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The Balkans: An Often Overlooked Hotbed For ISIS Recruitment


The Balkans have become a source of recruitment to ISIS. Kosovo alone has seen more than 300 people travel abroad to join the Islamic State. And it's not a just flow people. Weapons from the Balkans have been showing up in the hands of ISIS fighters also. Adrian Shtuni is a foreign policy and security analyst who specializes in the region and joins us in our studio. Mr. Shtuni, thanks so much for being with us.

ADRIAN SHTUNI: Thanks for having me.

SIMON: Any idea what numbers we're talking about?

SHTUNI: Sure, we have estimates. So that is important have emphasized. It's hard to have the hard numbers. But we're talking about around 1,000 individuals who've traveled from the western Balkans countries to territories held and controlled by the Islamic State or Jabhat al-Nusra and other militias in Syria and Iraq.

SIMON: Any countries in particular?

SHTUNI: So basically they mainly originate from Bosnia, Kosovo, Albania, Macedonia, the bulk of them. But then you have some that originate from Montenegro and Serbia.

SIMON: What about the flow of weapons?

SHTUNI: The flow of weapons...

SIMON: ...Because there were a lot left over from the wars of the '90s.

SHTUNI: Correct. Absolutely. The flow of weapons has been in the direction of Syria and Iraq but also in the direction of Western Europe, actually. Some of those weapons have been used during the terrorist attacks in Paris and Brussels. There is evidence that quite a number of them originated from Serbia and Bosnia. That's quite concerning.

SIMON: And how do they get around? How do they get through borders?

SHTUNI: Oh, the same way the drugs get across. The same way that illegal migrants get across. The borders are quite porous. And...

SIMON: Quite porous, yeah...

SHTUNI: ...Unfortunately there is a bit of corruption, according to a number of reports...

SIMON: A bit of corruption, people who are paid to look the other way.

SHTUNI: Correct.

SIMON: Yeah. I remember covering the war in the Balkans in the 1990s. And there were Muslims who would say to people in a cosmopolitan, multicultural place like Sarajevo, look, the Europeans and the Americans are turning away from you because, in the end, they consider you Muslims, not real Europeans. Is that, in any way, animating the sentiment?

SHTUNI: That is a narrative that has been used by those that radicalize and recruit youths, that, you know, they don't belong to Europe, that Europe has rejected them, and that, first and foremost, they are Muslims rather Albanians or Bosnians, and so on and so forth.

SIMON: Yeah. In the Western media, have we overlooked the Balkans and the way they're part of - you're shaking your head yes.

SHTUNI: Yes because there are so many fires to put out at any given moment. So I do understand that there is a bit of that. But it's not just the media. In general, I think that the western Balkans have been a little bit shortchanged. You know, comparing, for example, the number of fighters that have originated from the western Balkans, proportional to the population of the western Balkans, it does not compare.

So you have about 5-6,000 individuals traveling to Syria and Iraq from western Europe, and you have about 1,000 from the western Balkans. And we're talking about an overall population of about 19 million, whereas, of course, we know that in western Europe there's about 500 million. So the ratios clearly speak for themselves.

SIMON: Adrian Shtuni is a foreign policy and security analyst. He specializes in the Balkans and the eastern Mediterranean. Thanks so much for being with us.

SHTUNI: Thanks for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.