Militants in Syria are trying to use the deaths of foreign fighters as evidence that their cause has broad support, complicating other countries' efforts to keep their citizens from participating in the conflict.
By Drazen Remikovic for Southeast European Times in Sarajevo -- 14/05/14
Thousands of European citizens have gone to Syria to join the rebel forces. [AFP]
Radical Islamist leaders are appealing more to the Balkan public, via internet videos, press releases and public forums to invite people to join the "holy war" in Syria, promising they will have a better life and glory. But such appeals are only leading to the death of recruits.
Earlier this month, ethnic Albanian Egzon Avdyli, who immigrated to Norway from Albania as a child, was killed fighting in Syria. He is said to have died while fighting in the ranks of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant.
Avdyli, a 25-year-old from Oslo, was a former spokesman for the Norwegian radical Islamist group Prophet's Ummah and defended the group against what he called a "witch hunt" in 2012, according to Macedonian news outlet The Independent. He reportedly left Norway for Syria early this year.
He was hailed as a martyr by members of Prophet's Ummah. Ubaydullah Hussain, a former leader of the group, wrote on Facebook that Avdyli should be rewarded for "the best death ... in the way of Allah."
FBI officials said on May 2nd that the number of foreign fighters in Syria has increased rapidly in the past several months. The fighting in Syria has sent more than 2.5 million refugees fleeing the country, including more than 720,000 who have taken refuge in Turkey.
Among the thousands of Europeans who have gone to Syria to fight against President Bashar al-Assad's regime, fighters from Balkan countries, mostly Bosnia and Herzegovina (BiH), Kosovo and Serbia, are also getting more involved in the conflict.
BiH police officials said they are following the activities connected with Syrian fighters.
''BiH's State Investigation and Protection Agency, in accordance with the Strategy for the Prevention and Combating of Terrorism, continuously collects information and knowledge related to the departure of BiH citizens to Syria," agency spokesperson Kristina Jozic told SETimes. Late last month, BiH introduced prison terms of up to 10 years for any citizen who fights in, or recruits for, conflicts abroad. Experts say that about 150 Bosnians were confirmed to have left for Syria over the past year, 15 of whom had been reportedly killed.
"These people come back to Bosnia after a certain time and engage in propaganda activities and encourage others to commit the same criminal acts," Mirsad Djugum, a member of the Party for Better Future, said in parliament when presenting the initiative.
Experts said the messages and radical Islam propaganda are confirmation that radical Islamic groups exist in the Balkans, and that they are recruiting mostly young people to fight in Syria.
''Places where they are operating and recruiting are mosques, prisons, extremely religious schools. The most radical example so far is the two Bosnian girls from Vienna, who are only 15 years old. The main question is how the state is going to treat those people when they return from war,'' Dzevad Galijasevic, former director of the Southeast Europe Expert Team for the Fight Against Terrorism and Organised Crime, told SETimes.
More than 100 Kosovo Albanians have gone to Syria to fight for the rebels, according to police sources. Kosovo's parliament is reviewing a draft law that would ban citizens from fighting in foreign wars.
Religious scholar Faridun Khodizoda said young men don't realise that dying as part of an immoral cause would not lead to the glory the militants promise.
"And they find playing war to be interesting," Khodizoda said.
In April, Albanian police arrested Gerti Pasja, 30, on suspicion of organising Albanian citizens to fight in Syria, according to the Associated Press. Pasja was apprehended after getting off a plane from Istanbul at Tirana Airport. If convicted, he faces a 10-year jail term.
Seven other self-proclaimed imams who were sending Albanians to Syria also were arrested. At least two Albanians have died fighting in Syria.
Correspondent Nadin Bahrom in Dushanbe contributed to this report.
What measures can regional countries take to stop radical Islamists from recruiting Balkan citizens? Tell us your thoughts below.