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Six years ago, Sacir Gostevcic saw off his son Asmir – who was not leaving for a holiday or for work but to fight in the terrorist-controlled territory of so-called Islamic State, IS, in Syria. He left together with his wife and three children.
Two years later, Asmir was killed and Sacir is awaiting the return of his daughter-in-law and grandchildren. They have been held in a camp in Syria controlled by Kurdish forces for more than a year.
He is not sure that Livno in southwest Bosnia is the best place for them to return to and get help with rehabilitation.
“This community has no links to the institutions that might help her re-educate her children in the coming period. To do that here … will be very hard,” he said.
Such complex work with returnees from Syria is a new experience for institutions in Bosnia and Herzegovina, although they have had two years to prepare work on “deradicalizing” Islamic State returnees.
Bosnia’s authorities adopted an official strategy on counter-terrorism four-and-a half years ago. That effectively stopped more of its citizens from departing to Syria.
But the return of dozens of families following the collapse of IS will reveal how much and how well domestic institutions have worked on the prevention part of the strategy, which constitutes its major part.
Two relevant institutions in Zenica, where Sacir’s son studied before his departure to Syria, where his widow’s family lives now, said they had not been able to actively carry out the action plan for implementation of the strategy.
The Social Work Centre told BIRN that while its staff members had undergone training in terrorism and radicalization, they had not received the financial resources to conduct any of the activities listed in the strategy.
The Ministry of Education, Science, Culture and Sports in the Zenica-Doboj Canton, a sub-unit of Bosnia’s Federation entity, told BIRN that its activities had included taking part in conferences on including migrants in the educational system as a means for “prevention and combatting terrorism”.
But these activities had not continued. The reasons included the lack of money, and of “coordination between the state-level institutions and institutions exclusively responsible for education in their areas”.
After submitting more than 40 requests to Bosnian institutions over the past two years, BIRN has received similar answers from most of them – that the strategy faces difficulties reaching local levels of authority, and no special resources have been allocated for its implementation, besides donations from foreign donors.
The answers received show also that, in the past 12 months, only limited progress has been made in establishing a system for prevention of terrorism in local communities; and no complete reports on implementation of the strategy have been done.
BIRN interlocutors said only the “security” pillar of the Strategy had been implemented for the most part; departures to foreign battlefronts had stopped, and no terrorist attacks have occurred in Bosnia and Herzegovina for several years. It is the “prevention” pillar that continues to pose the big challenges.
Too little focus on prevention:
Mirsada Poturkovic, an expert associate with the Social Work Centre of Sarajevo Canton, said her centre became involved in implementing the strategy in May last year with activities related to return of people from foreign battlefronts.
She said that one problem is that documents were adopted without the involvement of the social work centres, which then had to carry out these activities later on.
“The social work centres have not been prepared to deal with radicalization issues in their regular education or through training,” Poturkovic remarked.
Joeri Maas, chief of policy and planning for the OSCE Mission to Bosnia, which has monitored implementation of the strategy throughout its duration, said: “What is unique about this strategy is the addition of the prevention pillar, which was missing before.
“But what is required under the prevention pillar is a whole-of-society approach, a whole-of-government approach, and this does not just rely on the traditional security actors like the police, intelligence services, prosecution,” he said.
Maas said problems had occurred even in the drafting phase because “all the ministries and relevant organisations under the prevention pillar were not involved in the working group’s work”.
“If the Monitoring Body for implementation of the strategy only reflects the traditional security actors, then there are very few tools for that monitoring body to actively engage in the prevention pillar of the strategy,” he warned.
“Because they do not have any jurisdiction, they do not have any tools to get involved in the actions of the social protection body in one of the [Federation] cantons, for example,” he continued.
The strategy’s Monitoring Body, which started work in 2017, consists of 14 representatives of security agencies. They all participated in drafting the strategy, so it is heavily focused on security issues, experts say.
Vlado Azinovic, a professor at the Faculty of Political Sciences in Sarajevo, explains that while the strategy was “primarily drafted by security sector people”, others from the NGO sector, religious and academic communities, were also involved.
“The strategy was written quickly and perhaps it was ‘securitized’ and left too much in the security domain, but the circumstances were such that the security aspect and safety of Bosnian citizens was our primary interest,” Azinovic recalled.
He notes that it was written at a time when worrying numbers of Bosnians were departing for foreign battlefronts in Syria and Ukraine.
Mario Janecek, chief of the Counter-Terrorism Section with Bosnia’s state-level Ministry of Security, notes that the strategy consists of four parts – prevention,; investigation and prosecution; protection of critical infrastructure and response to terrorist attacks.
He thinks that Bosnia is not lagging that far behind in implementation of prevention measures.
“Our ultimate goal … is to be present in all local communities in Bosnia and Herzegovina. Naturally, it will be hard for us to overcome the financial constraints and limited capacities on our own in the next year. That will remain a big challenge in the long term,” Janecek said.
He recalled the handling of the first group of returnees from Syria, which included former ISIS fighters, as well as women and children, as a successful example of the ability of local institutions to deal with the problem.
But he admits that the strategy does not specifically state how to deal with returnees, apart from mentioning work with convicted fighters in prisons.
The strategy’s action plan states that social and educational services at all levels, and in all local communities, should be included in the prevention pillar of the strategy.
Work in more local communities, including pilot projects in Brcko and Zvornik, which involve a number of institutions and include prevention activities, should be implemented, experts consider.
That should be enabled under the new strategy, which will be prepared in 2020 and whose implementation should begin in 2021.
Filip de Ceuninck, regional coordinator and advisor on combatting terrorism with the EU Delegation to Bosnia, says work on a strategy implementation report should start right away.
“Around summertime this year is the ideal time to make an assessment and report about the work, see what the upcoming challenges are, what was working and not – and what the obstacles were,” he said.
Prevention and security pillars should be separated:
Maas says the issue of the composition of the Monitoring Body should also be solved under the new strategy.
“What we have recommended … is to separate the prevention pillar from the rest of the strategy. That would free up the traditional security bodies to focus on their aspect, and the broader group of non-traditional security actors to focus on prevention sides of the strategy,” Maas said.
He added that it could also be approached in a different way. “You could have subgroups of the Monitoring Body that together form the prevention side and security sectors side of this. We have made a clear recommendation which is – make sure that the Monitoring Body is representative of all actors involved in the implementation of the actions in the strategy.”
The acting director of the Social Work Centre in Zenica, Meliha Popovic, takes a similar stand. “The strategy should certainly be divided into two parts, because the work on incidence of terrorism and work on prevention of violent extremism require totally different forms of action, as well as different subjects to deal with them,” she said.
Ceuninck also thinks the strategy should be divided into two. “Another way of thinking is not to be so ambitious with a lot of activities, but to focus on priority activities – less activities but more focus on real issues,” he noted.
Azinovic said the new strategy must be based on a thorough analysis of the existing one, focusing on “what has and has not been done, what could have been better, what has been done well”.
“Besides that, the strategy will have to reflect the actual situation in the field, which we can partially influence, so we recognize some things, foresee some things and can anticipate some things,” Azinovic said.
Reports seen as vital for implementation:
BIRN’s interlocutors say the report and text of the new strategy will have answer how best to overcome the biggest challenges with the current strategy, such as the lack of resources for its implementation, delays in adoption of action plans at all levels and non-implementation of parts of the document, such as the part about radicalization on the internet.
According to the adopted document, the Monitoring Body for the implementation of the strategy was to prepare annual reports on implementation and submit them to the Council of Ministers, the state-level government, and parliament. This has not been done once.
The Security Ministry told BIRN that the final report on the strategy’s implementation would be prepared this year. But state parliament member Sasa Magazinovic says that, as a member of parliament, he did not receive any reports on implementation.
“One thing that has to be changed … is that the legislative authorities should be adequately included in monitoring the implementation of strategies and action plans, and that regular reports are made and … thematic sessions held,” he said.
No action plan in Federation entity:
To improve the work on prevention of terrorism and security measures, it was deemed necessary to adopt action plans to determine the duties of each individual institution.
The Bosnian state adopted its own action plan one year after the adoption of the Strategy. The governments of Brcko District and Republika Srpska, Bosnia’s mainly Serbian entity, also adopted plans.
But Bosnia’s other entity, the Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina, has still not adopted an action plan, apart from the one adopted by the Federation’s Police Administration.
“We have received assurances from the Office of the Federation Prime Minister that they will soon create an action plan to be implemented this year, which is the final year of the Strategy’s implementation,” Janecek said.
State has failed to set aside any money:
According to data made available to BIRN, over the course of the four-and-a-half years, the state budget has allocated no money to activities covered under the strategy. Instead, the bill has been covered from donor resources.
Janecek told BIRN that “not a single [Bosnian] mark has been allocated by the Council of Ministers and centity governments for the implementation of this Strategy.
“We would consider receiving a minimal amount for the implementation of a new strategy progress, as we would have at least something to start with, to cover certain minimal operation staff costs. But I am afraid it will be hard to achieve even that,” Janecek said.
Azinovic said the problem is that the money for activities foreseen under the strategy was not included in budgets at any level, and was then solved by international organizations financing them – adding that the situation has now changed.
“We now know … what we lack, what gaps should be filled, where we are under-capacitated, where we need financial or some other support and we are now able to approach international donors and say we need only this or that, instead of accepting everything they throw at us,” Azinovic said.
Joeri Maas, of OSCE, says institutions must also secure funding for strategies during their adoption.
“The question about whether funding is available needs to be addressed in the adoption of the strategy,” he said. “You can adopt all the strategies you want, but without means to implement it, it is meaningless,” Maas added.
Tackling online radicalization still neglected:
Although monitoring hate speech on the internet and calls for violence was another focus of the action plan, those measures have also been neglected, the analysis by BIRN shows.
“What remains to be done are measures referring to repression of radicalization and extremism in cyber space, which we should implement together with the private sector,” Janecek said.
He noted the example of lectures by Bilal Bosnic, a hardline Islamist preacher in Bosnia. They can still be found on the internet, although he was sentenced in June 2016 to seven years in prison for public incitement to terrorist activities and recruitment and organisation of terrorist groups.
“We must bear in mind the European Convention on Protection of Human Rights and Basic Rights, but on the other hand we must not let those platforms and international solutions and basic human rights be misused for the purpose of extremism and terrorism,” he added.
For now, Bosnia has no official means to remove this and similar hate-filled content from the online space. The action plan foresees that the Communications Regulatory Agency, CRA, should do this but this institution previously told BIRN that it was not responsible for the implementation of the strategy and so could not remove such content from the internet.
According to BIRN’s analysis, other institutions either carried out only limited activities to implement the strategy, or failed to fulfil the activities they were responsible for.
The Indirect Taxation Authority, for example, was supposed to set up video surveillance on all border crossings. During 2019, a contract was signed, the positions of cameras specified and cable lines installed, it told BIRN.
But the work has still not been completed. It is expected that it will be done during 2020, although the strategy foresaw that the complete surveillance would be set up by the end of 2018.
Revisions to the criminal Code, which the OSCE last year said represented one of the key priorities of one of the strategy pillars, have still not been adopted. This concerns amending “a series of criminal offences listed under the Additional Protocol of the Convention of the Council of Europe on Prevention of Terrorism, which was ratified by Bosnia and Herzegovina”.
Janecek says the Strategy will never be implemented 100 per cent. “The measures pertaining to regulation of cyber space, which are extremely demanding, will certainly remain unfinished,” he warned.
“I am pretty sure the issue of protection of critical infrastructure, which requires significant financial resources, will also remain unfinished – but it was not the goal of the strategy to solve all the problems, anyway,” he concluded.
Azra Husaric made a contribution to this analysis.