The Western Balkans emerged as a meaningful source of European foreign fighters in the Syrian conflict. (1) Although it appeared suddenly, this jihadi mobilization wave did not materialize in a vacuum. It was and remains the most visible manifestation of a wider religious militancy phenomenon in the region. This article will examine both parts of the phenomenon: the current state of the Western Balkans foreign fighter contingent (a) and the complex challenge they represent as well as the scope and significance of the homegrown jihadi pool in the region. The metrics provided in this article have been compiled from data that was last updated in early to mid-2019 and was provided or released by Western Balkans law enforcement agencies and/or collected from a wide range of reports released by international organizations and academic institutions.
Part One: Exploring the Western Balkans Foreign Fighters Contingent
Data and Observed Trends
Since 2012, about 1,070 nationals (b) of Kosovo, Bosnia and Herzegovina, North Macedonia, Albania, Serbia, and Montenegro traveled to Syria and Iraq, primarily joining the ranks of the Islamic State and in lesser numbers the al-Qa'ida affiliate Jabhat al-Nusra--most recently rebranded Hay'at Tahrir al-Sham (HTS). This unprecedented outflow of foreign fighters from the region peaked in 2013-2014 and almost grinded to a halt by 2016, (2) although aspiring jihadi militants continued their largely unsuccessful attempts to cross into Syria well into 2017. (3) About two-thirds of the contingent, or 67 percent, were male adults at the time of departure, 15 percent women, and 18 percent children. (c) Kosovo contributed the region's largest number of men (256), (4) whereas Bosnia and Herzegovina contributed the highest number of women (61) and children (81). (5)
Due to new births between 2012 and 2019, the number of children of foreign fighters from the Western Balkans in Syria and Iraq has sizably increased. According to official data, the number of children born in theater to Kosovan and Bosnian parents as of early 2019 stood at 155. (d) These new births have further increased the size of the Western Balkans contingent who have spent time in Syria and Iraq to at least 1,225. (e)
In the last seven years, about 260 of those who traveled to Syria and Iraq from the Western Balkans have been reportedly killed in armed hostilities, or, in a few cases, died of natural causes. That represents almost one-quarter of the original contingent of 1,070 individuals. Some 460 others have returned to their countries of nationality or residence. (f) The majority had returned by 2015. (g) A few others were transferred to North Macedonia by the U.S. military in 2018 (6) after being captured by the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), thus making that country one of the first in Europe to publicly repatriate Islamic State fighters detained in Syria. (7) The repatriation continued in April 2019 with Kosovo accepting the transfer of 110 individuals, of whom 74 are children, 32 women, and four alleged male foreign fighters. This was one of the largest repatriations of its kind so far. (8) Bosnia and Herzegovina repatriated only one alleged foreign fighter. (9)
The author estimates the size of the Western Balkans contingent of foreign fighters and family members remaining in Syria and Iraq stands at over 500 individuals, made up one-third by male combatants and two-thirds by children (including those born in theater) and women. (h) They are mostly being held in Kurdish-controlled prisons and camps for displaced people while a smaller number continues to be embedded with the organizations they joined in Syria and Iraq. (10) At least two foreign fighters, one from North Macedonia and one from Kosovo, are serving life sentences in Turkey. (11) Nationals of Bosnia and Herzegovina currently compose the largest group of the Western Balkans contingent remaining in the conflict theater. (i)
As of mid-2019, the largely mono-ethnic Islamic State-affiliated units of Western Balkans foreign fighters appear to no longer be active in the conflict theater. This is mostly due to successful targeting of their leadership by U.S.-led coalition airstrikes and considerable battlefield casualties that have caused a significant drop in the presence of active Western Balkans foreign fighters in Syria and Iraq, likely to the lowest point since the beginning of the jihadi outflow in 2012. (12)
The last active jihadi presence from the region in Syria is an ethnic Albanian unit within HTS. Xhemati Alban is a katiba (combat unit) composed of ethnic Albanian fighters operating in and around the northwestern Syrian province of Idlib. Combatants of other Western Balkans ethnicities continue to fight with HTS, but ethnic Albanians appear to be the only ones from the region to still operate a mono-ethnic unit with its commanding structure. (13) This may be indicative of both a sufficiently large number of fighters and adequate military capabilities. Research by the author (j) and linguistic idiosyncrasies from propaganda footage indicate that these fighters originate primarily from North Macedonia and Kosovo. Video and photographic propaganda material released between 2017-2018 by an affiliated media outlet suggest the unit may have up to two dozen active fighters in its ranks. (k) Other martyrdom propaganda footage indicates that the unit may have suffered at least 18 combat deaths, one after a SVBIED attack during an offensive in Aleppo in late February 2016. (14) The latest martyrdom announcement was issued by the unit's official propaganda channel on May 13, 2019.
The unit's commander is Abdul Jashari, a 42-year-old ethnic Albanian citizen of North Macedonia, going by the nom de guerre Abu Qatada al-Albani. Jashari is an influential figure and close military advisor to Abu Muhammad al-Julani, the leader of HTS, who appointed Abu Qatada al-Albani in the summer of 2014 to lead the organization's military operations in Syria. (15) The U.S. Treasury Department designated Jashari a terrorist on November 10, 2016. (16) His name appeared recently in HTS communiques as one of the members of a high committee tasked with leading reconciliation efforts with Hurras al-Din, a jihadi faction affiliated with al-Qa'ida. (17)
As part of Xhemati Alban's continued engagement and propaganda efforts via social media channels targeting audiences in the Balkans, in August 2018, the group released a 33-minute video entitled "Albanian Snipers in the Lands of Sham." (18) This high-quality propaganda video, narrated in Albanian with English subtitles, documents various stages of training, planning, and combat efforts of the unit's sniper squad, which appears to be self-sufficient both at weapons craftsmanship and tactical training. Its members use customized, high-precision rifles with relatively expensive scopes and craft-made suppressors. (19) The skillsets displayed in the video indicate possible ex-military or paramilitary background and affiliation.
The Complex Challenge of Returnees
From the start of the Syrian armed conflict, Kosovo, Bosnia and Herzegovina, and North Macedonia experienced some of the highest rates in Europe for mobilization into jihadi terrorist organizations relative to population size. (20) A similar trend has characterized the reverse flow, where according to official data about 460 individuals from the region have returned home from Syria and Iraq, 242 of whom to Kosovo. (21) By comparison, the countries of the European Union, with a cumulative population size of 500 million, have received about 1,500 returnees. (22) As data indicates, the Western Balkans is currently the region with the highest concentration of returned foreign fighters in Europe. With some 500 other adult male combatants, women, and minors still in Syria, it is not inconceivable that the number of returnees may double in size in the future. Kosovo, with its 134 returnees per million nationals, tops the chart, followed by North Macedonia with 42 per million. The United Kingdom, by comparison, has reported about 6 returnees of "national security concern" per million, whereas Germany and France about four per million. (l) The scale of the Western Balkans challenge in dealing with the long-term social and national security implications of this considerable wave of returnees becomes clearer when considering the very modest resources and capacities available in the region compared to the rest of Europe.
The emerging practice of stripping citizenship or permanent residence to foreign fighters that is gaining traction in some European countries might complicate things further for the Western Balkans, as it shifts the burden of prosecuting and handling dozens of returnees with dual nationality to countries already overburdened and ill-equipped to do so both in terms of resources and expertise. (m) In October 2018, Kosovan authorities accepted the transfer from Turkey of an ethnic Albanian Islamic State fighter and his three children. He was born in Germany to parents that had emigrated there from Kosovo. (23) That was after Germany revoked his permanent residence permit although he had lived all his life in Germany, had reportedly been radicalized there, and fought in Syria with the so-called "Lohberger Brigade," a German-speaking jihadi unit. (24) He was swiftly indicted, tried, and found guilty in Kosovo within a three-month timeframe for "organizing and participating in a terrorist group." (25) Though, after pleading guilty, he received a five-year prison sentence, that was only for the crime of joining a terrorist organization rather than possible crimes committed during the four years spent fighting with the Islamic State in Syria. (n)
Despite significant capacity and resource challenges, the Western Balkans countries have tried and sentenced a significant number of returning jihadis. Kosovo has been at the forefront of these efforts with 73 successful...