While Balkan countries have curbed the flow of fighters to foreign wars, the online space is still a haven for Islamist extremists who remain out of reach there, recruiting and spreading messages of hate.
By Fatjona Mejdini, Marija Ristic, Denis Dzidic, Ervin Qafmolla, Sinisa Jakov Marusic and Natalia Zaba
“What makes the Lord the most joyful is when his slave, without protection, enters among the non-believers and shoots until he gets killed … Kill and get killed – this is how those who we should be proud of end,” says Imam Bilal Bosnic in one of his many YouTube videos, posted via various channels. Just this one has had 21,000 views.
A court in Sarajevo, Bosnia, jailed him last June for seven years 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.
But Bosnic’s hate speech is not isolated case. Videos put out by and about extremist groups in the Balkans attract millions of viewers.
The “Sword of the Merciful” [“Shpata e Meshiruesit” in Albanian], for instance, among other jihadist marketing acts, features a video message from Al-Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri, entitled “15 years on from the blessed attacks of September 11” with Albanian subtitles.
Radical extremism has found its place not just on YouTube, but also on Facebook and Twitter. The Facebook page “White Minaret”, which counts 3,424 likes, does not shrink from expressing sympathy for supporters of terrorist organisations, and openly engages in Islamist propaganda, with direct references to Al-Qaeda and related organisations and clerics.
Numerous Facebook pages all across the Western Balkans that BIRN has seen also engage in propaganda for Islamist extremists groups like Al-Qaeda, Jabhat Fateh al-Sham, formerly known as the al-Nusra Front, the Taleban and other affiliates.
Since 2014, around 200 people have been put on trial in Western Balkan countries, suspected of either being part of violent terrorist groups fighting in Middle East or of recruiting groups to go and fight there.
While the focus has been on putting them in jail, the authorities have left the worldwide web, which is where modern jihadists are also very active, unmonitored.
Even those in prison often remain active online, as is the case with Bosnic, but also with the jailed Macedonian imam Rexhep Memishi, whose Facebook page is regularly updated.
BIRN research shows that while most Western Balkan countries now have counter-terrorism strategies in place, they have struggled to counter violent extremism online.
Effective control of cyberspace is still too complicated for already poorly equipped police and prosecutors in the Balkans.
Experts also warn that little effort is being invested in the prevention of Islamist radicalism, while for many, the line between freedom of speech and online speech that incites violence, hatred or is otherwise harmful to individuals and communities remains unclear.
In some countries, websites containing violent content have been registered abroad. This also limits the scope of work of the authorities.
Extremism flourishes online
While most of the world was shocked by news of the horrific November 2015 terrorist attacks in Paris, France, not everyone was.
One Islamist website in Bosnian, Vjesti Ummeta, in a post called the mass killings “joyful news for all true Muslims”.
This website has been a headache for the Bosnian authorities for the last two years as it continues to share and spread ISIS propaganda videos, magazines and praise mass killings carried out in the name of the Islamic Caliphate.
The authorities have pulled it down on several occasions, but the website simply reappears under different names.
The website is not an isolated case. Most similar websites have servers outside Bosnia. They are often registered in Saudi Arabia, which Bosnia’s authorities say hampers their power to shut them down.
Sarajevo-based analyst and theological expert Muhamed Jusic says the authorities are struggling to find a common ground with web providers who have certain criteria about freedom of speech.
“The other issue is that these profiles and websites are easily registered; it is like a game of cat and mouse – you close one, they open two,” Jusic told BIRN.
Besides Bosniaks, Albanians are the largest group of foreign fighters traveling to the Middle East from the Balkans.
Albanians are spread over three Balkan countries, Albania, Kosovo and Macedonia, so it is often difficult to find out exactly where Albanian Islamist propaganda is coming from.
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 organisation 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 organisation’s success in recruiting around 25,000 foreign fighters from all over the world; countering their violent propaganda on such channels is tough.
As with the case of Bosnian counterparts, the “official” ISIS webpage in Albanian, hilafeti.wordpress.com, routinely vanishes and re-emerges after being offline for several months.
The website has been going on and off repeatedly in the last couple of years. In December, it reappeared after being shut down for less than 48 hours.
Filip Stojkovski, security research fellow at the Analytica think tank in Skopje, Macedonia, one of the authors of research entitled “Assessment of Macedonia’s efforts in countering violent extremism, view from civil society”, carried out by Analytica and published last year, says most people who join radical Islamist movements are youngsters who continue to be recruited online.
“There are still many active pages online, profiles on social networks like Facebook, that are spreading these ideas,” he said.
One such profile belongs to Imam Rexhep Memishi, who is currently serving a jail sentence for terrorism in Macedonia.
He was found guilty in 2016 after being busted in 2015 in an operation codenamed “Cell”, and was sentenced to seven years last year for recruiting fighters for the Middle Eastern war fronts.
“Although he is in jail, his profile is still very active which probably means that someone else is maintaining it, updating posts with his speeches and other content,” Stojkovski said.
Other private profiles, calling for an Islamic Caliphate in Albanian, depicting convicted terrorists as freedom fighters and calling for religious war, are by no means rare.
One Facebook group called “Eja ne Islam” [“Join Islam”] that has more than 700 supporters calls on its members to join ISIS as “a rebellion against the injustice done to Muslims’’.
Other Facebook groups curse American soldiers, wishing them to be beheaded in Syria.
“Mektebi Hasanbeg”, a YouTube channel like this, contains more than 270 videos, some of which glorify terrorism and “call for Allah to help ISIS raise the flag of Jihad”.
Terrorist leaders like Osama bin Laden are called scholars on such sites, while the flags of US and Israel are shown in flames.
Fabian Zhilla, an Albanian fellow at Harvard University in the US, says while ISIS in Albania seems to be a fading force, ISIS online propaganda in Albanian continues.
“ISIS uses and plays with tough images of children and women murdered or bombed in Syria. It tries to portray that war as a religious war, non-believers vs believers. In general, the online content aims to attract and target an Albanian-speaking audience by mixing religious messages with ISIS ideological propaganda,” Zhilla explained to BIRN.
“It is often very difficult to distinguish between messages that call on people to strengthen their faith and messages that call on them to join the cause of ISIS,” he warned.
Strategies are in place but are not enough
The differences between propaganda, calls for terrorist acts and recruitment are also hard for the police and prosecution services to distinguish.
All Western Balkan countries have counter-terrorism strategies in place, most of them 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 now criminalised recruitment of fighters for participation in foreign conflicts.
Bosnia’s Security Ministry told BIRN that Bosnia’s counter-terrorism strategy envisages combatting the abuse of the internet for the purpose of terrorist activities, as well as 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.
One measure involves creating a black list of webpages calling for hate speech, radicalism and violence.
However, the Regulatory Agency told BIRN that it lacks the authority to decide whether or not content online is extreme and unacceptable, unless it is radio or TV programs. And so far, it has not actually been included in drawing up a so-called blacklist of websites, it added.
Albania is also tackling extremism, partly by the formation of an Counter-Terrorist Directorate within the state police.
Alongside work in the field with investigating individuals suspected of violent extremism and terrorism, it is also working on identifying threats spread online.
“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,” an official from the directorate told BIRN.
This official listed cases of online violent extremism that they have investigated over the last four years.
“Investigations are being conducted into two individuals, one from Albania and the other from Kosovo, both based in Syria, who appeared on social networks in a video threatening citizens of Albania, Kosovo, and region with terrorist acts,” the official said, referring so a video of June 2015 I which two Albanian supporters of ISIS threatened their compatriots.
“An individual from Pogradec is under investigation for threats on social networks against a journalist,” the same official said, also referring to a case from 2015.
“One individual from Kukes was arrested and another from Berat is under investigation for calling on social networks for acts of terrorism. Another investigation is underway after some radicalized individuals threatened an official,” he continued.
Serbia also has national strategies for counter-terrorism that refer to online terrorism as an issue that needs tackling.
However, so far, Serbia has not actually issued any indictments against violent online extremists.
Kosovo police also have a dedicated unit on cybercrime, but did not reply to requests from BIRN explaining the Kosovo police’s efforts to tackle online extremism.
Enri Hide, researcher on violent extremism and religious radicalization and a lecturer at the European University of Tirana, Albania, said strategies and specialized agencies are not enoug and a tailor-made approach is needed.
Online propaganda is difficult to eliminate,” he said. “I’m not aware of the presence of any strategy against online radicalization. We have a national strategy against violent radicalism, but not one that targets online extremism,” he told BIRN.
His colleague Zhilla agrees. “We cannot rely on the same cyber-crime legislationthat was in force in the pre-ISIS era,” he said, warning that the threat of radicalisation would likely increase in the near future.
State needs partnership with citizens
Around 60 per cent of population is on Facebook in almost all Balkan countries, while in Kosovo this figure is as high as 80 per cent.
Valon Canhasi, a social media expert in Pristina, told BIRN that violent extremists are making increasing use of social media to promote their ideology, leaving Balkan authorities struggling to keep pace.
“We have a billion daily users of Facebook, which translates into one account for every seventh inhabitants of the earth, so this platform will obviously be used by organisations that promote violence and terror,” Canhasi said.
He also said that while violent extremist propaganda was present on social media, including 360,000 Twitter accounts recently closed in relation to violent extremism, “rule-of-law [institutions] have no adequate presence on social media.”
His Bosnian colleague, the analyst Mirnes Kovac, agrees that while the biggest concentration of radical messages are to be found on social media, most citizens are not aware of the scale of the problem.
“It is very important to know how to recognise problematic preachers of hate but not violate freedom of speech. This is a global problem,” Kovac said.
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 innaporopriate on Facebook or Youtube.
Partnership between governments and civil society in combating online extremism remains a novelty in the Balkans.
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 down.