Bosnia’s history with jihadism goes back much farther than the inception of ISIS. And the terrorist group now seems to be targeting a vulnerable population there for recruitment.
The news network France 24 reports that Bosnians have been featured in ISIS propaganda videos imploring sympathizers still in Bosnia to attack those in their own country.
In the past year, 300 Bosnians have left to fight with the group Syria, according to France 24.
With a population of fewer than 4 million people, that reportedly gives Bosnia the highest per-capita ratio of foreign ISIS fighters of any European country. And experts estimate that several dozen of those fighters have returned to Bosnia, posing a security risk to the fragile country.
Police have conducted raids across the country targeting suspected Islamic jihadists, and one town in particular has emerged as a hotbed of recruitment — Gornja Maoca, which is home to followers of Wahhabism, a strict branch of Sunni Islam practiced in Saudi Arabia.
Reuters visited the town earlier this year and found ISIS flags painted on a shed and hung outside homes. The flags disappeared the day after Reuters photographed them.
Jihadist recruitment has become such a problem in Bosnia that last year the country passed a new law that allows courts to jail people for up to 10 years for recruiting and fighting abroad or financing terrorist activities, Reuters reported.
One accused recruiter, Husein Bosnic, went on trial this year. He allegedly inspired “many” Bosnian Muslims to leave the country to go fight abroad. Authorities are concerned about those who return home with radical views and knowledge of how to handle weapons and explosives.
Muslims make up about 45% of the Bosnian population, but most of them are secular or practice a moderate form of Islam, according to Reuters. Still, extremism has reportedly taken root in some rural areas as unemployment and poverty have swept the country.
Recruiters have reportedly targeted young Bosnians who might be particularly vulnerable to radicalization. The Guardian reported earlier this year that Bosnia has the world’s highest youth-unemployment rate — at about 63% as of 2012.
The GlobalPost delved into this crisis last year. The news outlet reported that “shadows of doubt and malaise hang over life” in Bosnia as young people struggle to find work.
A sense of hopelessness and grim future prospects provide targets for recruitment.
ISIS released a recruitment video earlier this year targeting Bosnians, called “Honour is in Jihad,” according to The Guardian. The 20-minute long video calls for Bosnians to come fight in Syria as well as mount attacks at home. And it’s not just online recruitment — “pop-up” radical mosques operating outside of the country’s official network can be found in Bosnia’s major cities, and communities that follow a very strict interpretation of Islam are present in rural areas.
The Guardian pointed to a report from a Bosnian professor and theologian that determined that there are two sets of motives for two different generations of foreign fighters who have left Bosnia to fight in Syria and Iraq.
Some of the foreign fighters are former members of the El-Mujahid Unit, which fought for Muslims in the Bosnian war in the 1990s. Others are younger Muslim converts who see the conflicts in Syria and Iraq “as continuation of the jihad they felt was ended prematurely in 1995” and are “driven mostly be adrenaline and a quest for self-validation, self-respect, group belonging, and purpose.”
Because of the dire economic situation in Bosnia, “violence or retrograde ideologies are often perceived as the only measures for self-affirmation and protection,” the report determined.
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