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Ethnically- and religiously-divided Macedonia is on the front lines of the European migrant crisis, and was a major transit corridor between Greece and Serbia before that border closed in March 2016. The threat of terrorists posing as migrants has been noted by both local and international authorities. Also, over 100 ethnic Albanian Muslims have fought in jihadist groups like al-Nusra Front and ISIS in Syria and Iraq.1 This led to the passage of a law criminalizing becoming a foreign fighter in September 2014, and increasing police activity resulting in the arrests of several alleged terrorist recruiters and fighters throughout 2017.

While only about 50 fighters from Macedonia have been killed owing to their activity as jihadists in the Middle East, some critics (such as officials in neighboring Kosovo) claim that the country’s imams have been instrumental in preaching a radical agenda that has indoctrinated their own fighters.2 This has been reflected in the arrests of several radical imams, and the admission by the country’s official Islamic Community that certain mosques operate outside of its control.

Nevertheless, the West has been far less helpful in Macedonia than it has in Kosovo and Albania in donating resources or personnel toward countering violent extremism projects, instead taking a highly controversial political role in the crisis since 2015, with key security issues neglected in favor of overt political goals.

To a large extent, this Western interference has been conditioned by a desire to solve the 26-year “name issue” (Greece has vetoed Macedonian NATO and EU membership until the country changes its name). In light of the antagonism from both Greece and Albania, Turkey—always a pivotal ally of Macedonia—has taken on even greater importance. After the failed Turkish coup of July 2016, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan seems to have expanded his popularity in Macedonia, and could prove a decisive voice in national politics. The exact role Turkey will play in Macedonian politics and security remains to be seen, but it is undeniable that, in a country with over 30 percent Muslims, this appeal and power is only likely to grow. 

Level of Islamist Activity: 
Low
Islamist Activity: 

Islamist activity in Macedonia is most widespread in areas where the Muslim population—the vast majority of whom are ethnic Albanians—is concentrated: parts of the capital, Skopje, the towns and villages between Kumanovo and Tetovo (near the border with Kosovo), and towns like Gostivar, Debar, Kicevo and Struga located along the western border with Albania. However, ethnically mixed areas exist in other regions of the country as well, such as in the central mountain massif south of Skopje. Along with some enclaves in the west of the country, a residual Turkish population dating from Ottoman times is scattered in several villages in the east, near Stip and Radovis. As is the case with neighboring Kosovo and Albania, the number of new foreign fighters originating from Macedonia has sharply declined since 2016.

The organization that officially represents Macedonia’s Muslim population of approximately 675,000 is the Islamic Community of Macedonia (ICM).3 In recent years, few altercations or inter-religious problems have occurred, though the management of the Community and its possessions remains prone to politicization among ethnic Albanian parties.

As in other regional countries, Arab-funded and -trained young radicals have challenged Macedonian authority, though this trend seems to be waning. Several violent confrontations occurred in the years following the 2001 ethnic conflict, sparked by armed extremists seeking to install their candidates in Macedonia’s mosques, especially in the capital, Skopje.4 Later, in July 2010, the ICM’s leading cleric, reis-ul-ulema Sulejman Rexhepi, admitted that the ICM had lost control over several Skopje mosques, following a fight and near-riot in a mosque under Wahhabi control.5 And in September 2010, he publicly called upon U.S. and EU representatives to help the ICM counter the growing influence of radical Islam.6 In 2016, some of the mosques involved were targeted by police as having provided ideological indoctrination to young Muslims who would then travel to Syria to fight.7 This police activity has gone a long way toward solving the problem, but at the same time it has been used by nationalist Albanians to stoke distrust of the predominantly Christian Macedonian majority.

While international experts have warned for years about fundamentalist threats to Macedonia’s stability, until the participation of Albanians in the Syrian jihad became public in 2014, most considered Islamic infighting to be little more than internal politicking between rival ethnic Albanian parties over property proceeds and other financial interests. Nevertheless, compared to a decade ago, fundamentalist Islam (in the form of veiled women, men in traditional garb and long beards) has become increasingly visible in daily life.8

While there is certainly some truth to charges by skeptics that Islamism is merely “business,” the participation of local fighters in Syria and Iraq has provided evidence to the contrary. In late August 2016, while announcing the arrest in Turkey of five Macedonian Albanians en route to Syria, Interior Minister Mitko Chavkov stated that at least 25 other Macedonian citizens had been killed while fighting in the Syrian civil war, and 50 were presumed to still be there.9 In its own Country Report on Terrorism 2016, the U.S. State Department reported that Macedonia had conducted three “significant” counter-terrorism operations during that year. The most significant one, a joint operation with Kosovo and Albania, resulted in the cumulative arrests of 23 ethnic Albanians over an ISIS-led plot to attack a soccer match between Israel and Albania.10 More recently, in the summer of 2017, ISIS announced that the Balkans would become an area of terrorist operations in future.11

Rather than destroying existing Islamic institutions, Wahhabi extremists have sought instead to take them over where they can. To establish control, they have historically used NGOs, charities, publishing entities, domestic and international conferences, political events, “human-rights” activities, and various demonstrations.12 At the same time, these radicals have expedited the goals of Saudi Arabia and other Islamic states by overseeing the construction of hundreds of foreign-funded mosques.13 The Islamist activity that led to fighters going to the Middle East was concentrated in several mosques in Skopje and Tetovo that had long been associated with radical preachers. However, in many cases, authorities have still been unable to arrest these figures because there is no solid evidence that they have done anything illegal.14

The complexity of Islamic affairs in Macedonia is growing, as multiple internal and external actors vie for power and influence. Aside from the ICM and their Wahhabi opponents funded by the Gulf and other Islamic states, Turkey has a deep footprint in the country, owing to five centuries of Ottoman control. With the long-simmering feud between Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan and controversial cleric Fethullah Gülen finally boiling over with a failed coup against Erdogan’s government in July 2016, entrenched interests in Macedonia associated with both sides came under pressure. As the enmity between the rival Turkish figures continued into 2017, Macedonia came under tremendous pressure from Ankara to close schools associated with Gulen. However, it did not do so, as this would have been politically divisive and caused problems for a wide range of people who had no involvement with either side of the conflict.

The role of Turkey is particularly important when considering that Macedonia’s main ethnic Albanian party, the Democratic Union for Integration (DUI), has members privately aligned with the rival Turkish camps. Ali Ahmeti (an ethnic Albanian who led the paramilitary National Liberation Army in the 2001 civil conflict) created the DUI and has been a coalition partner in almost all Macedonian governments since 2002. Diplomatic information alleges that it was actually the DUI’s Ahmeti who vetoed a governmental proposal to close Gülen entities in Macedonia.15

Nevertheless, Turkish foreign policy continues to take a calculated position. Minister of Foreign Affairs Ahmed Davutoglu thus praised Ahmeti as a “factor of stability” in the Balkans during a visit to Skopje on September 27, 2017, just weeks before pivotal local elections.16 At the same time, the DUI had entered an uneasy coalition with the formerly opposition Social Democratic Alliance of Macedonia (SDSM), due to heavy U.S. pressure. This would mean mutual support for one another’s local candidates—a somewhat unusual practice—because the DUI feared the growth of Besa, the new pro-Turkish party that had thrown the traditional balance of power into total disarray in the previous December’s parliamentary elections, eating into the DUI’s base. With Muslims in the Balkans tending to support Erdogan, and with the long-ruling DUI perceived as corrupt, Turkish influence over local Muslim populations and parties should only grow over time. The December 2016 elections (Besa’s first) proved that its appeal lay with not only conservative older Muslim voters, but also with young Albanians angered by perceived corruption among the established parties.

For its part, the Turkish government and various charities have made the most of their opportunity within the country.17 Turkey is very active through its international development agency (TIKA) and supported NGOs in reaffirming the tangible signs of its Ottoman legacy in the country.18 The Erdogan government has long considered Macedonia a key part of its neo-Ottoman foreign policy of “strategic depth.”19 Macedonia has welcomed dozens of major Turkish investors involved in everything from construction to management of the Skopje airport. These business and political ties have strengthened the bilateral relationship tremendously; indeed, when inaugurating the third Bosporus Bridge in August 2016, President Erdogan welcomed Macedonian President Gjorge Ivanov to the ceremony—one of a very small number of leaders to receive that invitation.20

For his part, President Ivanov has consistently been a strong supporter of Erdogan, for example defending the latter’s reaction to 2013 protests in Turkey.21 Since Turkey is a key ally, this support has (despite Erdogan’s pro-Islamist administration) actually benefited Macedonia’s fight against terrorism. Indeed, Ivanov’s August 25th visit to Istanbul to commemorate the bridge opening coincided with the announcement of a joint police and intelligence operation which led to the arrest of five Albanians from Macedonia in Istanbul, who had reportedly been planning to join ISIS in Syria (discussed below).

Aside from foreign relations and state-level politics, the bedrock of funding for Islamist networks was established years ago, in often opaque ways, through NGOs and other entities. The official wealth of the ICM itself, in terms of funds, real estate and other assets, is neither publicly known nor discussed. Even less well-known is the total level of funding available to radical groups and the ways in which it is transmitted.

Part of this has to do with established tradition, such as the custom of communal payments seen in the construction of village mosques; locals can simply donate anonymously, drop cash in a box, and so on. Even when police have managed to trace some funds to extremist groups abroad, authoritative figures have never been publicly disclosed. Nor do Islamists, despite their frequent calls for officials to show greater transparency, detail the provenance or amounts of their own funding.22 As a result, investigators have had to work deductively and, to some extent, rely on anecdotal or comparative information.

In general, officials believe that Islamists in Macedonia (as elsewhere in the region) employ a creative combination of methods to move money. Police sometimes reference the use of Islamic students returning from the Gulf as cash “mules.” Other financial sources include proceeds from narcotics trafficking or the sale of items ranging from plastic chairs to silver and gold. To escape the attention of authorities, Islamists sometimes eschew large bank transactions, instead breaking up payments and deposits into smaller amounts.

Finally, funds also come in through donations from ideologically sympathetic businessmen, officials and Diaspora Muslims for religious projects such as mosques, schools and publications.23 These donations are not always a secret; indeed, the donating country or organization is often prominently displayed on the entrance of the structure in question, or in the beginning of a book. 

As discussed above, Islamist activity in Macedonia over the past 25 years has been guided largely by outside interests, such as Saudi and other Gulf state charities and proselytizers. A limited interest has also been evidenced from Pakistani and Malaysian groups.24 Often, global Islamist NGOs registered locally or via Western Europe are used as intermediaries (with the UK serving as a major hub). However, since the 1990s, relatively fewer suspicious charities have been allowed to register in the country, in comparison to Albania, Kosovo and Bosnia, due to a measure of resistance from Macedonian security officials.25

Specific Islamist activity has taken different forms. One key area is the strategic construction of mosques along major highways, high ridgelines, near pre-existing churches or in close proximity to other mosques. Between 2000 and 2010, over 300 mosques were built—88 alone between Skopje and Tetovo, the main ethnic Albanian-majority city, in northwestern Macedonia.26 The sum expended was staggering, with costs estimated at $1.5-$2.5 million per mosque. According to the same report, Saudi Arabia alone committed over $1.2 billion from 2003-2013 for building mosques, providing education, and sending local Muslims on the Hajj throughout the Balkans.27 Later, in July 2014, the cornerstone was laid for a Saudi-style, four-minaret mega-mosque in the Skopje district of Topansko Pole. Featuring an educational center, it was expected to be the largest mosque in Macedonia and among the largest in the Balkans. As of late 2017, it remained under construction.28

Aside from mosque construction, Islamists in and with ties to Macedonia have been active around the world. Owing to the transnational and diaspora relations of ethnic Albanians from Macedonia, who may have kin in Kosovo, Western Europe, or elsewhere, the issue cannot be understood as simply a national one. The infamous “Fort Dix Six” plot to attack a U.S. Army base in Ft. Dix, New Jersey a decade ago involved three ethnic Albanian émigrés from Macedonia, and another from Kosovo.29 In Switzerland, the popular 2009 referendum banning minaret construction began after an Islamist group led by another Albanian originally from Macedonia agitated in favor of such building.30 

At the same time, even before the Syrian crisis and rise of ISIS, Muslims from Macedonia had gone to join al-Qaeda’s jihad against the United States and the Coalition in Afghanistan (an estimate published in the British media in 2010 put the number at approximately 50).31 During a joint press conference with then-Macedonian Prime Minister Nikola Gruevski in January 2010, then-Israeli Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman stated that radical Islam in Macedonia and the Balkans was a major concern.32 This comment came only four months before three Muslims from Macedonia participated in the controversial “humanitarian flotilla” to break the Israeli blockade of Gaza, organized by the Turkey-based Islamic charity Humanitarian Relief Foundation (IHH).33 The Israeli perception of an Islamic terrorism threat was evident even in the summer of 2017, when an Israeli-organized cultural event in Skopje was guarded by a Mossad contingent considered unusually large by past standards.34

For years, security experts have warned about rising Islamism in Macedonia—albeit without arousing much attention. In 2012, dramatic evidence attesting to these developing radical trends emerged with a series of protests. The first large-scale protest occurred in the Albanian-majority town of Struga, ostensibly in reaction to an annual carnival in the nearby Christian village of Vevchani. The carnival is traditionally light-hearted, poking fun at world leaders, social trends, and general society. However, participants at the event mocked Islam, provoking groups of angry protestors to attack churches in Albanian and Macedonian Muslim-populated villages in western Macedonia, and to even stone a group of Christians on a bus.

In a large and unprecedented protest in Struga, men waving Albanian and green Islamic flags publicly denounced Christians. Although further investigation and input from intelligence officials revealed that there was a certain amount of local politics and financial interests behind the lurid affair, the demonstration confirmed the presence of extremists and their ability to organize violently on short notice.35 Most troubling, perhaps, was that the whole incident became a high-level security concern. Top government leaders and foreign diplomats were forced to meet extensively and reaffirm their commitment to work together and overcome ethnic and religious differences.

A second, more serious protest occurred in the capital, Skopje, on May 4, 2012, after a police press conference reported the apprehension of several Albanian “Islamic extremists.” The men had been detained after a massive police operation to find the killers of a group of young Macedonian fishermen who had been murdered execution-style, along with an older man who apparently witnessed the scene. The killings sparked the biggest manhunt in Macedonian history, dubbed “Operation Monster,” in which 600 police officers were deployed. At subsequent protests in Skopje (with smaller ones in Tetovo and Gostivar), several thousand ethnic Albanian youth took to the streets, waving Albanian and Saudi flags and chanting “Allahu Akbar” and ”death to the Christians.” Some were seen wearing provocative shirts with slogans like “Islam will dominate the world” and demanding the establishment of a Greater Albania.36

The protest originated at the historic Yahya Pasha Mosque, which had been under Wahhabi control for at least 10 years (and which would be targeted again in more recent raids). Since the young protesters attacked the municipal office of the local (and ethnic Albanian) mayor in the Cair neighborhood of Skopje, security experts also read this as a sign that the extremists are now beyond the control of the ethnic Albanian political mainstream.37 There were also reports of fights on public buses between Macedonian and Albanian youth and attacks by the latter on elderly Macedonians.

The trial of the suspected gunmen was deferred twice, and witnesses and family members of those killed were only able to face the defendants in court in December 2012 and January 2013.38 Although police did not charge him with direct involvement, longtime Islamic radical Shukri Aliu was believed to have ignited the protests by calling for an Arab Spring uprising targeting the government, and seeking the participation of imams throughout the country.39 Aliu was extradited from Kosovo at the end of 2012 in connection with physical attacks on several imams near the village of Kondovo that took place in 2005. In December 2015, a Skopje court overruled an appeal from the five men accused of the murders, upholding life sentences for the crime. This decision sparked complaints from ethnic Albanians, but no protests on a similar level were seen. However, media alleged that the Special Prosecutor’s Office (set up in September 2015 to investigate a very opaque ‘government wiretapping’ affair) would like to revisit the case, so there is room in the future for further ethnic and religious politicization.40 

In fact, the specific political developments accompanying Macedonia’s political crisis are bound to increase inter-ethnic and inter-religious tensions. Unfortunately, the United States has directly if discreetly furthered this process, by supporting a relatively unpopular SDSM party after 2015. The party’s nominal leader (and, from June 2017, prime minister), Zoran Zaev, had run a campaign in December 2016 of trying to win ethnic Albanian votes wherever they may be found (he campaigned indeed as far as Switzerland), promising ethnic concessions which the ethnic Albanian population had not even asked for.

Zaev did not win an outright majority, and was unable to form a government in December 2016. This led ethnic Albanian party leaders to draft a platform of ethnic demands (known as the ‘Tirana Platform,’ as it was drafted in Albanian Prime Minister Edi Rama’s office in January 2017). By appeasing ethnic Albanian demands, Zaev was able to win their political support. The demands for ethnic “rights” were seen as ultranationalist and chauvinistic not only by Macedonians, but also by the country’s Turkish, Roma Serb and Vlach populations, sparking nationwide protests that lasted until a violent incident in the parliament following the illegal election of an ethnic Albanian parliamentary speaker on April 27th.41 The West quickly rushed to recognize the new Zaev-led government, which among other concessions, offered a draft language law, expanding mandatory rights for the usage of Albanian to the large parts of the country where no Albanians live.42

While it appeared that U.S. policy was meant simply to create conditions for electing a government that would change Macedonia’s name and thus end the 26-year “name dispute” with Greece, allowing Macedonia to finally enter NATO and the EU, one long-term side effect of further concessions to Albanian nationalist demands is inevitably going to be the expansion of Islamist goals. This, coupled with feared resettlement of international Muslim migrants into Christian-inhabited areas exclusively, animated the debate ahead of the October 2017 elections, leaving Macedonians in a state of existential doubt over the West’s long-term plan for their country. 

Islamism and Society: 

The greatest defining—and most complicating—factor relating to Islamism in Macedonia is its intimate linkage with ethnic identification and ethnic-based politics. Local attitudes toward Islamic groups, and Islam in general, are not rigidly defined and remain in a perpetual state of flux, as does the general sense of ethnic identification among different groups, Christian and Muslim alike. This unique situation arguably makes a true understanding of Islam and society more difficult in Macedonia than in any other country in Europe. The specific conflation of Albanian hardline nationalism and Muslim affiliation makes this an incredibly combustible issue, hampering law enforcement and promoting a culture in which political negotiation and a perceived need for international mediation still predominate.

Nearly 70 percent of the national population of 2 million is composed of ethnic Macedonians, a Slavic people who speak a language similar to Bulgarian and Serbian. While most are Orthodox Christian, a small number are Muslim—holdovers from Ottoman times, when those who converted enjoyed special benefits. Ethnic Albanians, who comprise 25 percent of the population, are almost entirely Muslim, predominantly from the Gheg sub-group common to northern Albania and Kosovo. Other Muslim populations include Turks (four percent of the total population), Roma (around three percent), and about 17,000 Bosniaks.43 

However, a 2011 Pew report on global Muslim population growth trends indicates that, through 2030, Macedonia will experience a higher projected increase in number of Muslims to non-Muslims (5.4%) than any other European country. Pew expects that by 2030 some 40.3% of the total Macedonian population will be Muslim. This demographic trend will have severe political and social implications.44 However, it should be noted that the unexpected European migration crisis of 2015 will also alter the population balance in Northern European countries, which are far more attractive targets for terrorist attacks than is Macedonia. In fact, the long-expected demographic rise of Albanians could be tempered by trends of that population’s outflow (such as the large numbers of Albanian asylum-seekers during the migration crisis indicated). The fact that the vast majority of their asylum requests failed will not stop what are essentially economic migration attempts.

The chronic polarization between ethnic Macedonians and Albanians is, however, overblown and both populations have general tolerance for one another. This is where foreign (and specifically, Western) political interference has proven so negative, in deliberately politicizing and keeping alive animosities without reason. The polarization intensified during the 2001 conflict, when Kosovo-led Albanians took up arms, allegedly for more rights and civic employment opportunities, in the so-called National Liberation Army of subsequent DUI president Ali Ahmeti. Under international pressure, a peace treaty—the Ohrid Framework Agreement—was signed shortly thereafter by leaders of the four major political parties existing at that time.

The agreement stipulated a quota system for issues like public sector hiring, flag and language use, and so on. Thus followed a territorial decentralization that amounted to political horse-trading between the then-ruling coalition of the Socialist SDSM and the DUI, an ethnic Albanian party formed by the leadership of the former rebel group, the NLA. The decentralization institutionalized the ascendancy of Islam over large and territorially contiguous swathes of the population, particularly in northern and western Macedonia, where the majority of the country’s Albanian Muslims live. 

On a broader level, the major social issue within the Muslim community is the gap between the younger and older generations of Muslims. Young Islamists, confident in their own studies in Arab states, tend to depict older leaders of Macedonia’s Islamic Community as “communists” who do not understand Islam correctly, due to their different experience growing up in the former Yugoslavia.45 Yet the perceived discrepancy is rarely put to the test (say, through a televised theological debate). Rather, it is generally carried out through violence and intimidation. Since intimidation is often carried out subtly and occurs within tight-knit communities, it is seldom reported.46 For the time being, therefore, the primary victims of Islamist activity in Macedonia remain the country’s Muslims themselves. 

Islamism and the State: 

In Macedonia, the state’s ability to counteract extremism and engage it is conditioned by a unique factor that makes it much more complex than in other regional countries: that is, the increasing tendency of political parties from the ethnic Albanian minority to blur the boundaries between ethnic and religious identity. This tendency has been seen in social and political life, but it also has impeded the ability of Macedonian authorities to both pass counter-terrorism legislation and conduct operations. When an Albanian is arrested because of a religiously motivated crime, a backlash often arises that the individual is the victim of ethnic discrimination; and when that individual is arrested for nationalist extremism, the counter-argument is made of alleged religious bias. In this situation, police have had to tread carefully, and this more than anything else explains the relatively small number of terrorism-related arrests compared to Kosovo and Albania, where no such ethnic minority problem exists. 

Because of the migrant crisis and the Syrian civil war, the Macedonian state has had to divert resources and attention away from dealing with the domestic Islamist threat. The political crisis began in early 2015, and neatly coincided with the European migration crisis, which saw some one million illegal migrants and refugees transit Macedonia from Greece en route to Western Europe. Keeping control of this flow required considerable police and military assets to be redirected to the country’s southern border with Greece and its northern one with Serbia, under the law on crisis situations that was declared by President Gjorge Ivanov in August 2015 and later extended.47

In line with a U.S. request and legal assistance, Macedonia passed a foreign fighters law banning the participation of citizens in foreign conflicts on September 3, 2014.48 While no one voted against it, several prominent members of the ethnic Albanian coalition partner, DUI, abstained. Similar laws have been passed in other Balkan countries since 2014. The law, which threatens any returning fighters with jail time, is meant mostly to be a deterrent to aspiring jihadis.  In Macedonia, it provided a solid base for the state to begin systematically targeting known radical preachers, recruiters and returned foreign fighters from the Middle East.

The results can be seen in several related sweeps by special police, under the title Operation Kelija (Cell). In early August 2015, police targeted mosques, NGO offices and residences associated with recruiters and fighters for ISIS, in Skopje, Tetovo, Gostivar, Kumanovo and Struga.49 Nine suspects were arrested, including Rexhep Memishi, a well-known radical imam opposed to the ICM. Another 27 suspects were at large, believed to be in the Middle East. The U.S. Embassy in Skopje praised the action as a contribution to regional and global efforts against the “evil of terrorism.”50 In March 2016, a court sentenced six of the individuals (including the self-proclaimed imam) to seven years in prison.

In July 2016, the operation continued with a further sweep and arrest of four more ISIS-related Islamists.51 The third part was completed in August 2016, when Turkish police extradited five Macedonian Albanians suspected of having links with ISIS. They had been arrested in the Aksaray neighborhood of Istanbul while preparing to go to Syria.52 Information from security sources indicates that this was not the first time Macedonian and Turkish police have cooperated on identifying and arresting Macedonian nationals associated with Islamist groups on Turkish soil.

The success of these operations is ironic. While Macedonian police seem finally able to act against Islamic radicals with less danger of causing backlash from local Muslims, the fact that they have to deal with this threat at all indicates the unfortunate outcome of two decades of extremist ideology and infrastructure development in the country. The involvement of young jihadists from Macedonia and other Balkan countries in Syria since 2013 is proof of the effectiveness of the ideological, financial and logistical strategies practiced by radical supporters, years before the Syrian crisis provided a trigger for young Muslims to make the transformation from extremists to jihadists.

While Macedonia remains frozen out of the EU, owing to the unresolved disagreement with EU member Greece over the country’s name (Greece has a province called Macedonia as well), it has nevertheless enjoyed robust security cooperation with neighbors Serbia, Bulgaria, and especially Turkey. Indeed, the level of security cooperation with these countries in the future will greatly influence Macedonia’s ability to fight extremism at home. One of the major problems for non-EU members (like Macedonia, Serbia and Turkey) is that they are excluded from the EU’s database system that has been used for cataloging asylum seekers (EURODAC). Given the vast number of migrants who have crossed through these countries in recent years, and in light of ongoing concerns that terrorists may be among them, these non-EU countries are being left to create bilateral or otherwise special methods of cooperation and intelligence-sharing. Since the mass migration phenomenon is targeting Northern Europe, not the Balkans, it would be more in the interests of the EU to cooperate with these countries than the other way around. However, for various reasons, the bloc has done an insufficient job in cooperating.53

In its 2017 report previously cited, the State Department notes that “Macedonia’s capacity to detect and deter acts of terrorism without international support needs to be strengthened.” Similarly, the report cites “uneven” implementation and a “lack of capacity” from the Macedonian side regarding development of a 2015 five-year CVE strategy.54 

Hopefully, with the creation of a government in mid-2017 amenable to current U.S. interests, there is hope that trans-Atlantic cooperation will be more fruitful. Nevertheless, in the wake of the 2015-17 political crisis, Albanian society has become more polarized within and between ethnicities, and it is clear that Islamist factions will try to promote their own interests in the absence of national unity.

Citations: 

[1] Adrian Shtumi, “Ethnic Albanian Foreign Fighters in Iraq and Syria,” Combating Terrorism Center at West Point, April 30, 2015, https://www.ctc.usma.edu/posts/ethnic-albanian-foreign-fighters-in-iraq-and-syria/.
[2] This consensus is based on comments for the author made by several senior Kosovo officials since 2015.
[3] The ICM’s official website is www.bim.org.mk. The BIM acronym comes from the Albanian-language version of the name, Bashkesia Fetare Islame. Note that the institution is often referred to by its Macedonian name and acronym, Islamska Verska Zaednica (IVZ). International sources also refer to it as the Islamic Religious Community (IRC). All of these acronyms refer to the same official body.
[4] The most infamous examples of Salafi violence date from the turbulent reign of former Skopje mufti Zenun Berisha, who used a sort of Islamist private guard to take over several mosques, impose preferred candidates for jobs, and generally assert his authority. Accounts of intimidation, beatings and attacks against moderates such as former Reis Arif Emini and former Skopje mufti Taxhedin Bislimi were widely reported in the local media. A comprehensive account of these events, citing some of the leaders involved, is given in Christopher Deliso, The Coming Balkan Caliphate: the Threat of Radical Islam to Europe and the West, p. 82-86, Praeger Security International, 2007.
[5] Svetlana Jovanovska and Branko Gjorgeski, “Radical Islam In Macedonia Worries Western Observers,” WAZ/EU Observer, July 8, 2010, https://euobserver.com/news/30446.
[6] “Macedonia: Moderate Muslims Seek Help Against Sect,” Associated Press, September 20, 2010, http://www.sandiegouniontribune.com/sdut-macedonia-moderate-muslims-seek-help-against-sect-2010sep20-story.html.
[7] “Special forces conduct raid against IS,” The Economist Intelligence Unit, August 12, 2015, http://country.eiu.com/article.aspx?articleid=833431267&Country=Macedoni....
[8] See Deliso, The Coming Balkan Caliphate: the Threat of Radical Islam to Europe and the West.
[9] “MVR so detali: makedonski drzhavjani uapseni vo turtsija planirale zaminuvane na boishtata vo sirija kako del od id,” ("MOI details: Macedonian nationals arrested in Turkey planned departure battlefields in Syria as part of ISIS,") Kurir, August 27, 2016, http://kurir.mk/makedonija/vesti/mvr-so-detali-makedonski-drzhavjani-uapseni-vo-turtsija-planirale-zaminuvane-na-boishtata-vo-sirija-kako-del-od-id/.
[10] Country Reports on Terrorism 2016, United States Department of State, July 2017, https://www.state.gov/documents/organization/272488.pdf.
[11] “ISIS Threatens Terror Campaign in the Balkans,” Balkan Insight, June 8, 2017, http://www.balkaninsight.com/en/article/isis-wows-to-wreak-vengeance-on-....
[12] Islamic NGOs in Macedonia include both international franchises and local entities. Some belong to umbrella organizations, allowing them to participate in a variety of events internationally, and thereby network with likeminded ideologues from Islamic states.
[13] Bojan Pancevski, “Saudis Fund Balkan Muslims Spreading Hate Of The West,” Sunday Times (London), March 28, 2010, https://www.thetimes.co.uk/article/saudis-fund-balkan-muslims-spreading-.... Further factual details are cited in “Milijarda Evra Investirani Co Radikalniot Islam (Billion-euro Investment In Radical Islam),” Nova Makedonija, July 6, 2010.
[14] According to a senior security official, as of May 2016 some 80 such Islamists were being kept under 24-hour surveillance, as they could not be arrested, but still posed a potential threat. Author interview with Macedonian security official, May 2016.
[15] Author interview with Macedonian official, August 2016.
[16] “Davutoglu: Ahmeti vital for Macedonia’s stability,” MIA, September 27, 2017, http://www.mia.mk/en/Inside/RenderSingleNews/61/133878717#.
[17] For example, in the year 2010 alone, some 80 Islamic students from Turkey were known to be studying at the madrassa in the eastern town of Stip—with an announced plan for increasing this number in coming years to 500, and eventually to 1,500. “Turski Studenti Go Sardisaa Stip (Turkish Students Occupy Stip)," Dnevnik (Skopje), December 28, 2010.
[18] For one example, Turkish State Minister Faruk Celik visited Skopje in December 2010 to mark the TIKA’s renovation of the magnificent 15th-century mosque of Mustafa Pasha. He also met with top leaders of the country’s Islamic community. See “Turkey Says To Continue Repairing Ottoman Arts In Macedonia,” World Bulletin, December 21, 2010, http://www.worldbulletin.net/servisler/haberYazdir/67671/haber.
[19] For more on the doctrine of “strategic depth” developed by then-Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmed Davutoglu, see Ioannis N. Grigoriadis, “The Davutoglu Doctrine and Turkish Foreign Policy,” Hellenic Foundation for European and Foreign Policy (ELIAMEP), April 2010, http://www.eliamep.gr/wp-content/uploads/2010/05/ΚΕΙΜΕΝΟ-ΕΡΓΑΣΙΑΣ-8_2010_IoGrigoriadis1.pdf.
[20] “3rd Bosphorus bridge inaugurated,” TRT World, August 25, 2016, http://www.trtworld.com/turkey/3rd-bosphorus-bridge-inaugurated-172455.
[21] Sinisa Jakov Marucic. “Macedonians Divided Over President’s Support for Erdogan,” Balkan Insight, July 8, 2013. http://www.balkaninsight.com/en/article/macedonian-president-s-whole-hearted-support-for-endogan-divides-critics/2027/2.
[22] For an example of this prevailing hostile attitude, note the comments of Islamic NGO leader Bekir Halimi to a journalist: “We are fully entitled to receive funding from both governmental and non-governmental sources from Saudi Arabia.” See Pancevski, “Saudis Fund Balkan Muslims Spreading Hate Of The West,” The article also notes that Halimi “refuses to name the sources of his funding.”
[23] Pancevski, “Saudis Fund Balkan Muslims Spreading Hate Of The West,” The article also notes that Halimi “refuses to name the sources of his funding.”
[24] Deliso, The Coming Balkan Caliphate, 73-78.
[25] For example, a former Macedonian counterintelligence chief, Zoran Mitevski, recounted that in 1996 U.S. diplomats accused him of being “undemocratic” when he blocked several terror-linked Saudi charities from registering in the country. Deliso, The Coming Balkan Caliphate, 81.
[26] “Milijarda Evra Investirani Co Radikalniot Islam (Billion-Euro Investment In Radical Islam).”
[27] “Milijarda Evra Investirani Co Radikalniot Islam (Billion-Euro Investment In Radical Islam).” These figures roughly correspond with those given in Pancevski, “Saudis Fund Balkan Muslims Spreading Hate Of The West,” as well as with figures given to the author by Macedonian security officials.
[28] “New Mosque Built in Topansko Pole Will Be the Biggest Mosque in Macedonia,” Indepedendent.mk, July 28, 2014.
[29] Three of the men involved in the plot, brothers born in the Albanian-majority town of Debar, were arrested for their role in the failed attacks on U.S. soldiers at Ft. Dix. Garentina Kraja and William J. Kole, “Brothers Behind Fort Dix Plot Were From Pro-U.S. Enclave,” Associated Press, May 10, 2007, https://www.seattletimes.com/nation-world/brothers-behind-fort-dix-plot-....
[30] Devorah Lauter, “Swiss Voters OK Ban On Minarets,” Los Angeles Times, November 30, 2009, http://articles.latimes.com/2009/nov/30/world/la-fg-swiss-minaret30-2009....
[31] Pancevski, “Saudis Fund Balkan Muslims Spreading Hate Of The West,” The Sunday Times (London), March 28, 2010, https://www.thetimes.co.uk/article/saudis-fund-balkan-muslims-spreading-.... See also “Vahabisti Vrvuvaat Borci Za Dzihad Vo Makedonija” (“Wahhabis Recruit Fighters For Jihad In Macedonia”), Vecer, March 29, 2010. These claims correspond with testimony made by different Macedonian security officials and local Muslims to the author since 2004.
[32] A summary of the foreign minister’s statements are available on the website of the Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs (www.mfa.gov.il).
[33] Goce Mihajloski, “Makedonskite Humanitarsi Se Vratija Od Israel” (“Macedonian Humanitarians Returned From Israel”), A1 Televizija (Skopje), June 5, 2010.
[34] This insight comes from the comments of a Macedonian Jewish Community leader to the author, who was also present at the event and can confirm the Israeli security delegation’s size.
[35] See Chris Deliso, “After Macedonia’s Islamic Protests, Investigators Search for Significance amidst a Confusing Array of Motives and Clues,” www.balkanalysis.com, February 13, 2012, http://www.balkanalysis.com/macedonia/2012/02/13/after-macedonias-islamist-protest-investigators-search-for-significance-amidst-confusing-array-of-motives-and-clues/.
[36] “Macedonia protests signal surge of radical Islam,” Euractiv, May 14, 2012, http://www.euractiv.com/enlargement/protests-macedonia-signal-radica-news-512663.
[37] Author interview with Macedonian security official, June 2012.
[38] Sinisa Marusic, “Macedonia Mass Murder Trial Witnesses ‘Saw Gunmen,” Balkan Insight, January 18, 2013. http://www.balkaninsight.com/en/article/witnesses-saw-armed-men-at-skopje-s-mass-murder-site.
[39] “Shukri Aliu Povikuval na Arapska Prolet vo Makedonijua,” (“Shukri Aliu Called for an Arab Spring in Macedonia”), Sitel TV, December 6, 2012, http://www.sitel.com.mk/shukri-aliu-povikuval-na-arapska-prolet-vo-makedonija.
[40] Sinisa Jakov Marusic, “Macedonia Upholds Albanians’ ‘Terrorist Murder’ Sentences,” Balkan Insight, December 14, 2015, http://www.balkaninsight.com/en/article/macedonia-court-confirms-terrorist-murders-sentence-12-14-2015.
[41] “Macedonian Parliament's New Ethnic Albanian Speaker Enters Office,” RFE/RL, May 3 , 2017, https://www.rferl.org/a/macedonia-parliament-speaker-xhaferi-enters-offi....
[42] On November 15, 2017, the Macedonian parliament began debating the draft language law, a process that was expected to be contentious and last for several months. See, “Parliament to vote on draft law on the use of languages,” MIA, November 15, 2017, http://english.republika.mk/parliament-to-vote-on-draft-law-on-the-use-o....
[43] These numbers derive from the 2002 national census. The data is available in several PDF files on the official website of the State Statistical Office of Republic of Macedonia, www.stat.gov.mk.
[44] The Future of the Global Muslim Population: Projections for 2010-2030 (Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life  2011). The relevant part of the report is available online at http://www.pewforum.org/future-of-the-global-muslim-population-regional-europe.aspx.
[45] “Opasnost Od Radikalizam I U Macedonikija” (“Danger From Radicalism In Macedonia Too”), Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, September 11, 2010. In the author’s personal experience, the meme of “old Communists” (older, traditionalist Muslims) as being allegedly ignorant is a very pervasive one, and invoked frequently by Islamists in the country.
[46] Some examples include: physical attacks against clerics deemed to be in the way of Islamists and their goals; pressure for females to wear conservative religious dress; orders for moderate Muslims not to associate with Christians; injunctions against shopkeepers against selling alcohol; perpetuation of the archaic custom of arranged marriages for teenage girls; threats against young Muslims seen to be engaging in Western “hedonism;” violence against Muslim journalists seeking to report on any such issues, and so on.
[47] For a detailed account of Macedonia’s security response to the migrant crisis, see Chris Deliso, “Macedonian Migration Policy and the Future of Europe,” Balkanalysis.com, December 23, 2015, http://www.balkanalysis.com/macedonia/2015/12/23/macedonian-migration-policy-and-the-future-of-europe/.
[48] See Chris Deliso, “Asymmetric Threats Challenge Macedonia before Easter and Elections,” Balkanalysis.com, April 25, 2016, http://www.balkanalysis.com/macedonia/2016/04/25/asymmetric-threats-challenge-macedonia-before-easter-and-elections/.
[49] Sinisa Jakov Marusic, “Macedonian Police Targets ISIS Suspects,” Balkan Insight, August 6, 2015, http://www.balkaninsight.com/en/article/macedonia-launches-anti-terror-busts-08-06-2015.
[50] Sinisa Jakov Marusic, “Macedonia Arrests Nine ISIS Suspects,” Balkan Insight, August 7, 2015, http://www.balkaninsight.com/en/article/macedonia-arrests-nine-isis-suspects-08-07-2015
[51] Maja Zuvela, “Macedonian police arrest four suspected of Islamic State links,” Reuters, July 9, 2016, http://www.reuters.com/article/us-mideast-crisis-macedonia-idUSKCN0ZP0RV.
[52] “Kelija 3: Five Jihadists from Macedonia, Members of ISIL, Arrested,” Vecer, August 27, 2016, http://vecer.mk/makedonija/kjelija-3-uapseni-5-dzhihadisti-od-makedonija-chlenovi-na-isis.
[53] Chris Deliso, “Mistrust and Different Priorities Vex EU-Macedonian Security Cooperation,” Balkanalysis.com, May 27, 2016, http://www.balkanalysis.com/blog/2016/05/27/mistrust-and-different-priorities-vex-eu-macedonian-security-cooperation/
[54] Country Reports on Terrorism 2016, op. cit.