Think Globally, Attack Locally: How Online Extremism Adapted to the Western Balkans

26th November, 2020

By Milo Comerford, Senior Policy Manager & Simeon Dukic, Programme Manager

As with many regions around the world with longstanding ethno-nationalist inclinations, the Western Balkans faces a twin challenge from online extremism. First, through a number of online platforms, a range of international extremist narratives are able to target the region. Second, its histories and geopolitics are being appropriated to justify extremist actions and narratives around the world. This dynamic was particularly clear in March 2019, when Brenton Tarrant carried out a devastating terrorist attack on Muslim places of worship in Christchurch, New Zealand. 

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As Brenton Tarrant live streamed the lead-up to the attack on Facebook, a Serb nationalist song with roots in the Yugoslav Wars—and more recently appropriated as an anthem among the international alt-right— could be heard playing in the background. Tarrant’s guns were daubed with the names of historical figures from the Balkans who had resisted Ottoman invasion, and he framed his actions as part of a similar resistance to “Islamisation.” Linking the Western Balkans’ presence in a global far-right online subculture to the radicalisation of an Australian like Tarrant may seem incongruous, but it’s part of a growing challenge.

In the Western Balkans, this poses a number of risks. The region’s complex and varied demographics mean that online extremism spreads across individual states. Many Western Balkans extremist ideologues, for example, have followings that correspond along linguistic lines. For example, ethnic Albanian Salafi-jihadist clerics from Kosovo also have an influence in Albanian-language communities in Albania and North Macedonia. Supremacist Serbian nationalist narratives, meanwhile, target Serb populations across Serbia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Kosovo and Montenegro.

Two-way channels of extremist narrative content

These violent extremist ideologues have proved resilient on mainstream social media platforms. One YouTube channel dedicated to Rexhep Memishi, a North Macedonian cleric who was sentenced to seven years imprisonment in 2016 on charges related to the recruitment of fighters to join Islamist groups in Syria, is still live on the website. Though it has not been active for two years, it has received over 12 million views to date. The channel was also linked to a Facebook page with over 50,000 followers that promotes Memishi, although it has not uploaded any new content since February of last year.

Outside of the region, international extremist influencers use the web to target audiences in the Western Balkans with a variety of international websites producing content in local languages now gaining significant penetration there (see below). Neo-fascist Croatian groups, for instance, are propagating extremist narratives aimed at diaspora communities within the Western Balkans, seeking to rewrite Croatia’s World War II Ustasa legacy.

Islamist extremist narratives are also targeted at Western Balkans populations from further afield. IslamHouse, a prominent Gulf-based website hosting content from a number of Islamist extremist clerics, has over 9,000 items of content in Western Balkan languages (compared to 7,000 English-language files). In 2015, the US-based white supremacist portal Stormfront boasted 180,000 posts on its southeast Europe-focused forum, which is dominated by the Western Balkans. At the time of writing, Serbia and Croatia showed some of the highest proportional search interest in Stormfront globally according to data from Google Trends. Meanwhile, small elements within diaspora communities in Western Europe, North America and Australia play a role in following, and propagating, Western Balkans-based extremism online.

A frontline between the Christian and Islamic worlds

The online space also brings region-specific extremist narratives to the world stage, framing the Western Balkans as a frontline in a clash between the Christian and Islamic worlds. In a polished 2015 propaganda film, ISIS declared the Western Balkans the next ‘frontier’ for global jihad, characterising its Muslims as long subjugated by “atheist” communist Albanian and Yugoslav states or having suffered crimes against humanity by Christians during the Yugoslav wars.

On the other end of the extremist spectrum, one UK-based self-styled ‘Christian militant order’ claimed to be waging an online war in the region, claiming an online audience of tens of millions with videos in Serbian and Croatian. The group also provided offline support for Kosovo-based groups, issuing military-grade hardware and clothing to support the “front line in the fight to protect Christendom from Islamist invasion.”

With this in mind, destabilising efforts by foreign and domestic state and non-state actors can potentially increase ethnic discord and vulnerability to radicalisation in the Western Balkans. This is especially true in crisis scenarios, such as the COVID-19 global pandemic, which various groups are exploiting to stir panic and antagonism between different local communities. Western Balkans countries must be alert to extremist groups, polarising forces, and hostile state actors using digital platforms to seize on anxieties and grievances and offer supremacist and violent solutions. But they must also understand the parallel challenge of the export and instrumentalisation of Western Balkans narratives by extremist groups outside of the region. 

These hyperlocalised historical, demographic and political dynamics exist in a transnational framework. A systematic response will require a blend of local, country-level and regionally coordinated initiatives, ranging from upstream efforts to build resilience to online extremism, to downstream efforts to regulate harmful online content. Striking a balance between these efforts requires more delicacy, nuance, and patience than is often present. The alternative, however, can be seen in the turbulent, sometimes violent, history of the Western Balkans themselves.

 

This article is an abridged version of a policy note produced for the United States Institute of Peace’s RESOLVE Network. You can read the full paper, including a suite of policy recommendations for regional and international governments here.

Milo Comerford is a Senior Policy Manager at ISD, leading ISD’s work developing innovative research approaches and policy responses to Islamist extremism. Milo regularly briefs senior decision makers around the world on the challenge posed by extremist ideologies, and advises governments and international agencies on building effective strategies for countering extremism.

Simeon Dukic works as a Programme Manager in the Strong Cities Network at ISD. He leads programming work in the Balkans and Central Asia, with a specific focus on  strengthening central-local coordination and cooperation in preventing and countering violent extremism in the Western Balkans.

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