The beginning of the Syrian armed conflict marked the start of an unprecedented outflow of foreign fighters from the Western Balkans to the Middle East. As of the end of 2019, about 1,070 nationals of Kosovo, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Northern Macedonia, Albania, Serbia, and Montenegro had traveled to Syria and Iraq. Although arguably motivated by a variety of reasons, most of them ended up joining jihadist militias and designated terrorist organizations like the Islamic State (IS) and Jabhat al-Nusra. Two thirds of those who traveled were male adults at the time of departure. The remaining third of largely noncombatant travelers was made up by minors (18%) and women (15%).
While all the countries of the Western Balkans have been affected by the foreign fighter phenomenon, Kosovo and Bosnia and Herzegovina have shown a higher vulnerability to mobilization into jihadi militias. Almost two thirds of known Western Balkans foreign fighters and family members originate from these two countries. They have experienced some of the highest rates of mobilization into terrorist organizations in Europe relative to population size.
Observed jihadi radicalization trends show that foreign fighter mobilization has not spread uniformly across these countries but has been largely concentrated in particular geographic locations with a robust presence of jihadi networks operating along ethnic, religious, and family lines. Numerous counterterrorism operations, arrests, and convictions have confirmed the critical role of these well-integrated regional networks organized around local fundamentalist clerics and various salafi organizations. As such, despite the instrumental role of social media in accelerating the radicalization process, physical networks of ideologically committed militants and group dynamics appear to have played a more significant role in the mobilization of Western Balkans foreign fighters.
Snapshot of current situation
As of the end of 2019, some 485 nationals of Western Balkan countries had returned home or were repatriated. At least 260 others have been reported killed, although the actual number of combat casualties is likely higher due to underreporting. The Western Balkans contingent remaining in Syria and Iraq is composed of about 475 individuals, and it is dominated by children--including many born in theater — and women. According to official sources over half of those remaining — about 260 individuals — are nationals of Bosnia and Herzegovina or their children with legitimate citizenship claim. The bulk of the Western Balkans remnants are held in Kurdish-controlled prisons and camps, whereas a small minority are still fighting in the ranks of Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham in the northwestern Syria region of Idlib.
Despite the high number of returnees in the region, organized repatriations have been limited. So far Kosovo has repatriated 110 of its citizen and Northern Macedonia seven thanks to transfer operations made possible by the US military. Bosnia and Herzegovina was the last country to repatriate 25 nationals in late December 2019. The rest of the returnees have returned by themselves over time. Albanian authorities have cited a host of technical, diplomatic, and security issues as reasons preventing them from repatriating Albanian citizens from Syria.
Security risk and inadequate resources
The Western Balkans is currently the region with the highest concentration of returned foreign fighters in Europe. Of the 485 returnees from Syria and Iraq so far, two thirds are male adults likely to have been actively or indirectly involved to some extent in military and terrorist activities. By comparison the countries of the Western Europe, a much more populous region, have received about 1,765 returnees in total from Syria and Iraq.
The disproportionality between the volume of returnees and the means available for dealing with them represents a long-term challenge for the Western Balkans with potential security implications that transcend the region. Like in the case of departures, the distribution of returnees is heavily concentrated in particular geographic locations with chronic socioeconomic and political vulnerabilities and active jihadi networks. By the end of 2019, Kosovo and Northern Macedonia accounted for two thirds of the region’s returnees. Kosovo, for example, had a reported 134 returnees per million nationals. By comparison, the United Kingdom, France, and Germany — some of the countries with the highest mobilization numbers in Europe — have received between four and six returnees per million. The eventual return of the remaining 475 nationals of Western Balkans countries in Syria is bound to further strain the already insufficient resources, capacities, and specialized expertise available in the region.
The leniency of sentences handed down in the Western Balkans for terrorism-related offences represents another noteworthy concern. In Bosnia and Herzegovina, for example, by mid 2019 the average prison sentence in the relevant category was less than two years. By comparison, the average sentence for terrorism-related offences in the European Union in 2018 was seven years. In Kosovo about 40% of those sentenced for terrorist offences in the past few years have already been released. While the high number of arrests and related law enforcement operations across the region show strong commitment to counterterrorism efforts, inadequate allocation of resources has so far hampered the implementation of any meaningful prison-based rehabilitation and post-incarceration reintegration programs.
In sum, the region is confronted with a relatively new and significant security risk. The Western Balkans battle-hardened and networked jihadi veterans and their wives are not returning to a “neutral space” with adequate rehabilitation and mainstream reintegration opportunities. Instead, they are returning to an environment with systemic economic shortages and political vulnerabilities, and a robust presence of jihadi supporters that will likely vie to facilitate the returnees’ reintegration into the old networks, leverage their status and battlefield skills. Also, minors who have spent years in territories ruled by terrorist organizations and may be traumatized, indoctrinated, or radicalized, will face a long and complex recovery. This will require patience and good will but also abundant resources and specialized expertise. Ultimately, short-term prison sentences and symbolic assistance are unlikely to successfully mitigate the long-term security challenge posed by returnees. A comprehensive approach will require combining traditional counterterrorism responses with sustainable rehabilitation and reintegration efforts. The effective implementation of these efforts will depend as much by local commitment as by sustained international assistance and support.
 Note: I.e. performing hijrah, providing humanitarian assistance, supporting state-building efforts in non-violent ways, defensive jihad, etc.