Capital Tirana
Time Zone CET (GMT+1)
Country Code 355
Mobile Codes 66,67,68,69
ccTLD .al
Currency Lek (1EUR = 138ALL)
Land Area 28,748 sq km
Population 2.98 million
Language Albanian
Major Religion Sunni and Bektashi Islam, Roman Catholic and Orthodox Christianity

Five Ways ISIS Can Destabilize the Balkans

By Chris Deliso

ISIS-linked radicals in the Balkans are currently seeking to pull off one or more terrorist attacks in the region, which marks a strategic shift from past perceptions of the Balkans’ role in regard to the overall European jihad. If successful, this strategy could affect everything from regional stability and inter-ethnic relations to local economies and even the cohesion of the Western deterrence campaign against Russia.


The European Commission is currently mulling over the details of its next multi-year strategy for countering terrorism, radicalization, organized crime and cybercrime. Predictable partisan divisions are slowing the formalization of a policy which, realistically speaking, will prove insufficient to guarantee security for the Union and its citizens – as recent attacks continue to show – not to mention for the neighboring, non-EU countries, which are being largely excluded from consideration.

The following article, based on years of field observation and the latest intelligence on the ground, explores some of the security risks ahead, isolating the main five operational tactics ISIS or its followers will use to destabilize the Balkans, and facilitate its wider strategic goals in Europe.

Sitrep July 2-10

Balkan security services are currently on high alert over fears of one or more terrorist attacks directed by ISIS supporters, some of whom have battle experience in Syria and Iraq. Such attacks would attempt to exploit existing ethnic and religious divides, and possibly target Western interests and public events, with the ultimate goal of creating free zones of training and operation for further attacks in the heart of Europe.

This represents a shift in strategic thinking; whereas the Balkans until relatively recently was considered a rear base of logistics and safe haven by jihadists, the Islamic State’s bold advances in the MENA have created a more militant aspiration among extremists who now see the Balkans as an actual theater of operations. The core ISIS supporters here have experience in close-quarters urban combat, which would be very difficult for local police to handle without significant collateral damage.

While the Macedonian special police’s May 9-10 Kumanovo operation represents the gold standard in this regard, with no civilian casualties, that was against a ‘known’ enemy (ethnic Albanian nationalists), not suicide bombers or other unconventional threats. The operation also benefited from a strong component of situational awareness and intelligence, even if international cooperation was non-existent which had and will have further repercussions for EU influence regarding the country’s security architecture.

The latest intelligence has identified three cells; two are ethnic Albanian in composition, while one is Bosniak. The leadership of each (two to four men) have fought for Al Nusra Front or ISIS in Syria or Iraq; however, while security services are aware of their presence, some of the key individuals returned from the Middle East prior to the passage of the so-called ‘foreign fighters laws’ by various Balkan countries, meaning they can only be monitored for now.

Of course, with the incessant wave of illegal migrants coming across the Turkish and thereafter Greek border into Macedonia, it is impossible to tell how many more ISIS fighters have entered the Balkans since. On that front, the continuing deterioration of Greece means that we can expect many more, stretching the capacities of Macedonian civil services and humanitarian organizations. This will be worsened if Serbia (under Hungarian and Austrian pressure) blocks these migrants at the border, creating a sort of ‘migrant bottleneck’ in Macedonia. In any case, Hungary’s strong anti-migrant stance means that a migrant bottleneck will be created somewhere in the Balkans, becoming most acute at border areas that are traditionally affected by organized crime to begin with.

If the next ten days or so passes peacefully, the most acute threat will have been averted, but the general high alert level will remain. The present threat includes possible attacks on US installations or personnel during the July 4th holiday, as well as the 20th anniversary commemorations of the Srebrenica killings later in the week, which is creating a supercharged atmosphere that could be exploited for religious and ethnic purposes. This atmosphere has already been unhelpfully affected, and great controversy aroused, because of the wording of British- and Russian-backed drafts and counter-drafts at the UN over the word ‘genocide’ and so on.

It is further expected that Muslim leaders (particularly the Turkish ones) will use Srebrenica to take their rhetorical revenge on those Western leaders, including Pope Francis, who supported the concept of an Armenian Genocide in April’s centennial commemoration of that event. The mood among the different sides will be particularly tense and prone to political manipulation in the days ahead.

This current climate of ethnic and religious discord would thus present a perfect opportunity for supporters of ISIS to strike. However, even if they don’t, the problem runs much deeper, as they involve long-term security and social trends, as well as the developing EU security architecture, which does not incorporate the Balkans in any meaningful way. And, on top of everything, we have Greece’s financial disaster and an unprecedented migration wave; the EU has basically told Balkan countries that they are on their own in handling this phenomenon.

An Unprecedented Range of Simultaneous Threats and Unhelpful Interference

Indeed, while the Commission’s proposal calls for the formation of a European Counterterrorism Center, the document we have seen does not envision anything significant regarding cooperation with candidate (and other) countries in the Balkans. With Greece now in default, illegal migrant numbers surging, and hostilities with Russia growing, Europe is divided as never before.

Thus, while the Continent faces a range of simultaneous security challenges unprecedented since the Second World War, the year 2015 so far is revealing both a lack of political agreement within the Union, and some incredibly irresponsible political and intelligence activities from certain EU countries who either deliberately or out of ignorance have failed to realize how their actions in the Balkans endanger regional and EU domestic security.

In some cases, this naughty behavior also indicates that the political and diplomatic classes are unaware that their own domestic security and intelligence agencies’ reach, even in far corners of the globe, relies on established intelligence cooperation with Balkan states. This makes Western political interference even more irritating for Balkan security services, as it complicates their own work in helping their colleagues do their jobs.

Around the Corner: ISIS

Amidst this perfect storm of competing interests, ambitions and incompetence, the European periphery is dominated by an ever-expanding presence of the Islamic State and its freelance terrorists in the MENA and beyond. The EU’s lack of cooperation with Balkan states, and the latter’s lack of capacity and mutual trust, is leading to a situation ideal for destabilizing activities from ISIS or its independent followers. It is true that a number of arrests in the last few years in places like Kosovo, Bosnia, Austria and Italy have damaged the ISIS infrastructure; however, most of these actions targeted recruiters tasked with sending local fighters to the Middle East- not disrupting local plots, which until now have not been taken seriously anyway.

Law enforcement continues to lag behind the operational capacities and ambitions of Islamic terrorists such as ISIS. Regionally, aside from the above-mentioned restrictions, each country has strategic vulnerabilities that would make terrorist attacks easier, and magnify their effects. Unless the EU and regional states manage to create a realistic and coordinated mechanism for preparing for such threats, negative outcomes such as those mentioned below become more likely.

The following five examples are just a few of many possible scenarios that security services should be focusing on. Most of the stated acts of violence could be executed with only a small handful of personnel, and a budget of a few hundred euros or less. On the other hand, creating totally secure conditions against these threats would cost billions, and be socially and politically unacceptable anyway.

Furthermore, the repercussions for regional instability and thus collective European security would be magnified considerably in the case of attacks like some of those discussed below, as such events would increase internal political debate within EU electorates over the feasibility of the Balkan integration process in general.

All that considered, we present now the five most dangerous tactics ISIS could choose to use in the Balkans.

  1. Attack a Major Tourism Destination in Greece

The two ISIS-inspired attacks in Tunisia in 2015, on a museum and beach resort, have done tremendous damage to the country’s vital tourism industry, presenting a huge setback to what one foreign consultant recently called a political ‘success story’ (relative to its neighbors, at least). Since for ISIS attacks on Westerners abroad are just as desirable as attacks on actual locations in the West, soft targets like tourist resorts are ideal.

Everyone knows how vital tourism is to Greece and, with the country in uncharted waters following its IMF default on July 1st, the country really needs a strong summer season to preserve some semblance of normalcy. Unfortunately, the news of mass cancellations from foreign tour operators only a day later is limiting this potential.

Therefore, a well-conducted terrorist attack, especially on a high-end island like Mykonos or Santorini that are less affected by package tourism cancellations, would deal a significant blow to this vital industry. Anyone familiar with this industry and all of its minute details can easily understand the myriad ways a serious terrorist attack could be executed quickly, effectively and with minimal operational budget.

Indeed, due to geographic and other local realities, the situation today remains the same as in 2013, when a former CIA officer and consultant stated for that “the large majority of the sites, be they the historical ones or the hotels, are not secured and cannot be, including the large and expensive resorts.” This remains an accurate assessment and, despite the vigilance of security groups such as the Hellenic Coast Guard, there is no way that the country could protect its industry from a dedicated adversary- especially one prepared to die for the cause, as was the case recently in Tunisia. Really, the only reason such an attack has not yet happened in Greece is because international terrorist outfits have not found it in their strategic interest. That may rapidly change if civil order disintegrates in the country due to the economic uncertainty.

Here it should also be noted that any deterioration of Greece’s economy, whether due to a terrorist attack or simple financial reasons, would have adverse effects on the stability of nearby Albania, which has historically benefited significantly from remittances from Albanians living in Greece, and from Greek investments. In the short term, a terrorist attack would also cause diversions in air, land and sea traffic that would create traveler chaos affecting a wide variety of people.

In one scenario, economic deterioration and/or a terrorist attack would lead to a security vacuum in which urban vigilante squads, perhaps supported by the far-right Golden Dawn, clash with anarchists and possibly criminal gangs that are associated with specific migrant backgrounds. Widespread looting and breakdown of social order that could expedite organized crime and decrease police capacity to deal with migration cannot be excluded in such a case.

  1. Conduct an Attack of Deception to Inflame Religious and Ethnic Tensions

The recent ISIS massacre of over 100 returned residents of Kobane, the Syrian Kurdish town that had already been destroyed by the Islamic State, occurred because ISIS gunmen had managed to obtain official-looking Kurdish uniforms, and thus avoided suspicion at checkpoints entering the town. Balkan police and military uniforms are not the most urgent inventory item to protect, and can easily be stolen for similar purposes. Or, accurate counterfeits can simply be created.

An attack by terrorists dressed as police or soldiers against the ‘other’ ethnicity or religion in a Balkan state would become an instant YouTube sensation and ignite street violence, protests and possibly worse destabilization. In an environment of chronic media irresponsibility (not to mention social media), disinformation can only inflame such situations. For anyone who remembers the events of March 2004, when a false media report by Kosovo media led to a 50,000-strong Albanian riot targeting the Serbian minority, this possibility represents a tangible concern with clear precedents.

In general, even without recourse to clever deception leading to an inter-ethnic attack, ISIS supporters can easily cause instability by anything from provocations to acts of violence involving mixed communities.

The latest intelligence we have obtained indicates that Balkan security services are now particularly concerned about the potential for attacks that would cause inter-ethnic and inter-religious strife in the following places: Skopje, Macedonia; Novi Pazar, in the Serbian Sandzak; Mitrovica, Kosovo; and Ulcinj, on Montenegro’s southern coast. Smaller places with more limited damage levels but similar destabilization potential would include ethnic enclaves in Bosnia and Kosovo and smaller towns with ethnically-mixed populations throughout the region.

Another area of interest to terrorists is perhaps southern Albania, where organized crime has long included a paramilitary component and where a mix of Orthodox, Bektashi and Hanafi Muslims live. The Bektashi represent a possible target for two reasons. One, they are numerous, peaceful and despised as apostates by Sunni radicals like ISIS; indeed, as one Salafist in Gostivar, Macedonia memorably told us a few years ago, the Bektashi “will burn in hell” as they are “worse than the Jews.” If that was the rhetoric pre-Islamic State, one can only imagine how the opinion is now, when ISIS has expanded the rules of jihad to include the torture and murder of every differing sectarian and ethnic group it encounters.

A second reason for targeting Bektashi populations in Albania or Macedonia is because they represent the key bridge population in the Obama Administration’s deradicalization program. Over the past couple years, Bektashi leaders have built close connections with the administration, lobbying in Washington for the lead role in the (soft power) war against Albanian radicalization. Of course, such a role would be welcomed by the Albanian political leadership as a mark of prestige in itself.

So, for better or for worse, the US administration chose to throw in its chips with Edi Rama, the socialist prime minister who has presented Albania as a sort of wonderland of multi-religious tolerance in speeches and staged events with luminaries like the pope. Through its embassy in Tirana, the US has since 2014 been running its regional operations, with liaison officials in the Skopje and Sarajevo embassies. However, much of the assistance has been of the legalese variety (in drafting foreign-fighters laws), and there is a lack of political will for the sort of serious anti-terrorism operations the US performed here in the 1990s.

A further problem is that partisan differences between Rama and the conservative-elected president, Bujar Nishani, have resulted in power struggles, manifesting in competition through attempted modifications of the intelligence, military and financial investigations structures. This behind-the-scenes infighting represents a tactical vulnerability in the Albanian state’s intelligence capacities that can be exploited by would-be terrorists or others. Worse for American interests in Albania, new intelligence indicates that Russia’s SVR has embarked on a long-term seeding program through mixed marriages and businesses in the country, which will create new challenges for future US-Albanian security cooperation.

Further compounding the intrigue here is the long-standing interest in Albania of Greece, Italy, the Vatican, Germany, the Arab states and more recently, Israel. In addition to foreign interests, Albania’s indigenous Catholic and Orthodox communities (the other key components in the ‘national harmony’ plan) also represent attractive targets for ISIS, since disrupting this harmony could have serious long-term consequences in a country already plagued by emigration and high levels of organized crime.

  1. Bring Back the Fighters through Increased Migrant Streams

The main question that Western intelligence services have been modeling since the situation in Syria started to go south was what effect returning jihadists would have on their European countries of origin. While the EU and Western governments were slow to act, and particularly to share intelligence with Turkey, the major jihadist route, they have started to work better in identifying returning fighters. However, this only applies to those who are recognized or identified. Many more are unknown and can easily blend in with the general stream of migrants. This is most acute in the Turkey-Greece-Macedonia route and the Libya-Italy route. The latter theater of operations is where many Syria fighters have been sent by sea to join the burgeoning war for ISIS expansion in North Africa.

Two specific vulnerabilities are compounding the difficulty in identifying returning Balkan fighters. One is that, following a new tradition, these fighters began to ritually burn their home passports (sometimes for the cameras, as propaganda elements) as an expression of their determination to follow the caliphate’s cause and to show that their personal sense of identity was no longer with the home country. The second issue owes specifically to a former Bulgarian foreign policy goal of creating ‘new Bulgarians’ by giving passports to locals of countries (everywhere from Moldova to Macedonia to Albania and Montenegro), who were willing to claim Bulgarian heritage.

Of course, Brussels has frowned on this practice, which has been used by Balkan residents eager to find work in the EU by having member state (Bulgarian) papers. But the aspect of it that caused security alarms and kept Bulgaria out of the Schengen Zone is that a number of ISIS or Al Nusra terrorists in the Middle East have been known to travel with Bulgarian passports obtained through the ‘national outreach’ program of recent years.

Identifying persons who may be known by home authorities in their original country is made more complicated because the transliteration process from Latin to Cyrillic letters does not always match up, meaning that ‘one person can become two’ rather easily. And this is not even mentioning the ease of obtaining false Balkan passports from counterfeit shops as far away as Bangladesh.

In general, the ever-increasing migrant flood will continue as Greece looks after its first priorities – its own citizens – and reduces policing on its borders with its northern neighbors. The EU is thus in a novel situation of illegal migrants entering non-EU Balkan states from an EU member state. This ground reality is rather the opposite of everything the EU has based its migration policies on, and it has no answer for the problem it is creating for aspiring candidates Macedonia and Albania.

The hastily-agreed internal EU migrant resettlement program that will not involve Bulgaria (on account of poverty) and Hungary (on account of fierce domestic opposition) does not consider non-member states, or the damage that member states can inflict on them- damage that will eventually continue further north, in the heart of the EU. Countries like Macedonia, Albania and Serbia are thus being left to their own devices, while the risible successes of Frontex on the Greek-Turkish border continue to bring ever more migrants to European shores, instead of dismantling the main trafficking networks.

Similarly, the lack of political will for a North African coastal blockade is already having its inevitable effect; increasing numbers of migrants, and increasing right-wing populism among European parties that play to anti-immigration fears, leaving the EU ever more divided on a policy-making level. All of this will have negative results for the kind of multi-national security cooperation required in order to separate potential terrorists from legitimate asylum seekers and economic migrants.

Since everywhere ISIS goes yet another indigenous population is forced to flee, we can only expect migration to Europe to increase, as the so-called international coalition continues to demonstrate no interest in eradicating ISIS once and for all- though the policy folks are doubtless working hard on crafting ‘counter-narratives to radicalism’ from the safety of their own desks.

  1. Assassinate Diplomats/Politicians and Target Westerners in the Region

Another avenue of destabilization that ISIS could conceivably take would be the path of assassinations or attacks on Western interests in the Balkans. This kind of terrorist act would in fact be so easy to accomplish that it is a mystery why it has not happened so far. Most Western embassies and cultural centers in the region barely have a solid fence, and even fortified compounds (like the ones the US is fond of building) have vulnerabilities.

Beyond the ramparts, there are more than enough moving targets for terrorists. Official diplomatic appearances including seminars at hotels, speeches at rural spots, parties at bars and so on are frequent and well advertised in advance through media and social media. For a committed terrorist, attacks on such events or personnel would be simple. Kosovo media has reported today that security fears are so high, in fact, that the annual July 4th celebrations in the ostensibly most pro-American country on earth may be cancelled.

Yet possibly even more destabilizing than this ‘Sarajevo scenario’ (referring to the assassination of Franz Ferdinand in 1914) would be the assassination of local politicians. In modern Balkan history, attempted and successful assassinations have ultimately been linked to organized crime or rogue elements within governments aligned with it. But the relative frequency of official public appearances by Balkan leaders, especially in an already tense atmosphere of internal infighting and mistrust, multiplies the potential damage from any such attack. And ISIS supporters, were they to carry out such a crime, would not even need to take the credit in order to cause massive civic unrest.

At present, Bosnia – still, an international protectorate with a visible foreign presence and well-known radical Islamic communities – would be the most likely place for an assassination attempt or other attack on Western interests. With the tension over Srebrenica and its commemoration feeding latent mistrusts, now would be an ideal moment for terrorists to exploit maximal benefit from such an attack.

Kosovo, another semi-protectorate where international officials have taken a very strong stance about the need for a domestic war crimes tribunal, is another spot where an attack on ‘the internationals’ could be carried out by ISIS, who if necessary would have plausible deniability, since the focus of a war crimes tribunal is on the country’s secular nationalist, not its Islamic figures. It is frankly mystifying why Western leaders are so adamant about alienating their former paramilitary protégés at the exact moment when the Islamic terrorism threat is becoming more acute.

  1. Target US/NATO Facilities on the ‘Eastern Front’

A less likely but similarly possible plot that would have disproportionate geo-political effects would be an attack on a recently enlarged target: US and other NATO troops dispatched to the ‘Eastern Front’ in the Russian near-abroad. This line of deterrence against perceived ‘Russian aggression’ will encompass the entire periphery from the Baltics and Poland down through Romania, Bulgaria and even Georgia. While this is perceived by its planners as a solid line of deterrence, it also represents a new enlarged target for terrorists.

While there have previously been US troops in Romania and Bulgaria, the number will increase significantly. Defense News reported earlier this year that “the addition of Romania and Bulgaria brings the number of soldiers conducting Atlantic Resolve training and exercises to about 1,900, up from about 900 now, officials from U.S. Army Europe said.”

The difference here, compared to long-established bases in countries like Germany or Italy is that construction, expansion and logistics are still ongoing and there are obvious situations wherein hostile actors could infiltrate the supply chain. Similarly, beyond the base, US servicemen out for a drink in friendly and open towns like Sliven or Constanta would be defenseless targets for committed terrorists.

With the focus of NATO’s mission squarely on Russia to the east, not enough attention is being paid to the south and west, where returning jihadists or their local sympathizers could attack the ever-increasing number of so-called ‘Western crusaders’ in the Balkans. An attack from ISIS or its sympathizers against newly-arrived US or other NATO soldiers would also damage the fragile cohesion of a coalition and general cause, the validity of which many European leaders already do not share with the US.

An Islamic terrorist attack on Western soldiers on the ‘Eastern Front’ would thus further increase dissent among politicians and populations who remain dubious about the reality of an actual Russian threat, something that would leave NATO and the EU internally more divided still.


A truly effective anti-terrorism strategy regarding the Balkans (and Europe in general) must accept that the operative conditions on the ground have changed fundamentally in the last year. It must also accept that there was a general failure to predict and prepare preventative measures for a radicalization trend that has been obvious for the last 10 years and more. This is not due to a lack of intelligence; indeed, as a CIA official mentioned to the present author last year, the agency had predicted the eventual radicalization of some Balkan Muslims as far back as 1999.

This indicates, yet again, that the real problem is on the political and policy-making side, which remains fundamentally allergic to the wise old adage that states, “it’s amazing how much can be accomplished if no one cares who gets the credit.”

Along with the problem of egoism, the lack of trust and clear cooperation between countries, and the ambivalent role of international security and political organizations continue to reduce the effectiveness of fighting terrorism. In order to address the vulnerabilities of each country, institution and multilateral relationship in time to defeat potential terrorist attacks, Western actors will have to engage much more substantially with regional countries. This will require the European Union and its national governments to put aside their political differences and undertake a radical rethink of security cooperation with countries beyond the bloc.