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Bin Laden and the Balkans: the Politics of Anti-Terrorism

09 November 2001

Brussels, 9 November 2001: In a new report published today, Bin Laden and the Balkans: the Politics of Anti-Terrorism, the International Crisis Group examines the myths and realities surrounding Islamism in the Balkans, in the light of the 11 September attacks on the U.S.

Islamist extremism in the region, and the risk of terrorism associated with it, should not be painted as a larger problem than it is. The international community should not be distracted from peace keeping, institutional reform and development, as the best way to close down the spaces where terrorists can operate.

With U.S. and other international troops on the ground, an ex-mujahidin presence in Bosnia, and thousands of Muslim men who fought in military and paramilitary forces in Bosnia, Kosovo and Macedonia, the terrorism threat is described by some international officials � although not all � as significant. Extra security precautions have properly been taken, clamping down on individuals and groups suspected of links to terrorist networks. Less noticed, but probably more important, was a warning from the U.S. mission in Kosovo to ethnic Albanian leaders that �any provocative acts by armed Albanian groups would be seen by the U.S. as support for terrorist forces.�

Local politicians and media have been far less restrained. In Serbia, Macedonia, and parts of Bosnia, a wave of anti-Muslim reporting has puffed fresh air into stereotypes of fanatical bearded mujahidin and myths of Muslim �backwardness� that were used for sinister purposes in the 1990s. Unsubstantiated reports of bin Laden activities in the region have been distorted still further by unscrupulous politicians and propagandists. Ethnic Albanians and Bosniaks are regularly portrayed as potential supporters of the al-Qaida network.

Balkans Program Director Mark Thompson said: �Most leaders in the region spontaneously supported the U.S. anti-terrorist agenda, but there is a subtext of opportunism. There is clearly an attempt to justify a tougher stance towards ethnic Albanians in southern Serbia, Kosovo and Macedonia. Similar tactics are being applied to Bosniak leaders.�

It appears that only Bosnia has significant numbers of potential Islamist extremists. Elsewhere the potential for Islamist-inspired violence seems slight, and hinges on the weakness of institutions rather than ideological sympathies with the enemies of the West. There is no risk that Muslims anywhere in the Balkans might support Islamist extremism in large numbers � such a development would contradict their religious traditions, their political views and their lifestyles, which are emphatically Western. It is important that the international community is seen not to accept this new wave of anti-Muslim propaganda.

Endemic Balkan problems � inept governance, poor public security, weak rule of law, economic backwardness, corruption and organised crime � produce an environment where terrorist networks can hide personnel and money. The international community should, therefore, closely monitor the activities of Islamist organisations which may have links to terrorist networks, but its priority should remain the long term task of peace building, which is the major front of the �war on terrorism� in the Balkans.

Media contacts: Katy Cronin or Sascha Pichler at ICG Brussels, +32 2 536 00 64 or 70; [email protected] This report and all other ICG publications are available on our website

The full report can be downloaded here.

For further information, contact Katy Cronin or Sascha Pichler at ICG Brussels, tel: +32 2 536 00 64 or 70, email: [email protected]

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