Trick or Threat? Terrorism in South Eastern Europe

Marina Petrova

Terrorists perpetrate violence against innocent civilians aiming to achieve political goals. On balance, this politically motivated violence rarely brings the desired results to the individuals and/or groups exerting terrorist acts. This is so because national governments are reluctant to yield to the demands of non-state actors committing crimes and taking part in illicit activities. In other words terrorism is an illegitimate channel through which political objectives cannot be fulfilled. The South East part of Europe has been embroiled in the discourse on terrorism, in more concrete terms Islamic terrorism, and certain allegations link nationals of several countries to terrorist groups from the MENA region. Despite this corroboration, this article is going to argue that the terrorist threat in South Eastern Europe has been dramatically overstated, yet certain policy prescriptions need to be taken into serious account so as to minimise any possibility for terrorist attack on European soil.

Before making the claim that there is no real danger in South Eastern Europe from terrorist strikes, it is worth discussing the current context of the region. Most of the countries exhibit relative political stability and enjoy a well-balanced security situation. Several states are also members of the European Union and those that are not, are strategic partners of the Union and actively seek membership or the establishment of closer ties through cooperation and continuous dialogue. Despite the rise of Islamophobia in Western Europe, in the South East part of the continent, Muslim and non-Muslim communities enjoy a broadly harmonious coexistence. Surely, the now sovereign states, part of former Yugoslavia, indicate certain levels of animosity based on ethnic and religious grounds, but these levels cannot be a source of major and serious concern. The countries of South Eastern Europe though have lower degrees of economic development and lack the firm establishment of meritocratic, efficient and free of corruption bureaucracies. These are factors that need to be taken into consideration though, since they often cause grievances that might translate into violent and extreme social behaviour.

For the purposes of this discussion, it is important to disaggregate the motivations driving terrorist activity; individual and group incentives to join terrorist organisations and perpetrate violence are qualitatively different and this distinction greatly enhances our understanding of why and under what circumstances terrorism occurs. Both individuals and groups facing economic disparity, political disenfranchisement and social exclusion are often unable to find peaceful and institutionalised channels to voice their concerns. This is so because domestic institutions routinely lack the capacity and/or purposely deny access of certain social groups to express freely their dissatisfaction with the status quo. In turn, terrorism could be seen as a last resort to demonstrate discontent and determination for change. Economic motives for perpetrating terrorism cannot account for the fact that not all poor and marginalised people join terrorist groups. Indeed many show interest in terrorist organisations due to their affiliation with criminal, yet profitable, activity such as smuggling and drug trafficking. Personal vendetta and the desire to seek a sense of belonging amidst social alienation are two common motives identified for individuals joining terrorist groups. Indoctrination, especially based on religious grounds, is also a plausible cause. The formation of like-minded individuals, seeking the achievement of political goals, and ready to perpetrate acts of violence, is usually motivated by constructed narratives against a regime, ideology and foreign intervention. Charged with negative sentiments and eager to achieve change, terrorist groups resort to violent acts as the only channel of dissent available to them. It is no surprise that terrorism has been identified as the weapon of the weak against the strong, i.e. non-state actors aiming at changing governments’ policies. The states in South Eastern Europe, though not as advanced as their West and Central European counterparts, still benefit from at least relative political and economic stability and channels exist for the manifestation of be it political, economic or social grievances.

Turning to the matter of the recent reports of religious radicalism in South Eastern Europe and the detection of various terrorist cells primarily on the territory of Bosnia-Herzegovina, Kosovo and Albania, it is worth pointing out that these are isolated cases. Even though there are rising numbers of suspicious activity linked to Islamic radical organisations in the Middle East and reported individuals traveling to conflict zones such as Syria and Iraq, there is no substantial evidence to suggest that terrorist organisations are forming bases in South Eastern Europe. Indeed the recent news on an alleged establishment of Islamic State’s training camp in a remote Bosnian village indicates the contrary, however, there has not been any profound investigation into the validity of this account. The terrorist attack on a bus with Israeli tourists at the Burgas airport in Bulgaria is perhaps one of the few violent events in the Balkans. Yet, it is rational to consider the claim that Islamic extremists have been targeting Israeli citizens irrespective of the geographic location.

The extent of Islamic radicalisation in the region is difficult to critically evaluate due to its clandestine nature; however, any attempts of national governments, and the security forces in specific, to exaggerate the terrorist threat is not a useful prevention instrument. This dramatisation has been seen by some as a desperate effort to boost the long lost credibility of the security forces and to portray a positive image of their capabilities. Instead of magnifying the threat of terrorism, the focus should be on fostering the peaceful coexistence of different religious and ethnic communities so as to minimise the possibility of the spread of fundamentalist teachings. Dialogue, integration and understanding are crucial in the fight against extremism not only in Europe, but also on a global scale. Tightening security and close regional collaboration is a vital prescription for South Eastern governments together with the realisation that attention should be paid to vulnerable communities that are susceptible to external influence from militants. On balance, economic development, functioning institutions and societal integration are the best policy against violent extremism.

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