups such as Al-Qaida or ISIS. Read more...
Following the 1999 Kosovo War, Gulf charities and NGO’s invested heavily in building mosques, or offered scholarships to study in religious institutions across the Middle East. The post-war assistance was at the same time a means to spread a more radical version of Islam in Kosovo. There is a consensus among Kosovo authorities and civil society organisations that violent Islamist extremism is still predominantly an externally driven phenomenon. Kosovo authorities claim to have successfully mapped the real sources of radicalism, but do not directly point the finger at Gulf States’ governments, as there is a lack of evidence. Socio-economic factors such as economic despair, identity crisis, or a low level of education have also certainly played a role in quite numerous departures of people from Kosovo to fight in Syria or Iraq. Read more...
There have been a number of Macedonian citizens, mostly of Albanian ethnicity, who have fled the country to join the wars in Syria or Iraq. As of June 2016, the Macedonian intelligence services had counted 110 fighters that fled to Syria with the majority of them already returning to Macedonia and facing prosecution. Most of them are believed to have joined the Syrian war on the side of a more moderate (albeit Islamist) group, the Free Syrian Army, with the purpose of toppling President Assad rather than pursuing jihad. Macedonia also has a low number of officially identified Salafists. Read more...
Out of the five analysed countries, Montenegro has been the least affected by the spread of Salafism during, and after, the wars of the 1990s. The limited impact of Islamist extremists has also been reflected in the number of foreign fighters from Montenegro. There have been only some thirteen Montenegrins who fought with Islamic State, ISIS and the Al Qaeda-affiliate Al Nusra in Syria and Iraq. Nonetheless, Salafism and Salafi-oriented NGOs with their ultraconservative teachings, who are most widespread territorially in the Sandžak region bordering Kosovo and Serbia, is considered as a potential threat by many researchers and officials, and is closely monitored. Read more...
The Islamist radicalism in Serbia is traditionally linked to the Sandžak region in south-west Serbia with a dominant Muslim population. The youth of the Sandžak region have a strong religious base, and the Islamic religious community has a robust influence over them. One of the reasons for this is the study programmes which are offered free of charge by Islamic universities in Saudi Arabia and Turkey. Similarly to the other Western Balkan countries, Salafism has been on the rise over the past years. Besides that, a recent rise of Shia adherents, which is unique in the region, has raised concerns. Another phenomenon that can be traced is the Roma radicalisation. There have been some fifty Serbian citizens joining foreign battlefields, so their numbers have been somewhat lower than in Bosnia and Herzegovina or Kosovo. Read more...
Read a more detailed account of the Islamic countries’ involvement in the spread of the Islamist extremism and radicalisation activities in the full BRIEFING PAPER.
 For the purposes of this briefing paper, we use the term Salafism as an umbrella term for a fundamental and purist interpretations of Islam, even though it is not a unified movement. Salafism is largely influenced by the teachings and practices of Muhammad ibn Abd al-Wahhab and his followers who established it as an official religious practice in Saudi Arabia in the 18th century. For this reason terms Salafism and Wahhabism are often interchangeably used, however, we use the term Wahhabism only when quoting external sources.