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Asymmetric Threats Challenge Macedonia before Easter and Elections

April 25, 2016

By Chris Deliso

A Balkanalysis.com investigation has discovered that Macedonian security services are currently tracking several home-grown jihadists who had returned from Syria among the wave of migrants and refugees beginning in mid-2015.

In total, over 80 radical Islamists, including two feared potential suicide bombers, are now under constant surveillance. With Orthodox Easter coming on Sunday, terrorists could execute attacks to inflame religious and ethnic tensions in the small country- which is currently the key border state stopping mass uncontrolled migration into Europe.

If Macedonia falls, and thousands of militarized migrants pass through, the cohesion of the European Union may be fatally undermined. However, despite these risks, Western services are not offering any help in countering violent extremism.

This could not be happening at a worse time, as the police and army are already overstretched. They have to not only safeguard the country’s southern border from migrants – as requested by the European Union – but also keep a constant presence in Skopje and other cities against violent protesters organized by the leftist parties, Soros NGOs and Western governments- the so-called ‘Colorful Revolution,’ which the vast majority of the local population does not support.

Unnecessary Threats Diminish Capacities

Despite the destructive behavior of these hooligans, the police have acted professionally. What is striking about these protests – recently fleshed out by radical anarchists from Greece, Spain, Italy and other countries – is the internationalization of what was typically an internal Macedonian issue. On the other hand, no police were needed to contain last week’s major rally by the GDOM citizen’s organization, an entirely peaceful and pro-democratic rally of 60-70,000 persons. This event was almost completely ignored by the Western media.

The numerically insignificant Colorful Revolutionaries, on the other hand, have received fawning adoration in the Western press. Interestingly, they have also been highlighted in the Russian international press, which will lead to increasing confusion over the movement’s goals, identity and personnel.

In the past two weeks, these activists have destroyed public buildings, thrown paint at national monuments, buildings and police, and generally made their presence felt. The activists’ behavior is also marked by an unusual spirit of hatefulness, again indicating that foreign radical views have affected a generally peaceful national mentality.

This was attested when one young woman approached a policeman and snarled that she wished him “another Kumanovo.” This was a reference to last May’s counter-terrorism operation in which eight policemen (both Macedonian and Albanian) were killed while eliminating a terrorist cell masterminded from Kosovo. It is very unusual for a Macedonian to wish harm to a police officer charged with protecting her; it is just not the national mentality. This again indicates the influence of hardcore, nihilistic foreign activists on impressionable young minds.

These politically motivated protests are occurring at a time when the country should be preparing for June 5th elections. However, members and friends of the main opposition party, SDSM, which plans to boycott the vote, have been spotted at these protests, instead of on the campaign trail. Western diplomats have given tacit support for violence by refusing to specify who was guilty, and by refusing to encourage all parties to participate in election.

These diplomats are thus directly contributing to instability in the country, and thereby acting against their own national interests.

Meanwhile, on the Border

A recent FRONTEX report showed that Macedonia’s border control efforts have resulted in a 90 percent decrease in monthly illegal crossings from Greece. The EU-sanctioned operation to close the Balkan Route, with the help of European police stationed at Macedonia’s Greek border, has been very successful. However, this has both driven up prices for migrants, as smugglers now take them on more dangerous routes, and also radicalized the migrants who refuse to leave Idomeni.

The increasing militarization of these migrants has been seen in recent attacks on the border fence. They are coordinated with the help of Greek, German, British, Italian, Spanish and other anarchist groups. Idomeni has become a magnet for this revolutionary cause in recent months, with Thessaloniki offering a rear support base.

Some Macedonian activists who are operating in political protests have overlap with these groups and the migrant cause in general. They are partly responsible for internationalizing the political protest scene in Macedonia through this connection. Balkanalysis.com warned in December of the potential convergence of anarchist and migrant activist operations, and indeed we are seeing the results now.

The Macedonian state already banned some foreign activists from entering the country following the March illegal crossings offensive from Idomeni. If they are forced to do so again, with either foreign migration or political activists, it will create further bad press for the country as ‘innocent activists’ will be seen as punished by an ‘oppressive regime.’ In fact, it is likely that activists, local and foreign, will continue to try and provoke police to help their overall goal of postponing elections.

Terrorism Threats and Turkish Security Cooperation

However, if political antics were the main issue, this whole misadventure might just be an annoyance. But the fact that safeguarding last week’s protest required considerable pre-planning, and a phalanx of police cars and trucks along half of Bulevard Partizanski and over to the government meant that valuable time and resources were wasted, while much more serious threats receive less attention. Since the nihilistic protesters are expected to continue through May and into June, the same challenges will remain for an already overstretched police force.

Nevertheless, Macedonia somehow manages to survive, time after time, infuriating and bewildering its enemies. This is due to diligent police work and the fact that it still has some powerful allies. Turkey was the only one of 17 regional and NATO allies that answered Macedonia’s request for urgent assistance in the months leading up to last May’s foiled terrorist plot. The non-assistance of Western powers was strange, considering that they all claim to support the country’s security and territorial integrity.

For its part, Macedonia has also helped Turkey on numerous occasions with intelligence cooperation. Since neither are EU members, they are especially affected by a lack of intelligence sharing with Western countries, and experience the distrust that this fosters. Especially because of the terrorism situation in Iraq and Syria, and the concomitant migrant waves, intelligence services have to be on full alert.

For one example of bilateral cooperation, Macedonia in October 2014 helped the Turkish MIT identify two Al Nusra members who were from Macedonia, and hiding in the east of Turkey. The jihadists had shot at Turkish police while crossing in from Syria at some point previous to that. “We can say that Macedonia is a close friend,” says one retired Turkish military official for Balkanalysis.com. “Always they were there, if we needed information.”

Terrorism, the Migrant Wave and Current Vulnerabilities

As a recent Washington Post article which quoted Balkanalysis.com analyst Ioannis Michaletos showed, crossing from the Middle East to Northern Europe was very easy until Macedonia sealed the Balkan Route. While the border is sealed currently, again, any destabilization within Macedonia could result in a security vacuum and border violations. In this case, more terrorists could infiltrate Europe.

It is not clear whether such a strategic motivation could be guiding potential terrorists in the Macedonia. Information from Turkey indicates that two other potential suicide bombers from Macedonia were killed in military operations in Syria in recent weeks, so it is believed there are (only) two potential suicide bombers in Macedonia now. However, the large number of suspected foreign fighters who cannot be charged with any crime is a serious concern, as they can be activated (or moved abroad) at any time.

The situation is also extremely foggy because American officers with Balkan experience have liaised with elements of the Syrian opposition out of Gaziantep during much of the Syrian crisis. It is thus not clear whether any information supplied to Macedonia from Turkey could have come, in all or in part, via others players in the field such as the US, Israel or Germany. For now, at least, Macedonia is just thanking Turkey.

Anti-Terrorism Legislation and Implications

Before the steady deterioration in Macedonian trust in America that has characterized the last 16 months, there actually was some visible security cooperation. The Macedonian government passed a law similar to others the US was supporting throughout the region. This, the law on Foreign Fighters was passed in parliament on September 3, 2014.

However, the bill only passed because the ruling VMRO-DPMNE, which the US and its partners now oppose, had the votes to get it done. At that time, both SDSM and the smaller Albanian party, DPA were boycotting parliament. And, while no one voted against the law, several members of the Albanian coalition partner DUI abstained or were absent. The US has never considered this basic fact regarding who was responsible for implementing their own desired security policy in the country.

Then, on September 24, 2014, the UN Security Council unanimously passed Resolution 2178, popularly known as the ‘foreign fighters resolution,’ similarly motivated by the ISIS threat. The resolution had been strongly backed by the United States, which released a fact sheet on the State Department website.

Macedonia, like neighbors Kosovo and Albania, which also passed such laws, was clearly on the side of the international community. However, unlike those two countries, arresting potential terrorists is very sensitive because of the ‘ethnic factor.’ If non-Albanians arrest an Albanian Muslim, it is considered a provocation to either the nation or the religion, and the inevitable irritation of some of the community creates a scenario for violent protests. However, if the same operation is done in Kosovo or Albania against ‘one of their own,’ there is no similar scenario for protests, except from the Islamist bloc, which is easily contained.

This is part of what makes the US role in the region so hard to assess. The US did nothing to assist the Macedonian state in stopping the Kumanovo plotters, and it also did nothing to help Kosovo prevent them from entering Macedonia illegally.

On the other hand, after the heavily nationalist funerals for the “heroic” would-be terrorists were held in Kosovo, the US took (at least privately) a harder line. “We were very angry about how they handled that,” one senior US diplomat in Kosovo told Balkanalysis.com. “We said to the leadership, ‘what are you doing?’ They were clearly manipulating ethnic tensions over the deaths of people who were definitely not national heroes.”

The ISIS Threat and Terrorism Potential

According to the above-mentioned Washington Post investigation, ISIS has developed a sophisticated operation in Europe, masterminded from the Middle East. It has a network of sleeper cells and mobile operatives (via the refugee streams) which are not known to one another, and which are not informed about their final target until shortly before an operation occurs. This was confirmed by the confession of two young ‘migrants,’ who were supposed to have taken part in the Paris attacks, but were ordered to stay put when travel delays prevented them from arriving on time.

This command-and-control system also prevents potential damage to the entire network, because individual operatives or cells have no information about other ones being run concurrently. This is a classic technique used by intelligence services to prevent a whole network from being compromised if one cell is dismantled. The arrested ones would simply not have the information needed for police to take down the whole network.

This is what is concerning about the current situation in Macedonia. There has been, and continues to be, way too much political interference, rather than security cooperation from the country’s supposed allies. As usual, only Turkey is being counted on for proper assistance.

It is not known if the local jihadists currently under surveillance have direct links with the Brussels and Paris attackers, but very generally, authorities do know that they have “some connections” with likeminded groups now in Belgium. And, though they are not connected to today’s political and ideological activists in and around Macedonia, the latter would absolutely take advantage of any destabilization from a terrorist attack for achieving their own interests.

 Ground Assessment of Coming Threats: 10-Day Forecast

Macedonia faces (at least) four hard security threats, in addition to Islamic terrorism, in the period leading up to the June 5th election. These include further attempts to breach the border by migrants and activists, potentially violent protests in Skopje and other cities by local and foreign political activists, and even a small-scale attack from disgruntled ex-UCK fighters.

Fourth, numerous sources have claimed that both Ali Ahmeti, the DUI leader, and Nikola Gruevski were targeted for assassination in the past year. Ahmeti’s people have reportedly foiled three such plots, all of which came from the Kosovo Albanian opposition and underworld. Obviously, any assassinations in peaceful Macedonia would have a destabilizing effect. There are other assassination scenarios involving other people for other motives, but we will discuss that another time.

All of these threats will persist over the coming period. But, for the short-term, we can offer these assessments for the next 10 days or so.

May 1, which is Orthodox Easter, is a key date with national and religious significance. Potential terrorists now under surveillance could be activated to disrupt the most important Christian holiday. Since Islamist exhortations to violence have historically come during Friday prayers in radical mosques, police will surely be monitoring mosque activity carefully on Friday, April 29. On the other hand, an order via secret channels coming from the Middle East would be almost impossible to detect.

May 4 is the second major date, because of the potential for migrant-related violence. On that date, the European Commission will release an advisory report on Turkey’s progress towards visa-free travel. While Hurriyet has noted that practical issues will prevent many Turks from even enjoying free travel for months, no matter if Turkey fulfills all 72 benchmarks, attention – and possibly, symbolic action – is gravitating around this date. The EU-Turkey deal is opposed by nearly everyone: by the right, as too conciliatory to Turkey, and by the left, as inhumane (in that it enforces deportations). No matter what is decided, we can expect ‘No Borders’ activists to make renewed border incursion efforts around this date and afterward.

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