Bin Laden and the Balkans: the Politics of Anti-Terrorism
EXECUTIVE SUMMARY AND RECOMMENDATIONS
The global focus on Islamist extremist-inspired terrorism resulting from the 11 September atrocities has raised the question of the potential for such terrorist activity in, or emanating from, the Balkans.
Given the presence of ex-mujahidin in Bosnia, the tens of thousands of former military and paramilitary fighters in Bosnia and Kosovo and Macedonia who are Muslims by tradition, if not for the most part by observance, and the large deployments of U.S. and other troops in the region, some (though by no means all) senior Western sources describe the potential terrorist threat as significant. In this context, international officials and organisations in parts of the region, as well as certain governments, have taken extra security precautions, and clamped down on individuals and groups suspected of possible links to terrorist networks.
Although heightened security precautions are obviously appropriate at this time, it is important that the issue of Islamist extremism in the Balkans, and the risk of terrorism associated with it, not be painted as a larger problem than it is. While Osama bin Laden himself may have visited Albania several years ago, and individuals with links to his organisation have passed through the Balkans, it appears that only Bosnia has significant numbers of potential Islamist extremists. Elsewhere the potential for Islamist-inspired violence seems slight, and to hinge on the weakness of institutions rather than ideological sympathies with the enemies of the West.
From this perspective, and in the absence of further evidence demanding a more robust response, the best way to prevent deadly violence in or emanating from the Balkans may simply be continued engagement by the international community across the spectrum of peacekeeping and peace building tasks.
There is no doubt that , in the Balkans as elsewhere, the new and overwhelming Western foreign policy priority has triggered some energetic attempts to borrow or co-opt the anti-terrorist agenda. Many politicians and propagandists in Serbia, Bosnia and Macedonia have been given the opportunity to puff fresh air into stereotypes of fanatical bearded mujahidin, myths of Muslim ‘backwardness’, and theories about the ‘civilisational’ abyss separating Islam from the West that served sinister purposes in the 1990s.
In this context, it is important that the international community should not be distracted by the wave of anti-Muslim opinion and propaganda that has washed through Serbia, Macedonia, and the Serb-controlled parts of Bosnia. In these countries, and also in Albania, Western capitals must reward governments’ overall democratic performance, not the volume of their denunciations of terrorism. RECOMMENDATIONS
TO THE INTERNATIONAL COMMUNITY
1. Closely monitor in Bosnia and Kosovo the activities of Islamist organisations which may have links to terrorist networks and which, if they entrench themselves, could present a permanent potential security threat.
2. Follow through on Washington’s warning to ethnic Albanian leaders in Pristina on 15 October 2001 that “any provocative acts by armed Albanian groups would be seen as support for terrorism”.
3. Examine carefully the allegations emanating from Serbia and Macedonia about continuing Albanian links to bin Laden, but in the absence of credible supporting evidence be prepared to publicly discount them.
4. Do not be distracted by, or accept, the wave of anti-Muslim opinion and propaganda that has washed through Serbia, Macedonia, and the Serb-controlled parts of Bosnia.
5. In the absence of specific evidence demanding a more robust response, recognise that the main Balkans dimension of the war on terrorism is the long term work of peace-building – institutional reform and development being the best way to close in the spaces where terrorist networks can potentially operate.
Belgrade/Podgorica/Pristina/Sarajevo/ Skopje/Tirana/Brussels, 9 November 2001