Preventing violent extremism in the Western Balkans and MENA region urgently needs a new approach

Strategic Insight 025/2023

Maja Halilovic Pastuovic

21 September 2023

Preventing violent extremism in the Western Balkans and MENA region urgently needs a new approach

The concept of countering violent extremism was introduced in Europe in response to Madrid (2004) and London (2005) bomb attacks and fears of homegrown terrorism. Since then, a new field of Preventing and Countering Violent Extremism has been developed. Within this field measures were introduced focused on identification of vulnerable individuals and prevention of radicalisation of these individuals, with an ultimate aim of preventing terrorist attacks. All radicalisation models developed so far – which are the backbone to measures produced as well as policy recommendations – focus on individual radicalisation pathways and drivers. Results from studying radicalisation and violent extremism in seven post-conflict societies in the Western Balkans and MENA region under the PAVE project (described below) challenge this paradigm. Findings show that in these two regions, pathways to radicalisation are different. New types of extremism are evolving at the interface between religious, political and ethnic/sectarian extremism. These types of extremism are developing on a societal level and as such challenge the current models based on individual radicalisation, therefore asking for different measures of prevention and different policy recommendations.

A trajectory in post-conflict societies is creating unique forms of radicalisation and violent extremism

The PAVE project (Preventing and Addressing Violent Extremism through Community Resilience in the Western Balkans and MENA) addressed the issue of radicalisation and violent extremism by focusing on twin factors of community vulnerability and community resilience.

The project is unique because it examined the community level in researching violent extremism. Most other projects have, to date, focused on either the micro level such as individual drivers of radicalisation or macro levels such as economic deprivation.

The project was based on an interdisciplinary, participatory and interregional approach where the main objective was to advance evidence-based knowledge on violent extremism in MENA and the Western Balkans and to strengthen capacity of policy-makers and community leaders in effective prevention of violent extremism. Seven academic teams conducted comprehensive fieldwork and in-depth case studies in four Western Balkan countries (Bosnia and Herzegovina, Kosovo, North Macedonia and Serbia) and three MENA countries (Tunisia, Lebanon and Iraq). These countries were identified by the European Commission as challenging regions in need of research and policy relevant insights. Over 300 interviews and 15 focus groups were conducted in 16 sites across the seven countries with local communities, including government officials, religious leaders, NGOs, and other civil society actors. The interface between religious, political and ethnic/sectarian extremism was investigated as well as the interactions between religious and state institutions or other actors. Notably, online and offline narratives of radicalisation and de-radicalisation were also studied.

As a result, it was found that a distinct trajectory exists in post-conflict societies which produces unique forms of radicalisation and violent extremism – such as ethnopolitical and ethnoreligious. While this pathway may differ from setting to setting, it is always present. It includes failed reconciliation and consequential polarisation, leading to a cycle of violence.

Understanding the path from conflict to radicalisation and violent extremism

Key research findings indicate that there is a strong interconnection between past violent conflicts and current growth of radicalisation and extremism in MENA and the Western Balkans. New forms of radicalisation and violent extremism are developing in response to the legacies of conflicts, including ethnopolitical, ethnoreligious and sectarian types of extremism. They are further interrelated with various forms of nationalism and nationalistic sentiments. These developments are directly linked to polarisation and ultimately lead to divided societies. In some cases, such as Bosnia and Herzegovina, ethnic conflicts cause homogenisation and segregation. Territorial ethnic cleansing is institutionalised and constitutionalised on a state level. In other cases, such as Iraq, destruction of the state structures opens a gap where  new forms of extremism flourish.

As the ethnic divides widen and tensions increase, political leaders capitalise on the potential to speak to a cause that efficiently and swiftly mobilises people. Hence, populism becomes more attractive, instrumentalising and manipulating ethnopolitical identities and divisions. For example, in North Macedonia, the Internal Macedonian Revolutionary Organisation-Democratic Party for Macedonian National Unity (IMRO-DPMNU) extensively used nationalism-populism to cement its hold on power, employing anti-Albanian slogans and worsening inter-ethnic relations. Although these populist actors do not organise or actively call for violence against minority groups, their political tactics and narratives legitimise violence by framing minorities as a threat to the majority population.

Similarly, in Serbia there has been a rapid increase of radical right/far right organisations since 2012 when the Serbian Progressive Party (SPP) came into power. Connections of SPP representatives to far-right networks lead to benevolence of the state towards this wave of far-right actors, further legitimising their radicalising behaviour. In this unstable and socially polarised environment, media often follows suit, often run and funded by certain ethnic groups. The media incites radicalisation through publishing and spreading of misinformation and via sensational reporting. Online media is particularly vulnerable to this due to an unregulated environment and poor editing practices.

The underlying cause of ethnic tensions, polarisation and increased nationalism is failed reconciliation. Failed post-conflict reconciliation is not limited to unamicable relations between ethnic groups. It is often systemic. After the end of conflict, some countries adopt or maintain constitutional structures that nurture ethnic or sectarian divisions, creating a perfect breeding ground for radicalisation and extremism. In the example of Bosnia and Herzegovina, ethnic divisions have been constitutionalised by the Dayton Peace Agreement. Annex IV of the Agreement (Bosnian and Herzegovinian Constitution) confirms two entities to the new state dedicated to different ethnic populations. In a similar fashion, the Ta’if agreement which ended 20 years of civil war in Lebanon shifted the power balance between the Lebanese sects. While it enshrines the abolition of sectarianism as a national priority, it falls short of outlining a time frame for it. Thus, the abolition has not been implemented, and political sectarianism prevails in Lebanon until the present day. Such systemic failure led to rejection of the system by those feeling marginalised and under-represented (Sunni population). In the case of Iraq, during Saddam Hussein’s regime, Sunni Turkmen were privileged over their Shi’a peers in government posts and security services in the north of the country. After 2003, the distribution of power shifted and Shi’a factions took over government authorities. The new governments that followed, especially those of al-Maliki, aligned with Shi’a groups and granted them certain privileges. This paved the way for harassment (torture, extrajudicial killings, sectarian property destruction) of the Sunni population by Shi’a authorities in areas like Tal Afar.

In addition to these institutional failures, post-conflict war narratives and incompatible interpretations of past events run rampant and exacerbate the differences and animosity between groups. This leads to competitive victimisation between groups and further contributes to ethnic tensions.

The final step in this trajectory is the opening of a space for collective radicalisation of populations and a tendency towards extremism, including a possibility of individual or collective violence. Strong connections of state actors to extremist organisations can exacerbate a climate of radicalised opinions by mainstreaming and normalising these in public discourse, as can be seen in Serbia. Normalisation of extremist discourse is enhanced due to the existence of a spectrum of actors that promote these ideas. For example, far-right groups in Serbia related to fascism, neo-Nazism and/or white nationalism advocate the utilisation of violent political means.

To conclude, preventing violent extremism in the Western Balkans and MENA region needs a new approach. Measures produced and policy recommendations should engage with research and literature on peacebuilding and reconciliation. An understanding of reconciliation as a concept, outcome and process, from a range of interdisciplinary perspectives, should be incorporated into prevention endeavours. The relationship between radicalisation, violent extremism and transitional justice should also be addressed, with a focus on non-militarised approaches. Finally, lessons from peacebuilding in general and inter-religious peacebuilding in particular should inform future efforts in the field of ‘Preventing and Countering Violent Extremism’ because new types of extremism are developing that are directly linked to past conflicts.

Maja Halilovic Pastuovic is Assistant Research Professor in the School of Religion Theology and Peace Studies, University of Dublin, Trinity College. She was Lead on Theory, Methodology and Ethics for the PAVE project. 

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