The Balkans, The Next Flashpoint?

Irregular warfare Uses weapons and tactics to exploit the vulnerabilities of an opponent and attack these points indirectly using unconventional means. Small groups of insurgents can harass a larger enemy with scant resources and merely a handful of loyal and dedicated people. But what happens when a group grows to have nearly unlimited resources and thousands of dedicated and loyal supporters? They operate in regional black and grey markets, moving natural resources, weapons, people and drugs and laundering the proceeds to finance various operations. They pick harass major nations of the world and today, they go by the names, ISIS, ISIL, al Nursa and al-Qaeda. Where do they ferment this ideology, move and grow? In places like the Balkans. The Balkans has often been ignored at the peril of grander nations. And as often as it has been ignored, it has served as a flashpoint for conflict and that flashpoint is growing strong again.

By Brian Gould and Amanda Weir

Why look at the Balkans now? Those who served in the Balkans during the U.S. intervention have long described the situation in the Balkans as unsettled; a simmering mix of ethnic, religious, and political tensions waiting to boil over. The feel good actions of the war crimes tribunals provided a façade of accomplishment, while the underlying causes of the unrest seem to have largely gone unresolved and unchecked. For the most part, the world’s eyes turned from the Balkans, the flames of conflict smothered, while the embers burned bright.

The Balkans is not just as a way station flowing from the Middle East and Africa to Europe, it produces Islamic extremists that travel to fight abroad. Jihadists travel to the Middle East to fight and return home with even more radical ideals, new skills, and recruitment tools. Once they return, they spread their extremist ideology, and cultivate new recruits for the fight abroad. Of concern is the presence of groups not aligned with Islamist extremists, but that have short or long-term objectives in common that lead to collaboration. These groups range from opportunistic criminal organizations, to those that have a common desired end-state, such as a new social order or a desire to instigate an end-of-times scenario. The latter possibility is evident in a conference held in Montenegro by members of the Japanese cult responsible for the 1995 sarin gas attack in Tokyo. While there was no overt indication of collaboration, it does give one pause wondering, “why have it there?”

The Balkans sits at the edge of Europe, with combat experienced fighters, not just Islamist extremists hardened by fighting in the Middle East, but veterans of the conflicts in the Balkans and Afghanistan. Conflict is not a stranger to the youth of this region, but it is to the youth of Europe. The Director for the coordination of police bodies in Bosnia, Uros Pena, has admitted,

“We don’t even know how big this problem of terrorism and radicalization is”.

With experts at the source unable to even assess the situation, Europe averts its eyes, preferring not to contemplate a future of, self-segregation, hate and disintegration of civil society. A future that is more real than many will admit. If statements by the former head of Britain’s Equalities and Human Rights Commission (EHRC), Trevor Phillips, indicate what is in store for countries such as England, where “a significant minority of Britain’s three million Muslims… would rather live more separately from their non-Muslim countrymen, preferably under sharia law.” 

Europe, seemingly asleep at the wheel and deep in denial as to the depth and scope of the radicalism within its borders, has paid scant attention to the Balkans. Meanwhile, extremists have continued to recruit and grow in numbers. The U.S., fighting an uphill battle in a seemingly unwinnable mash-up of a Quixotic war and failed humanitarian effort in Iraq and Afghanistan, are content to rest on their self-proclaimed successful intervention in the Balkans, ignoring the realities of mounting tensions and growing extremism in the region, with experts warning that the scale of the problem is unknown. The U.S. and the lack of effective enforcement of the Dayton Peace Accord left many war criminals in power, thousands of foreign fighter armed and organized and a network in place ready to support an asymmetric war that has fired it first salvo into Europe with attacks in Paris and Brussels. As this wave washes over Europe, the question for our policy makers is when will it reach the shores of the United States or have the waters already begun to rise?

About the Co-Author: Amanda Weir is an attorney who has worked for the Department of Defense, Special Operations Command, Central Command and is the CEO of Applied Solutions Consulting.  She is an Adjunct Professor at St Leos University who has taught legal issues in counter terrorism and law.

Brian E. Gould (USA SF, Ret.) served in the U.S Army and U.S. Special Forces for over two (2) decades. During his military career Mr. Gould was engaged in the Eastern European, Middle Eastern, and African theaters as part of U.S. ongoing missions and military operations. Mr. Gould specializes in providing advisory and management services for international reconstruction and development projects, stability operations, and international commercial development.