The HOMEAFFAIRS Briefing is a regular specialised digest of the wider discussion on internal security policy. In this issue, we look at counter-extremism in the Western Balkans.

EU States Must Do More to Counter Extremism in the Western Balkans

  • Geopolitically speaking, the Western Balkan region remains the underbelly of Europe. Negative developments in the Western Balkans regarding irregular migration, organised crime, illegal weapons trade and Islamic extremist networks have a direct impact on the security of Western Europe and the wider continent.
  • The EU, but also the USA, therefore have an interest in maintaining the stability and positive development of this part of Europe. Meanwhile, other regional and global actors turn to the Balkans with less noble intentions – for their own gain and to aid the eventual destabilisation of Europe. Russia, China, Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Iran vie for influence in the Balkans in different ways and with different tactics, but with the same strategic objective: to spoil the Balkan states’ successful orientation towards Euro-Atlantic structures and in turn to weaken the West.
  • The EU states and the USA invest substantial energy and financial resources into the Balkans, but the delivery of these is not always well coordinated and precisely focused. As a result, there is duplicity and waste in many efforts.
  • One project which aims to unify divergent activities on counter-extremism is the Western Balkans Counter-Terrorism Initiative. Supported by the EU, the project recently resulted in the creation of a regional network of national coordinators for countering extremism, which met for the first time in Prague in summer.
  • This is a positive development, and one which must be expanded further. The EU must do even more to ensure that extremism is minimised in the Balkans. To that end, EU states should be well coordinated with the USA on counter-extremism efforts in the region. At the same time, both the EU and the USA must recognise the threat posed in the region by non-violent extremist groups, which are outside of the purview of “Countering Violent Extremism” but nevertheless play a role in eroding the stability of the region.
  • The issue was recently discussed at a European Foundation for Democracy (EFD) event in Brussels, with our Head of Programme Radko Hokovský in attendance.

Every two weeks, our team crafts internal security policy recommendations that incorporate handpicked publications from respected research organisations and experts in Europe and elsewhere. This time, we go deeper into the necessity for counter-extremism coordinators and open the question of how the state should approach radical religious preachers.

The EU Must Have a Network of National Counter-Extremism Coordinators

  • Some time ago, we have presented the idea of establishing the office of a national counter-extremism coordinator in each EU state. This office would bring together counter-extremism efforts of all the relevant ministries, security services and other key actors. The office may tackle extremism as a whole, including far-right and far-left extremist groups, in order to build a comprehensive strategy. However, advisors specifically competent in countering Islamic extremism should be an integral part of the office.
  • In a new policy brief about countering radicalisation towards Islamic extremism in Germany, the ICCT also recognises the need to create a national coordination centre for the prevention of radicalisation and extremism, as well as for disengagement and ideological de-radicalisation. According to the authors, the centre should consist of leading experts from both governmental and non-governmental institutions. To diminish the impact of political competition between the portfolios or political parties, a central coordinator should be independent from the specific ministries and may be controlled by the Chancellery instead.
  • The ICCT further suggests encouraging cooperation of experts on countering Islamic extremism and right-wing extremism. These counter-extremism approaches should be more interconnected under the national coordination centre as both extremist narratives frequently refer to one another and the crucial causes for radicalisation are often inter-related.

EU States Should Regulate Imams

  • The local influence of imams should not be underestimated. Extremist imams often play a key role in the radicalisation process, and conversely tolerant imams can serve as important multiplicators of tolerance and mutual co-habitation. European states should seek to prevent the first scenario and encourage the second by training those wishing to become imams and regulating their actions.
  • Many states have the possibility of requiring state-certified licenses to preach. Instead of simply anyone being able to preach in mosques and other religious establishments, certified imams must attend training courses run by the government and gain an official license.
  • Morocco as well as Austria can serve as precedent by already having established imam training centres with an educational curriculum based on tolerant Islam. In its latest report on terrorism, the US Department of State praises Morocco for its comprehensive strategy to counter violent extremism, recognising that the education of imams not only allows better oversight of the religious sphere but also engages in the important field of messaging.
  • Where possible, other EU states should also adopt regulatory practices to minimise the presence of extremism in mosques and other religious establishments.