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Mercenaries, Extremists Become Major Balkans Export

Kosovo police officers escort a man suspected of having fought with Islamist insurgents in Syria and Iraq as they arrive at a court in Pristina on August 12.
Kosovo police officers escort a man suspected of having fought with Islamist insurgents in Syria and Iraq as they arrive at a court in Pristina on August 12.

During the Cold War, Yugoslavia sent thousands of teachers, doctors, engineers, and other professionals to work in all corners of the globe.

Now some of the countries of the former Yugoslavia are becoming notorious for a different human export -- jihadists and mercenaries. And the numbers seem to be on the rise, despite measures in Bosnia-Herzegovina, Kosovo, and Serbia to stop the traffic.

On August 8, a Bosnian citizen named Emrah Fojnica, 23, blew himself up in a suicide bombing in Iraq during an attack by the Islamic State (IS), formerly known as ISIL.

Just days later, police in Kosovo arrested 40 suspected Islamist radicals during a raid of about 60 locations around the country. The men are accused of fighting with extremist militants in Syria and Iraq.

And officials in Serbia estimate that dozens of Serbs are fighting on both sides in the conflict in eastern Ukraine.

"It is hard to say what their numbers are at this point," says Milorad Mijatovic, a parliament deputy from the Social Democratic Party. "They are not small. We are certainly talking about tens of people going into those war zones."

A report issued in April by the International Center for the Study of Radicalism (ICSR) in London estimated that about 6 percent of the foreign fighters in Iraq and Syria originated in the Balkans. Kosovo estimates about 200 of its citizens have gone to the Middle East, and 16 have been killed there.

Serbian Prime Minister Aleksandar Vucic says there are "dozens of people [from Serbia] fighting on the Russian side in Ukraine and dozens fighting on the Ukrainian side in Ukraine." In "99 percent of cases," Vucic says, the Serbians are mercenaries fighting for money.

Bosnia has already passed a law criminalizing mercenary activity. A similar bill in Kosovo has cleared its first reading in parliament. And Serbian lawmakers have proposed such legislation. However, there are serious concerns that such measures might not be effective.

Steven Vukojevic represents a Serbian organization called the Chetnik Movement, which recruits Serbian volunteers to fight for the separatists in Ukraine. Asked whether a law banning mercenaries would be effective, he says that "the Chetnik Movement has men in Russia who live and work there, so they can also go [to Ukraine] through Russia. There is no need for them to go directly from Serbia."

In Bosnia, the situation is more alarming. Most of the fighters going to Syria and Iraq are under the influence of Wahhabi extremists. There is a secretive Wahhabi community in the northern village of Gornja Maoca that has been connected to terrorism in the past.

Official Response

Mehmed Bradaric is a deputy in the Bosnian parliament who has had experience coping with Islamic extremism when he was mayor of the northern city of Maglaj and Wahhabites took control of the nearby village of Bocinja.

"While they were living there, they set up their own rules," Bradaric says. "For us it was very difficult to live in Maglaj. We were deprived of all normal events, such as celebrating New Year's. People either did not celebrate, or did it in fear."

Such experiences make Almir Dzuvo, director of the Intelligence and Security Agency (OSA), question the commitment of the authorities to combatting Islamist extremism. "If you knew what I know about the involvement of government structures in this, from the lowest levels to criminal organizations, you would be as concerned as I am," he says.

Emrah Fojnica, the Bosnian who blew himself up in Iraq last week, was well known to the authorities. He was tried for providing one of the weapons used by Mevlid Jasarevic when he fired at the U.S. Embassy in Sarajevo in October 2011. Fojnica and Jasarevic both lived at the Wahhabi community in Donja Maoca.

Fojnica was acquitted and promised not to return to Donja Maoca. Instead, he became a suicide bomber in Iraq.

Sociologists in both countries, however, see deeper causes behind the surge in "war tourism." "We are in the paradoxical situation in which it makes more sense for a 19- or 20-year-old man to go to war in a distant country...that he can't even find on a map than to stay in Bosnia and search for some meaning here," says Vlado Azinovic, a professor of political science in Sarajevo who was an expert witness at the Jasarevic trial.

Vojislav Curcic, a psychiatric specialist in Belgrade, says much the same thing. "Whenever a society is in crisis -- and ours is -- you have fertile ground for extremism," he says. "There are many discontented citizens who think that extremist positions and actions will make them feel better. The whole social climate encourages the development of extremism."

The Deutsche Welle news agency recently spoke with a group of Serbian mercenaries from the Chetnik movement who are fighting in Ukraine. The group's leader, Bratislav Zivkovic, says he thinks the fighting there will end soon and he is already making plans to return to Serbia.

And that has experts in the Balkans worried.

"When [the mercenaries] return, a group of people that can represent a real threat -- not just for Serbia, but for the whole region -- is being formed," warns Serbian military analyst Bojan Dimitrijevic.

Written in Prague by Robert Coalson on the basis of reporting from Sarajevo, Belgrade, and Pristina.
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    Milos Teodorovic

    Milos Teodorovic is an award-winning investigative journalist and the director of RFE/RL's Balkan Service.

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