Balkan youth have been an easy target for extremists seeking to radicalise them and convince them to fight abroad, but now parents, activists and official Islamic organisations are striking back.
Fatjona Mejdini, Maja Zivanovic, Denis Dzidic BIRN Tirana, Belgrade, Sarajevo
I knew little about faith,” a 31-year-old Muslim from Sarajevo told BIRN, remembering his introduction to radical Islam.
“In high school, we did everything but study – concerts, pot and alcohol,” he recalled.
“After high school, I took a break from college and got a job as a waiter because I could no longer live on a dollar or two from my parents. There I met a girl who took me into the world of Islam,” he said.
He joined the Salafi movement and soon became, as he put it, “very radical”.
“I started fasting every other day, because I thought I needed to catch up… I grew a beard, went to the [Saudi Arabia-funded King] Fahd Mosque. A lot of brothers were there. I met them and then joined in some of their activities. I went to Brijesce [district of Sarajevo], to the dzemat [unregistered mosque] of theirs for lectures,” he said.
Most of his radical ‘brothers’ at the dzemat ended up joining Islamic State in the Middle East, he said – but he, on the other hand, started focusing on his studies again and dropped out of Islamist circles after four years.
If he had not, he could have ended up like Esad Kundakovic’s son, who was killed four years ago when Syrian President Bashar Al Assad’s forces launched an offensive against the city of Aleppo.
Eldar Kundakovic, a student of psychology who came from the Serbian town of Novi Pazar in the majority Muslim-populated Sandzak area, decided to travel to Syria to “help his Muslim brothers”, his father Esad Kundakovic explained.
Esad Kundakovic knew about his son Eldar’s intention to go and fight and tried to prevent him, but Eldar was convinced that his mission was just.
He told his father he was going to Istanbul to study, but he ended up in Aleppo.
The last time Esad Kundakovic heard from his son was in the spring of 2013. In May, he was killed.
Since his son’s death, Kundakovic has tried to help prevent other youngsters from the Sandzak area from going to join the wars in the Middle East.
According to Serbian police, around 50 people from Sandzak have gone to fight for the Islamist cause.
Kundakovic, a tailor by trade, said he is now dedicated to educating the youth in Sandzak about religion and life.
“I want to contribute with my authority, and the experience I have because my son died there, to help these young people,” he told BIRN.
“They have to understand that there will be wars until Judgment Day, but we must not contribute to them,” he said.
Kundakovic work works for free, he doesn’t have an organisation or people to work with him, but he joins various panels and debates, and goes to mosques in Novi Pazar where he speaks with young people who have already started to see him as a moral authority who dispenses wise advice.
He also talks to young people online about the information they find on the internet or get from radical preachers.
“I read it together with young people and then we interpret it together so they can get a wider picture. But if a young man reads alone all night, and he doesn’t know anything about the war, he is subject to being influenced,” he said.
Imams battle for young hearts and minds
In other Balkan countries, the radicalisation of young people has been even more problematic, as in Albania, from where almost 150 people have travelled to the Middle East.
In Albania, people have been targeted by self-proclaimed imams preaching extreme versions of Islam and promoting violence against non-believers.
“In the case of Albania, self-proclaimed imams have had a crucial negative role in pushing youngsters into radicalism through the strong ideology of extreme political Islam,” Indrit Abdiaj, director of Albanian Muslim Intellectual Forum and a founder of the Youth Development Centre for Professional Enhancement in the town of Elbasan, told BIRN.
Abdiaj said he believes that the best way to keep youngsters away from radicalisation is to offer them non-violent interpretations of Islam and keep them involved in the mainstream of Muslim society.
“We have to give them another narrative and make them part of our communities,” he said.
Abdiaj recalled the case of a 25-year-old from Elbasan who, with very little effort from the community, was drawn away from extremist ideas.
“We identified him as having respect and admiration for the ISIS ideology. The first step was arranging a meeting for him with the local imam while inviting him to roundtables where issues about Islam and peace were discussed,” he explained.
According to Abdiaj, the young man gradually started to change his beliefs as he understood that the overwhelming majority of Muslims rejected extremist ideology.
“He is now engaged and living a good life, while not having the ideas [that he had in] the past anymore,” he said.
However, convincing people to renounce extremist ideology is not always so easy.
Abdiaj believes that the lack of opportunities in life, as well as geographical and personal isolation, have helped the radicalisation process. Family troubles are another factor in driving people towards extremism, he added.
“These young adults come very often from families with social problems caused by immigration, divorces and other traumatic events,” he said.
Official Islamic bodies in Albania have also started looking at different ways to positively influence believers, young people in particular.
Although they were traditionally oriented towards direct communication in mosques, many of them are now online, trying to engage with younger Muslims who might be susceptible to radicalisation.
Ylli Gurra, a Tirana mufti and representative of the official Albanian Islamic Community, said that imams have been advising their followers – especially the younger ones – to stay away from informal mosques which are not recognised by the Islamic Community, and where radical clerics preach extremist interpretations of Islam.
Gurra used to only talk with Muslims face to face, but now he talks online, especially with young people.
“Most of the imams believe that preaching and giving advice through social networks is not necessary all the time. I personally use them, more to give the counter-narrative in cases in which incorrect forms of Islam are being preached online,” he told BIRN.
Poverty creates fertile ground for extremists
Several Balkan-based NGOs have conducted surveys exploring the reasons why young people turned to violent extremism, with the responses suggesting that most of them often felt isolated and thought they had no perspective for the future.
A report by the Albanian Institute for International Studies from 2015 concluded that Islamic radicalisation in the country has socio-economic roots, and that most Islamist extremists came from remote and religious areas.
Poverty and the absence of effective state institutions in these areas has created a lack of development and opportunity which has facilitated the emergence of influential forces such as Islamic foundations with radical ideas.
The unemployment rate in Albania during the period 2010-15 was around 18 to 21 per cent of the total workforce; even higher in the regions from which most of the Albanian extremists who went to fight in Syria and Iraq came, such as Pogradec, Elbasan, Librazhd, Bulqize, Burrel and Diber.
The unemployment rate for people aged from 17 to 35, who are even more vulnerable to radicalisation, was even higher, in some areas surpassing 40 to 45 per cent.
Predrag Petrovic from the Belgrade Centre for Security Studies told BIRN that there is not one specific factor which encourages people to embrace extremism, although he cited unemployment as one of the main issues.
“Balkan countries are in a bad economic position, which is worsening, so the expectations of young people are not fulfilled,” he said.
Petrovic said that radicals have taken advantage of young people seeking information online.
“The internet offers young people all kind of information, and they need fast answers, so then they return to those who offer them these answers,” he said.
“They are an easy target, because they want to feel safe and want to have a feeling that someone cares for them,” he added.
Tackling this online threat is part of a strategy adopted by the Islamic Community in Serbia to combat extremism and other problems affecting young people in Novi Pazar.
The strategy envisages educating representatives of religious and municipal institutions, increasing Islamic Community members’ communications skills, improving computer knowledge and usage of the internet, and working with media to develop better and more positive relations.
The Islamic Community in Bosnia and Herzegovina has also become more involved in youth education and other forms of engagement in the recent years, either through targeted lectures about values of Islam, or through gatherings across Bosnia where young people come to play sports.
The Islamic Community also tries to explain moderate Islam through its Faculty for Islamic Science in Sarajevo, which cooperates with other institutions in the country to promote what it calls the “true values of Islam and its science”.
According to Zuhdija Hasanovic, the dean of the faculty, the best response to the abuse of religious values is to work with those who have been converted to violent ideologies, and to promote the true values of Islam.
“This is a long process which doesn’t give results rights away, but I don’t see the alternative,” Hasanovic said.