Bosnia’s Struggle with Islamic Extremism


Of the parties to the Yugoslav Civil War, Bosnia was the hardest hit. Sarajevo, the capital, was once the cosmopolitan epicenter of the Balkans. Some called it the Jerusalem of Europe, as it sits that the crossroads of Islam, Catholicism, and the Eastern Orthodox Church.

In the years after the Dayton Peace Accords (the agreement bringing an end to hostilities), while still dealing with lingering after effects, Bosnia has settled into an uneasy peace. Much of the focus has remained on resolving tensions surrounding war crimes and the multi-ethnic, multi-confessional make up of the burgeoning nation. The tensions around those issues remain front and center, even as war criminals have been tried and imprisoned.

Meanwhile, Bosnian police and intelligence services are combating a new threat.

During the war, Islamic extremists flocked to the country in an effort to show support for their Muslim brothers. The foreign fighters were supposed to leave once the Dayton Accords were implemented, but many haven’t. Instead their extreme vision has started to sprout roots–especially as money from the Arabian peninsula funds organizations that promote strict versions of Islam. Moderate Bosnian Muslims are struggling to fight back.

Now, the concern is over Bosnians who have been radicalized leaving to join the fight in Syria (currently between 200-300, second most per capita) –and their possible return. This isn’t all that different than other European nations like Belgium or France. However, in those cases, returning jihadists are descendants of immigrant families with minimal ties to the country. For the Bosnians seduced by jihad in Syria, the situation they return to is slightly different. They won’t return to a land where they’re strangers in their own country, rather they’ll return to a land that’s been in their family for generations.

We got here, primarily, because the foreign fighters, who never left, were ignored. Their violent vision of Islam was allowed to grow unabated until 9/11. After that, Western intelligence services put pressure on the Bosnian government to start cracking down.

But is it too little too late? I don’t think so. With some renewed resolve, the country’s police force and intelligence services can take the necessary steps to address the problem. They can partner with western intelligence services to build their own capacity to track and monitor potential violent extremists inside Bosnia.

Combing improved policing and intelligence gathering with enacting policies to improve economic opportunities, Bosnia’s chances at turning a corner will certainly improve. The US for its part could start to pressure its allies in the Middle East to close off funding for the extremist groups within Bosnia–surely, easier said than done.

Bosnia has, for the most part, started to conquer the post-civil war tensions. Now they’re dealing with a different struggle, this time with violent extremists. Stemming their rise will be a heavy lift, but it isn’t impossible. It will be a matter of resolve–for Bosnia and the international community.

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