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Between 2012 and 2015, more than 250 people travelled from Bosnia and Herzegovina to the Syrian and Iraqi conflict zones, but over the past two years, the police and security agencies have not registered a single new departure.
In this period, the Bosnian judiciary has been dealing with those who have already returned from the Middle Eastern battlefields.
In the last 18 months, the Court of Bosnia and Herzegovina has handed down ten second-instance verdicts, sentencing 16 people to a total of 30 years and eight months in prison for going to Syria, trying to go there and for recruiting others.
In the same period, the Bosnian state prosecution has filed four indictments charging suspects with going to fight on the Syrian battlefield. A case is currently underway before the Appellate Chamber of the state court in connection with one of these indictments. This is the only case that has resulted in an acquittal verdict, but is now being retried.
Most of those indicted for going to war in Syria have been sentenced to one year in prison after having reached guilt admission agreements. They are either serving their sentences or have served them.
The Ministry of Security and Justice says that as a consequence, it has redirected resources allocated for fighting terrorism to deradicalisation projects, particularly those being implemented in prisons, as well as in the local communities where the convicts who have served their sentences live.
The Islamic Community in Bosnia and Herzegovina is also involved in the deradicalisation projects. It works on educating imams who will directly communicate with young people.
Besides that, it has prepared a special study on dangers of the Takfir ideology, which allows, in certain circumstances, the killing of unbelievers. It is an ideology used by jihadist and radical groups.
However, experts dealing with security challenges say that some of those projects have come too late, adding that there are still problems in cooperation between police agencies in investigations covering terrorist activities.
Recruitment channels closed
The decrease in the number of people going from Bosnia and Herzegovina to battlefields in Syria and Iraq came about because the recruitment and conscription channels were shut down, says security expert Jasmin Ahic.
Uros Pena, deputy director of the Agency for Coordination of Police Bodies, agrees, pointing out that the convictions of those who went to fight in Syria have also contributed to the decrease in the number of departures, as well as the decline and military defeats suffered by the so-called Islamic State, also known as Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, ISIS, and Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, ISIL.
“ISIL is losing in the world, it is evident. Therefore, it is no longer attractive, because nobody wants to be part of a losing team,” Pena argued.
He said that the fact that the people convicted of terrorism were given short sentences – and some of them are even able to swap their one-year sentences for fines – represented a serious problem.
“The prescribed punishment [maximum five years in jail for fighting abroad] has not been handed down in any of those cases. The sentences were either minimal or replaceable with fines. That is not good. When a law is adopted, it is adopted for a reason. Having a lot of convictions is not the point. The point is discouraging those who were ready to go from going; letting the law discourage them,” Pena said.
Analyst Vlado Azinovic said the context in general has changed, so radicals are no longer helping others to go to Syria and Iraq and extremists who were involved in aiding potential fighters to travel abroad are now lying low.
“I think that at this moment those circles believe that attracting attention, be it through radical rhetoric or behaviour, does not work in their favour,” Azinovic said.
Nine prosecutors are currently working at the Bosnian prosecution’s Special Section for Fighting Terrorism. However, as the number of new cases has declined, these prosecutors will refocus on investigations related to organised crime and corruption.
There are currently 30 ongoing investigations at the Bosnian state prosecution into crimes that could be associated with terrorism and with Bosnian citizens travelling to foreign battlefields. Several investigations associated with threats to domestic and international institutions have also been opened, while the state prosecution says it will focus on “prevention” in the upcoming period.
With the aim of confronting new challenges, several projects have been launched in Bosnia and Herzegovina in an attempt to investigate the causes of radicalisation, particularly among young people. The implementation of the state-level Strategy for Prevention and Fight against Violent Extremism and Terrorism at all levels, especially in terms of prevention, is also currently underway.
One of the projects which is being implemented by the Bosnian authorities using resources provided by the European Union is related to the deradicalisation of convicts who are serving their sentences.
“Slovenia is our partner in this project, the cost of which is rather large. USAID has also helped us by providing $16 million. The project entails the entire deradicalisation process in Bosnia and Herzegovina. Among other things, a part of that project will tackle deradicalisation and work with persons serving sentences for various crimes linked with terrorism,” said Bosnian Security Minister Dragan Mektic.
The project also encompasses work with the families of those convicted of terrorism.
“We will also work on the technical conditions required for separating terrorism suspects and defendants from other prisoners. The goal of this activity is preventing them from recruiting other prisoners,” Mektic said.
“The project will also deal with working with young people, teenagers, who will be told about the harmfulness of radicalism, as well as working with people living in radicalised communities,” he added.
Pena argued however that deradicalisation in prisons has not yet progressed because the current programme for the deradicalisation of prisoners is inadequate.
“Those convicted of terrorist acts serve their sentences together with other criminals. No special treatment exists for them,” Pena said.
The state and entity justice ministries have launched a project for helping the reintegration of “violent and extremist” prisoners in Bosnia and Herzegovina.
“The project also covers people who committed terrorist acts, with the aim of preventing the return of prisoners to violent extremism following their release into their local community,” said Mustafa Bisic, Bosnia and Herzegovina’s assistant justice minister.
“As part of the project, it is planned to prepare a protocol for assessing the risk and needs [of prisoners], which will be based on the specific needs of those prisoners, and created in accordance with the local legal procedures,” Bisic added.
Working with communities and youth
Muhamed Jusic, spokesperson for the Islamic Community in Bosnia and Herzegovina, said that his institution is constantly dealing with the issue of groups and individuals acting outside the country’s established Muslim organisations.
Unauthorised mosques with no connection to the Islamic Community have been accused of promoting radical interpretations of Islam in Bosnia and Herzegovina.
Jusic said that the Council of Muftis has developed and adopted a working strategy with the aim of doing more in areas where abusive practices have been identified.
“We have made a plan for presenting Islam and the Islamic Community on social networks, YouTube channels and the internet,” Jusic explained.
“A youth network has been launched, activities involving women have been reinforced, coordination with NGOs has been developed and some other measures undertaken with the aim of not leaving too much space for individuals who act outside the framework of the Islamic Community,” he added.
He also said that an analysis titled ‘The Takfir Ideology and Violent Extremism’ has been printed as an effort by the Islamic Community to suppress the influence of an interpretation of the religion which he says is foreign to the traditional Islamic teaching.
“The analysis about Takfir is an attempt to offer a theological answer to that ideology, which is promoted by a group that functions outside the institutional system. They are violent extremists, ISIL sympathisers,” Jusic said.
Security expert Ahic said he believes that no other institution but the Islamic Community has worked seriously on deradicalisation in Bosnia and Herzegovina. He argued that if the Islamic Community had not directly opposed radical elements, there would still be “conspiracy theories and scenarios of a war against Muslims” in circulation in the country.
Ahic also insisted that the issue of deradicalisation must not be reduced to copying programmes from European countries.
“Deradicalisation programmes are not ‘some small projects’ to be implemented by administrative staff in those organisations, but serious endeavours that can be designed and implemented by scientists and experts from that area in cooperation with religious institutions,” he explains.
When it comes to fight against terrorism, Ahic said he thinks that the fact that Bosnia and Herzegovina has numerous police agencies with sometimes overlapping mandates might sometimes cause problems, but he believes that in essence, the police are doing a good job.
Azinovic also said he had not heard of the security services facing difficulties when dealing Islamist radicals.
He cited the recent arrest of a suspect called Mirsad Kandic and his extradition to America on suspicion that he was in charge of recruiting people for ISIL. Azinovic said that Kandic’s arrest in Sarajevo demonstrated that all the services involved did an excellent job in finding and detaining the suspect.
Pena meanwhile argued that the lack of an in-depth terrorism threat assessment, which would detail the prevalence and origins of Islamic radicalism in the country as well as the current activities of the radicals themselves, continues to be a problem. He said this should cover conditions, causes or motives which led terrorism and acted as a trigger, and things that contributed to its occurrence.
He argued that the “scope of the phenomenon”, its methods and goals, are still unknown.
“All the institutions we have, starting from the strategic group and the operational group for fighting terrorism, are not set up properly. We must know what leads to criminal activities, because when we deal with the consequences, it is already too late,” Pena said.
Pena also argued that communication between police agencies around the fight against terrorism was still a problem.
“It functions well at the operational level. We adopted a strategy for fighting terrorism. We established groups for fighting terrorism. But half of the agencies do not attend their meetings. Individuals from police agencies do not attend meetings of operational groups! There is no cooperation there,” he said.
“When, God forbid, terrorism happens, we have the cooperation, but it is too late. A comprehensive analysis is a precondition for everything,” he added.
The State Investigation and Protection Agency, SIPA said it enjoys good cooperation with all the police and security bodies in Bosnia and Herzegovina and abroad when it comes to fighting terrorism.
SIPA insisted that information relating to Bosnian citizens going to fight in foreign conflicts is constantly being collected.