Serbian, Kosovar and Albanian mercenaries are popping up wherever there is a war to be fought.
Seasoned combatants, veterans from seven Balkans wars – depending on how you count – between 1991 and 2001, are offering their services across the Middle East as mercenaries.
Around six percent of all foreign fighters in Iraq and Syria are from the Balkans, according to the International Centre for Studies of Radicalism. For the most part, it is believed they are taking part in the various conflicts underway for monetary reasons rather than for questions of faith.
The question has become a significant Balkan security issue following warnings from the United States and other Western powers as well as the United Nations Security Council, which reported in August 2014 a dramatic increase in the number of fighters from the Balkans actively participating in regional wars, mostly in the Middle East.
The UN has asked Balkan governments to halt mercenary recruiting efforts in their countries. Several responded to calls from the international community by changing their criminal law code to forbid service in foreign military units.
Legal changes in Serbia, Albania, Macedonia, Kosovo and Bosnia-Herzegovina now threaten citizens who sign up as mercenaries with prison sentences ranging from five to 15 years.
The new laws contain exemptions to avoid affecting the ability of national ‘regular’ armies to take part in multilateral NATO or UN peacekeeping missions or in conflicts falling under bilateral defence treaties.
The first of the trials against mercenary combatants began in Kosovo during August 2014. Another began in Bosnia-Herzegovina a month later. In Kosovo, 41 individuals were arrested and subsequently charged out of 57 suspected of taking part in wars in Syria and Iraq. Five admitted visiting Syria but denied participation in combat there. Others denied belonging to terrorist groups like the Islamic State.
An anti-terrorism unit of the Kosovar police also acted against suspected recruiters, arresting 15 people – 12 of them imams from mosques in the country – believed by authorities to be involved in sending fighters to Syria, most apparently by way of Turkey.
Just to make sure the message got home, the dean of the faculty of Islamic studies in Pristina – Kosovo’s capital – told journalists that “the war in Syria is not a holy war” for Kosovar Muslims. His position was echoed by Reis Ul-Ulema Sulejman efendi Rexhepi, head of the Islamic community in Macedonia.
High unemployment is thought to be a key factor aiding recruiters, but some of the fighters are likely influenced as well by the propaganda efforts of radical religious organisations and movements active in their countries.
The problem emerged when the bodies of combatants killed in action were returned home for burial – four to Macedonia, 16 to Kosovo and five to Albania. Aside from sporadic cases like these, official data does not seem to exist regarding the total number of Balkan mercenaries so far killed in combat in the Middle East.
On the whole, the emotional association with Islam is not strongly felt in the Balkans, where the word of the Prophet arrived during the period of Ottoman Turkish domination. The claim is sometimes made in fact that Albania, where the vast majority of the population is nominally Muslim, may be the most strongly pro-American nation in the region.
The growing export of Balkan mercenaries is not limited to Iraq and Syria. A unit of Serbian fighters is known to have fought for Libyan leader Colonel Muammar Gaddafi during the Libyan Civil War in 2011. It is claimed that the same unit is now has an active combat role in Syria on behalf of President Bashar al-Assad.
Serbian combatants are also reported to be present in Eastern Ukraine fighting with pro- Russian separatists. Intelligence sources have claimed that 46 Serbs are present in the fighting around Luhansk, where they reinforce the ‘popular militia’ of the so-called New Russian Republic. Indeed, the conflict underway in the Ukraine seems to be drawing from both sides of former Balkan conflicts, setting Albanians and Serbs against one other again after 15 years: the Albanians with Ukrainian government forces against Russian separatists and the Serbs with Russian separatists against Ukraine’s army.
The best information in either case is that these men are for the most part pure mercenaries, out for the money and not motivated in a significant way by religious or ideological considerations.
If that is true, the problem goes beyond the conflicts where the Balkan ‘hired guns’ are presently involved and, from the point of view of the countries of which they are citizens, tends to focus on the day in which peace of some sort will leave them unemployed.
Suppose, in other words, the Balkan fighters then come home as hardened but empty-pocketed mercenaries, better prepared in the ways of combat and destruction than in how to conduct a peaceful civilian life – and with their alarming international contacts still in place…