The battle to stop the spread of ISIS extremism, ideology, and propaganda in the Balkans is now being waged online

July 25, 2017 8:16 pmViews: 18

A report that was published on February 2, 2017 entitled Balkan Jihadi Warriors Remain Safe on the Net highlights that despite the immense challenges, authorities in the Balkans realize the tremendous use of social media by ISIS and will save no means to stop the terrorist organization from spreading its ideology online and to curb its use of the different social network pages for further recruitment and propaganda. When needed, the battlefield can be shifted, and if necessary, the fight can be waged online.

A court in Sarajevo, Bosnia, jailed Imam Bilal Bosnic last June for seven years for using his YouTube videos for instigating and recruiting foreign fighters to go to war in the Middle East. Before his arrest, Bosnic was considered a key recruiter and preacher of violent extremism in the Balkans. Since 2014, around 200 people have been put on trial in Western Balkan countries on charges of either being part of violent terrorist groups fighting in Middle East or of recruiting groups to go and fight there.

Skender Perteshi, a researcher at the Kosovo Centre for Security Studies, said the digital and social media remain a key propaganda tool of the terrorists. “ISIS, the biggest terrorist organization to date, has an overwhelming presence on social media, including Facebook, Twitter and other apps,” Perteshi noted. He said social media have been instrumental in the organization’s success in recruiting around 25,000 foreign fighters from all over the world. Aida Corovic, former Serbian parliamentarian and activist from the mainly Muslim city of Novi Pazar, says that although Serbia has the fewest foreign fighters in the region, youngsters are still vulnerable to propaganda.

All Western Balkan countries have counter-terrorism strategies in place, most of which have been adopted in the last couple of years, to counter the flow of fighters from the Balkans to the Middle East. All these countries have also criminalized recruitment of fighters for participation in foreign conflicts. Bosnia’s Security Ministry told BIRN (Balkan Investigative Reporting Network) that Bosnia’s counter-terrorism strategy envisages combatting the abuse of the internet for terrorist activities as well as for spreading hate speech and discrimination.

As one of its plans, the ministry says that, together with the Regulatory Agency for Communication of Bosnia and Herzegovina, it aims to create control mechanisms to monitor problematic websites and punish those that do not respect the rules. Albania is also tackling extremism, partly by the formation of a Counter-Terrorist Directorate within the state police. An official from the directorate told BIRN, “In 2016 we have grown the human capacities for the monitoring and investigation of online propaganda through the Counter-Terrorist Directorate and the General Directory for the Organized and Serious Crimes in collaboration with the other Albanian and foreign law-enforcement agencies.”

Muhamed Jusic, from Bosnia, suggests forming a new partnership of institutions and ordinary citizens to counter the threat. “Our security agencies must develop mechanisms that are available to citizens who can then report problematic content and create producers that would start removing this content in line with international standards,” Jusic said. According to Jusic, States should also assist in developing critical thinking with citizens who consume content on social media. He adds that citizens, independently from the State, should be able to report content as inappropriate on Facebook or YouTube. However, in Macedonia, the NGO Analytica and the Interior Ministry are pioneering this approach, working on concrete measures to jointly curb the spread of radical propaganda online. “We are now working on a project that tries to pinpoint in more detail how online recruitment functions and establish effective preventive mechanisms,” Stojkovski from Analytica says. According to him, the plan is to strengthen mechanisms that warn people about radical sites and profiles through an online tool called the “red button” through which internet users could easily report such sites to the police. The police would then quickly react and, if need be, asked internet companies to close those profiles or sites.

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