skip to Main Content

The roles of women in supporting, joining, intervening in and preventing violent extremism in Sandjak

Analysis of the Drivers of Violent Extremism in the Sandjaregionwith a Focus on Women’s Roles, including a Stakeholder Capacity Assessment Regarding Gender Issues


Anne Speckhard, Ph.D.



      Defining Violent Extremism


Analysis – Findings

Trajectories into Violent Extremism and Terrorism in Sandjak


Legal Infrastructure: International and Governmental and Non-Governmental Response

        Women’s Roles

        Current Women Initiatives and Policy Recommendations



SP                                                  Sandjak Police

OSCE                                            Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe

UNDP                                            United Nations Development Program

EULEX                                         The European Union Rule of Law Mission in Sandjak

FSA                                               Free Syrian Army

ISIS                                               Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant

Special thanks to UN Women for supporting this research.


The purpose of this report is to address radicalization, including radicalization leading to violent extremism, in the Sandjak region, a predominantly Muslim region in  southern Serbia. This report will also explore the roles of women in supporting, joining, intervening in, and preventing violent extremism. It is based on a desk review of research and interviews conducted in Novi Pazar with a range of subjects including representatives of local NGOs, educators, religious leaders, city council representatives, and representatives of national and international organizations between October 27 and October 30, 2016. During two decades of researching hundreds of terrorists,Speckhard found theusual and necessary components to make a terrorist are: a group, its ideology, social support, and individual vulnerabilities and motivations which break out according to whether one lives in a conflict zone our outside of one.[1]In the case of Sandjak region, the primary groups operating and radicalizing citizens into violent extremism are militant jihadi groups operating in Syria. The municipality of Novi Pazar, including the Sandjak region, is also known for the activities of a small group of extremists connected to the Wahhabi/Salafi strand of Islam.

Ethnic and political divisions dating since the break-up of the former Yugoslavia in the early 90s characterize the Sandjak region. Its residents continue to experience high levels of unemployment, lack of investment, and lack of adequate education, all social and economic issues that many blame on the national government as features of marginalization, discrimination, and neglect towards its Muslim populations. The region is also caught between right-wing nationalist sentiments, strongly associated with the Serbian Orthodox Church, and an Islamic Community with two religious leadership centers, one in Belgrade (Islamic Community of Serbia) and the other in Novi Pazar (Islamic Community in Serbia), with the latter pledging its loyalty to the leadership in Sarajevo, Bosnia. Residents of the region remain torn between dual religious leadership that each claim religious superiority over the other. They represent two intense factions, each guided by a scorching rhetoric that caters to different masses, often leading to violent confrontations among them.[2]

The Islamic Community in Serbia (ICiS) is vocal against the Serbian authorities when it comes to protection of religious rights and what they perceive to be obstruction of economic development in the region, and views the Islamic Community of Serbia (ICoS) as a creation of the Serbian state security services. ICoS, on the other hand, considers ICiS as a solely religious organization with local impact and character but no political clout or ability to represent Muslims in Sandjak. However, the Mufti and the former president of the ICiS, Muamer Zukorlic, recently retired and became a Parliamentarian with considerable political clout both in Belgrade and Novi Pazar.

The current struggle and conflict within the Islamic Community in the region transcends local religious predilections and affiliations, however. As noted by many respondents in our research, the conflict is also about financial gains and local political expediency—that is, about the control of the Islamic Community’s religious assets, its charity funds, both local and international, its ability to control and raise funds and about job allocation. Between the two, there is also a fierce competition over a great deal of money collected for organizing annual Hajj pilgrimages, money that goes to one or the other depending on the membership answering to them. Although many of the struggles within the Islamic Community remain rooted in the political struggles of the past, the split continues to affect inter-ethnic and intra-Bosnian relations both within the Sandjak region and inside Serbia.

As a consequence of the wars of the 90s and the subsequent dissolution of the former Yugoslavia, Serbia, like its surrounding neighbors, has seen the flow of foreign money and religious ideologies streaming into its borders and greatly influencing the region’s Muslim population.  Schisms within the Islamic Community have been influenced by the emergence of external conservative influences entering Sandjak, such as Wahhabi/Salafi streams of thought emanating from the Gulf region. In Novi Pazar, one cannot help but notice conservative Wahhabi/Salafi communities—some of these communities entirely isolated from the rest of the mainstream society—and women dressed in full niqab.  Interviewed parties presented conflicting arguments as to the threat level such conservative communities might potentially represent and what triggers their formation and behavior, though views presented by some respondents were that such groups are in support of jihadist narratives and constitute a serious security threat in the region. Others stated that Wahhabis appear to radicalize sectors of the population and to hinder successful integration and counter radicalization efforts in the region.

The emergence of groups of Wahhabi/Salafi adherents were at first encouraged by the former Mufti of ICiS, Muamer Zukorlic, who used his control over them as a bargaining chip with Belgrade. However, that seems to have backfired as Wahhabi/Salafi groups are now often critical of the ICiS leadership, labeling them, and the former Mufti in particular, as “corrupt and materialistic.”[3].  Such comments appear to reflect concerns shared by many in the community reaching beyond these Wahhabi groups regarding the economic dominance and what seems to many as corrupt business dealings in Novi Pazar currently carried out by the former Mufti. [4]Indeed, the confluence of both factors may constitute a radicalizing force:the appearance of a vast accumulation of wealth via corruption coupled with a conservative Islamic narrative that fosters belief in claims for an alternative and more just world order.

With the advent of the Syrian conflict and the rise of ISIS, the Sandjak’s Muslims have not been immune to recruitment. It is difficult to come by publicly available and official data related to the participation of citizens of the Sandjak region, including Novi Pazar, in the Syrian and the Iraq conflict, as officials are secretive about such data and do not publish or share it willingly. Estimates from respondents are that anywhere from 20-30 residents of the Sandjak region, of which 10-20 are from Novi Pazar, have travelled to Syria and the Iraq and joined the so-called “Islamic State.” There are also others who either directly or indirectly continue to support such recruitment and efforts at building an Islamic “Caliphate” in Syria and Iraq.

Ethnic tensions, coupled with unstable economic, social, and institutional foundations (e.g. high levels of unemployment, distrust in centralized power, prevailing corruption, lack of rule of law, inability on the part of government to curb violence and hate crimes and speech, perceived and real experiences of social isolation of ethnic Bosniaks and Muslim groups from Serbian political, social spheres, etc.) continue to fuel extremist rhetoric and may lead to further escalation of radicalism and violent extremism in the region. In fact, several of the participants stressed, especially among the young, the feelings of insecurity and distrust in economic, social, and institutional foundations as a main motivator for joining the conflicts in Iraq and Syria, and pointed out a direct relationship between what they perceived as injustices witnessed in the Syrian and the Iraq conflict and the injustices in terms of discrimination many in Sandjak continue to experience within their families and communities.

This report will discuss radicalization, including radicalization leading to violent extremism, in the Sandjak region based on interviews in Novi Pazar. Several risk factors will be discussed to understand better the drivers of radicalization and violent extremism. Moreover, similar to neighboring Kosovo, while there is a national-level discussion on violent extremism in the country, there is a limited policy or programmatic discussion on the role of women in preventing violent extremism, rehabilitating former extremists, or how they can be included in the country’s national counter-terrorism initiatives and strategies. In this regard, this report will also discuss women’s roles both in becoming violent extremist and in preventing and countering violent extremism.

Estimates are that since the start of the Syrian conflict in 2011, upwards of 38,000 foreign fighters have joined Sunni militant groups, such as ISIS and al-Qaeda, in Iraq and Syria.[5]Roughly 5,000 have joined from Western Europe, of which roughly 3,700 have originated from France, Germany, Belgium, and U.K. It is estimated that 875 have originated from the Balkans, of which almost 800 are reported to have come from the western Balkan countries of Kosovo, Albania, Bosnia, and Macedonia.[6]On a per capita basis (per million of its citizens), these four Western Balkan countries have a higher representation of foreign fighters compared to the four Western European countries with the highest per capita foreign fighters. Serbia, being predominantly Christian, has a much lower per capita representation of foreign fighters; however, when the Sandjak’s per capita figures (which vary depending on what source is used) are isolated and extrapolated per population of 200,000 to be able to compare to the rest of the Balkans, Sandjak has the unique distinction of having either the highest or the second highest per capita representation, following Kosovo, of citizens of any country in wider Europe who left for Syria and Iraq since 2011.[7]

Table One: Balkan Foreign Fighter Breakdown by Country

Ranking Ranking


Barret & Soufan Group

Number of foreign fighters


Ranking Number of foreign fighters (on a per capita basis/per million)
2 Kosovo 316[8] 1 172
9 Sandjak region of Serbia 15 to 30[9] 2 112
1 Bosnia 330 3 85
3 Albania 90 4 30
4 Serbia 70 5 10
5 Macedonia 12 6 6
6 Montenegro NA 7 NA
7 Romania NA 8 NA
10 Greece NA 9 NA
11 Bulgaria NA 10 NA

Source: Country sources, ICSR and The Soufan Group (2014-2015).[10]

The issue of foreign fighters and their involvement in the Syrian and the Iraq conflict, including the rising fears that returnees from the Syrian and the Iraq conflict may plot attacks in their home countries, has created concerns at the highest echelons of the Balkan political systems, including in the Sandjak region and in Belgrade. Despite the Serbian government’s progress in the field of counterterrorism, such as the passage of foreign fighter legislation in 2014 that raises prison sentences for those participating in foreign wars and is primarily introduced to dissuade its citizens from participating in the Syrian and the Iraq conflict, it still lacks a comprehensive national strategy or action plan to counter violent extremism (CVE).[11]State-level policies are binding for the local level as well (i.e. the Sandjak region), although they do not directly reference measures to prevent radicalization and violent extremism in the region. Although efforts by international organizations in the region are currently primarily focused on addressing the most pressing socio-economic and political issues (e.g. Swiss Embassy, OSCE, etc.),a number of local NGOs have undertaken projects to address the issue of radicalization and extremism as well.

The current situation remains both dangerous and volatile. Foreign fighters in Syria and Iraq are expected to return home, and some who are not originally from the Balkans may even choose to migrate to the Sandjak region if they find that they can slip in and live there under the radar of government and security services. Given that police in the region tend to be Serbian ethnic nationals and do not reflect the character of local population, do not have a strong community policing model, and have not won the trust of locals, the possibility of foreign fighters from Syria and Iraq slipping and living undetected into Sandjak is a real possibility. Similarly to Kosovo findings, interviewed officials stated that those who are known to the police would be arrested upon their return and subsequently convicted and imprisoned if deemed a threat to society.

However, that there are others who may have already falsely declared themselves killed in Syria and Iraq, or who will do so, and then surreptitiously return to live secretly in the Balkans without identity documents. Likewise, extremist ideologies and groups supporting these ideologies continue to thrive in the Sandjak region, as evidenced by the growing presence of conservative groups such as Wahhabi/Salafi with ties to extremist groups, despite the likely loss of ISIS  held territories in Iraq and Syria, alongside socio-economic factors that create vulnerabilities to these ideologies, making for continued radicalization a reality even if ISIS and al-Nusra fail to continue to succeed in their activities in Syria and Iraq.[12]

Indeed, the migration of  of extremists may increase the short and long-term dangers to the Sandjak region, including Serbia as a whole, if prevention, intervention, and remediation efforts are not planned now and carried out well in the coming months and years. This requires gaining a thorough understanding of the actors involved, their pathways into extremist violence, and taking effective steps to block such trajectories, specifically by stopping ideological preaching in support of violent extremism, discrediting terrorist ideologies, stopping face-to-face and Internet-based recruitment and financingand, most importantly, addressing the underlying factors that create both vulnerabilities and motivations for individuals to want to join such groups as well as support them on an ideological and operational levels. Likewise, for those already on the terrorist trajectory, effective steps must be taken to reverse them and stop such individuals from seeding themselves both in prisons and outside of them—spreading the danger to the Sandjak region and Serbia as a whole. This requires thorough knowledge, monitoring, and good rehabilitation programs for those already deeply involved. There will be those who cannot be rehabilitated, which will require suitable prison practices to keep such individuals isolated from other prisoners vulnerable to being recruited.

As pointed above, although the State has achieved significant progress on the counterterrorism realm and has expressed its resolve to address the issue of foreign fighters seriously, as evidenced by the passage of foreign fighter legislation in 2014, there is a lack of comprehensive national strategies and actions plans on countering violent extremism. In addition, there is a lack of policy or programmatic discussion on the role of women in preventing violent extremism, rehabilitating former extremists, or how they can be included in the country’s national counter-terrorism initiatives and strategies. Despite the relatively low number of women involved in the Syrian and the Iraq conflict, womenin the Sandjak region, including in Novi Pazar, can play an important role in fighting violent extremism in the region. Government and nongovernmental initiatives should take women’s roles in extremist groups and their roles both in preventing and in countering violent extremism seriously, and policies and practices should include them. The following reports on our study of radicalization to violent extremism in general and women’s roles in particular within the Sandjak region both in becoming violent extremists and in preventing and countering violent extremism.

Defining Violent Extremism and Extremist Constructs in the Region

This section will briefly cover constructs such as Salafism, Wahhabism, Islamism, radicalization, and violent extremism. In order to fully understand policy implications of the intended research, the readers must become familiar with the constructs that form its foundation.

Radicalization v violent extremism

The terms such as radicalism, radicalization, and violent extremism remain poorly defined and understood. While some authors equate radicalization with terrorism, radicalization is in actuality often a precondition to terrorism,[13]while others point out that it is not always the first step toward terrorism or violence. [14]In either case, radicalization represents a “process by which individuals are introduced to an overtly ideological message and belief system that encourages movement from moderate mainstream beliefs towards extreme views.” [15]Radicals are the ones who challenge status quo, though not necessarily through violent means and can also be positive forces in society. While the term radicalization is often equated with the term extremism, there are significant differences between the two. There is a distinction between “open-minded (radicals) and close-minded extremists.” [16]Many government agencies in the West tend to make a distinction between “violent” and “non-violent” extremism, the latter often referred to as “cognitive” form of radicalization,[17]with the former being a form of radicalization that endorses violent solutions to political problems, including at times terrorism.

According to the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), the term violent extremism is defined as “encouraging, condoning, justifying, or supporting the commission of a violent act to achieve political, ideological, religious, social, or economic goals.”[18]The term violent extremism is often intertwined with the term terrorism, meaning it is used synonymously with the term terrorism, and there is a lack of a precise definition of violent extremism and its relationship with terrorism. However, the UN Security Council Resolution S/RES/2178/2014, stresses the “link between violent extremism and terrorism”[19]and the need to prevent “violent extremism, which can be conducive to terrorism.” [20]While there are literally hundreds of competing definitions of terrorism, for the purpose of this report we are opting for a simple definition: political violence carried out by non-state actors and aimed at civilians for the purposes of influencing or achieving political, ideological, religious, social, or economic goals.


The term Islamism refers to an ideology and movement that calls for creation of an Islamic State(s) governed by the principles of Islamic Law or al-Shariah. Implementing shariah law usually implies the process of replacing jahiliyya(paganism) with hakamiyya(the rule of Allah).[21]Since the early seventeenth century, several names were associated with the ideology of Islamism. The modern day and more radical formulations were those of Hassan al-Banna (1906-1949) of the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood, Sayed Maududi (1903-1979) of the Pakistani Jamaat-e-Islami, and Sayyid Qutb (1906-1966) of the Muslim Brotherhood of Egypt. Ayman Zawahari, founder of the Egyptian Islamic Jihad (1980) and current leader of the militant Islamist and terrorist group, al-Qaeda, also subscribes to this particular ideology and movement, as do current leaders in ISIS and Khomeini of Iran.[22]

Salafi ideology and Wahhabism

The term Salafism is used to describe the fundamentalist ideological element occurring within Sunni Islam today. Its main hallmark is a call to all modern Muslims to revert to the practices and lifestyle of the Prophet Muhammad and his companions encompassing the exact behaviors and actions of his generation and the two generations that followed him. Salafism emphasizes Islam as an ultimate system of belief and governance and is extremely conservative in its outlook condemning any changes to original practices of Islam as sinful innovations. It also preaches God’s oneness, while condemning polytheism (shirk) and unbelief (kufr). [23]While more commonly discussed in the context of Saudi Arabia’s history, studies on Salafism and Wahhabism (a revivalist movement founded by Muhammad ibn’ Abd al-Wahhab in the eighteenth century that drew largely from Salafi ideology) began to attract considerable attention following the events of 9/11.[24]

While Salafi-Wahhabi movements have been relatively successful in establishing themselves in many parts of the world, such movements often make inroads in those areas where an ethnic-nationalist struggle is prominent or other insecurities, including discrimination, against Muslim populations prevail.[25]As an extremely black and white version of Islam with clear boundaries and a multiplicity of rules that if followed promise benefits in this life as well as eternal salvation in the next, Salafism/Wahhabism can be seen as a religious ideology that can provide a sense of comfort, structure, and security to those living in fearful, anxious, unjust and concerning circumstances. In the context of the Balkans, some authors attribute the spread of radical Islamist doctrine of Salafism (which in the Balkan region is often utilized interchangeably with the term Wahhabism) to “the break- up of former Yugoslavia, the conflict in Bosnia and Herzegovina, and the UN embargo imposed on all six former Yugoslav from 1992-1995.”[26]


The report relies on field research. An  exploratory and qualitative research design was undertaken in Novi Pazar, the Sandjak region, between November 27th and November 30th, 2016. The research design was utilized to understand drivers of radicalization as well as gather evidence to understand the extent to which policies and programs integrated gender perspectives.

Prior to data collection, the authors conducted desk research review of existing literature and relevant policy documents, such as strategic documents, action plans, etc., on the topic in the municipality of Novi Pazar, including Serbia. This phase was instrumental in generating relevant background information on the topic as well as developing appropriate research instruments of inquiry and identifying a target pool of research participants.

Semi-structured and open-ended interview questions were employed to allow research participants to identify and elaborate on problem areas, explain who could be trusted for solutions, and identify key gaps and opportunities for effective interventions and solutions. Focus group discussions were also employed with the members of the Multi-Task Force working on the referral mechanism for the prevention of extremism and radicalization.

  • The list of institutions/individuals interviewed included:
  • Representatives of local NGOs
  • Religious leaders
  • Political representatives/City Council representatives
  • Representatives of national institutions
  • Representatives of the Multi-Task Force comprised of judges and local NGO and international consultants
  • Representatives of international organizations (e.g. OSCE, Swiss Embassy).

Available credible reports on the phenomena generated by government, international organizations, and NGOs were collected.  The entirety was then analyzed to understand violent extremism in the region and specifically to discover the roles of women in violent extremism, their vulnerabilities and motivations for joining such groups, as well as the potential to involve them in prevention and intervention efforts from the side of government, community and nongovernmental  interventions. Data on foreign fighters was also sought, but the authors found that it is difficult to come by publicly available and official data related to the participation of the citizens of Novi Pazar in the Syrian and the Iraq conflict.

The authors hoped to interview conservative Wahhabi/Salafi themselves, including their family members, but were unable to reach them and gain trust for interviews given time constraints. Data collection methods also consisted building upon a two-decades career of interviewing and studying extremists and terrorists around the globe and a thorough knowledge of existing literature and data on extremists and terrorist groups such as al-Nusra and ISIS. Likewise, given that the first author spent the last year interviewing ISIS defectors globally, she was quite knowledgeable about their methods of recruitment, indoctrination, networks of funding, and travel, and was able to interview explicitly on these topics with all subjects who were able to divulge information of this type. Guiding questions for the field research were sent to the UN Women’s Office both in Belgrade and in Istanbul to help with the mission preparation.


Trajectories into Violent Extremism and Terrorism in the Sandjak Region

Many participants stressed the national government’s secrecy in discussing the issue of involvement of the citizens of the Sandjak region in the Syrian and the Iraq conflict. It is also difficult to come by demographic data.As one of the participants noted,” Police and government [central government] just mention participation but don’t talk about numbers or manifestations of it.”[27]Estimates according to participant responses are that 60-70 individuals from all over Serbia have travelled to the conflict zone in Syria and Iraq since the beginning of conflict in 2011, though some sources place that number to be from the Sandjak region alone. Some sources credited twenty to thirty to be from the Sandjak region and 10-20 from Novi Pazar. At least three are believed to have died. There are no official estimates for returnees, including data on women who have traveled to Iraq and Syria, although at least three women from Novi Pazar[28](Alma Smailovic, Lejla Brahovic, and Emina Plojovic) are reported to have traveled to Syria—two of them with their two children.[29]Five individuals were indicted in 2014 for involvement in the Syrian and the Iraq conflict. Currently, there are 2 pending cases involving 6 individuals accused of fighting with ISIS but not traveling there and 21 accused of providing logistical support to ISIS As pointed out above, official demographic data on foreign fighters, including women and children who have traveled to Syria or Iraq, are either lacking or are incomplete. Some may also be hidden from authorities by covering their travel to Syria and Iraq as work migration or other travel, or simply having gone unnoticed by authorities and unreported by their families and community members who may fear the repercussions for them should they return to the region. From the available statistics and interviews with government officials, however, it stands that a majority of those for whom data exist are aged between 22-35.[30]A majority of them come from below average or poor financial and economic backgrounds. Most of them had only finished high school. For women who have traveled to Syria the age range is between 19-28. Tthe majority of women traveled with their spouses.[31]

The Wahhabi’s

Based on respondent estimates, the Wahhabi presence in Novi Pazar numbers approximately 1,000 , though they are also present in Sjenica and Priboj of the Sandjak region. The first group is believed to have arrived in the Sandjak region in 1997 from Sarajevo, Bosnia, and they are said to be heavily backed by Saudi funds. They represent a minority and fundamentalist face of Islam relative to the general Muslim population. In the Sandjak region, the Wahhabi followers are usually young and come from criminal backgrounds, though there are also “moderate” Wahhabi followers comprised of doctors, intellectuals, engineers, and students who have studied in Nis and Sarajevo. According to participant respondes, there are also others who are “simply innocent and easily deceived into following such extremist ideology.”[32]Even though the exact relationship between the Wahhabi’s and ICiS remains unclear, many respondents noted the latter’s encouraging and welcoming support of the Wahhabi’s—at least in the early stages. Many respondents  referred to the former Mufti’s, Muamer Zukorlic’s, support for the Wahhabi element perhaps as a result of receiving cash infusions and as a bargaining chip with Belgrade—that is, in terms of promises made to control this more fundamentalist element from entering into violent extremism. The dynamics changed, however, following the attempt on the part of the Wahhabi’s to assassinate Zukorlic, including a series of incidents at mosques that led to the eventual ban of the Wahhabis from ICiS-controlled mosques. This however resulted in Wahhabi groups going underground, meeting informally and outside the purview or control of the official muftiate.

Mechanics of Recruitment

Participants explained that social media continues to play a major role in the recruitment of individuals towards a violent path and serves as powerful tool for promoting extremist ideologies. Some also mentioned the local media, “Sandjak Press,” for instance, as playing a role in spreading extremism and encouraging people to travel to conflict zones in Iraq and Syria. As one of the respondents explained, “Nobody pays attention to what is being written [in Sandjak Press]. In a single day, they printed 12 articles about Syria and Palestine. They wrote about injustice and how people defend Islam, portraying a dangerous picture of the situation but not condemning terrorist organizations.”[33]Although there are no reports of recent travel to Iraq and Syria on the part of the citizens of Novi Pazar, respondents noted that recruiters, both face-to-face and online, remain active. Recruiters are said to continue to be active and present during various charitable and social gatherings and events in the Sandjak region. Claims are made that funding from the Saudis and the Sandjak region diaspora based in Vienna continues to pour in to support those holding and promulgating violent extremist views as well as to support family members of those killed as foreign fighters in Syria and Iraq. Several of the respondents noted that Islamic extremists are linked to Wahhabi communities in Novi Pazar and the Sandjak region and are usually operating through “unofficial” mosques”[34]Respondents also reported cases of recruiters targeting young migrants originally from the Sandjak region in Vienna. For instance, a young man whose father was killed in childhood while enlisted in one of the wars in the territories of the former Yugoslavia, traveled to Vienna and was immediately approached by recruiters who offered him a shelter, fellowship, free food, and overpaid him for random odd jobs while indoctrinating him with militant jihadi extremist views and a strong sense of purpose and belonging in the extremist group.

Humanitarian and Altruistic Motivations alongside Strong Posttraumatic Identifications with Victims of Interethnic and Sectarian Conflicts

Humanitarian reasons and strong identification with Assad’s victims in Syria were one of the most commonly cited reasons for joining the conflict. The long-term psychological legacy of wars in the Balkan region (e.g. Bosnia and Kosovo) still casts a long shadow in the Sandjak region, creating serious vulnerabilities to terrorist recruitment. The background of having experienced the Balkan wars, either through hearing about it from relatives or having directly experienced war traumas in childhood (e.g. seeing or hearing about war atrocities), and remembering that it was foreign interventions that saved them—in some instances interventions that failed or came in late, such as in the case of the 1995 Srebrenica massacre in Bosnia —caused many in the first and later waves to deeply identify with what they referred to as their “Sunni brothers and sisters” suffering from Assad’s atrocities. However, even though motivations were simpler and less endorsing of terrorism in the first wave, it was clear that even then clandestine recruitment networks and financing for travel to Syria were in operation inside the Sandjak region.

The ability and mastery of groups in Syria to utilize social media to vividly portray the conflicts in Syria to those living outside the conflict zone cannot be underestimated as a strongly motivating factor for many in the Sandjak region to become foreign fighters. Similar to sentiments shared in Kosovo, many respondents pointed out how many who have traveled to the conflict region viewed videos of the regime’s atrocities towards civilians and felt acutely sensitive to wanting to help their Syrian “Sunni brothers and sisters.” In this sense, they identified with the Syrians on religious basis, from common experience and on a “fictive kin” basis—feeling a deep and strong responsibility to go and fight in their defense.

Discrimination and Marginalization of Muslim Communities by Serbia and Islamophobia

Respondents often cited marginalization and discrimination as deeply radicalizing elements in Sandjak. Many referred to economic incentives to foreign investment always being directed by Belgrade to Christian areas of Serbia rather than to the Sandjak region and infrastructure, education and infusions of state capital coming last and least to their region. “Look at our roads,” one complained, while another said that higher educational institutions were not funded by the central government in Novi Pazar leading to the community to have to build its own Islamic university. High rates of unemployment and unproductive futures for youth were often blamed on Serbian national governance and many felt that Sandjak’s Muslim communities were blamed, ostracized and overlooked for development leaving the youth vulnerable to groups like ISIS that promise purpose, significance, leadership, honor.

Skinheads and Serbian nationalist movements are active in Belgrade and throughout Serbia and caused some respondents to note that they changed their Islamic names to Christian versions when attending university in Belgrade and kept a low profile.  These aspects of Islamaphobic experiences and perspectives of neglect by the central governance toward their region when compared to the all inclusive promises of the ISIS “Caliphate” can create dangerous vulnerability to recruitment.

Hijrah, Jihad, End Times Prophetic Thinking and The Call of the “Caliphate”

Since it declared its “Caliphate” in 2014, ISIS began promoting it as an ideal, utopian Islamic state where justice and prosperity would ultimately reign and those who wished to live under shariah law should come. ISIS also began announcing and promoting it as a place where Muslims of every race and ethnicity would be included in an all-inclusive (to Muslims) alternative government and given significant roles, which created an unprecedented response, not only in the Sandjak region, but also worldwide.[35]

The ISIS invitation to jihad was successful for numerous reasons, including the advent of social media and the ability to cast an enormous propaganda net with immediate feedback as to who liked, retweeted, and otherwise endorsed their materials, allowing ISIS recruiters to make contact with vulnerable individuals and seduce them into traveling to the battleground. Among those from the region who have traveled to Iraq and Syria during the last two years, or are currently engaged with terrorist groups in Iraq and Syria, it was clear that religious and ideological motives that invoked the struggle as jihad in the name of Allahand ideological motives that called for protection of all Muslims and the creation of an “Islamic State” were the most commonly cited reasons for joining terrorist groups, and remain among the primary motivating factors.[36]

ISIS propaganda very strongly promotes the individual responsibility of all Muslims to take hijra (migration to Islamic lands) as well as the individual duty to fight jihad (fard al-ayn). Likewise, ISIS also preaches End Timesprophetic theology, citing the coming battles in Dabiq (Syria) and inviting all Muslims to join the ultimate apocalyptic battles. The ideological call is made to invoke a sense of duty while also promising materialistic and spiritual benefits (e.g. free housing, cars, food and propane allowances, the promise of marriage and sex slaves, and the rewards of “martyrdom” for those who die in battle, etc.) alongside the chance to live by what ISIS proclaimed as a truly Islamic lifestyle under Shariah law.

The terrorist groups’ propaganda and appealing narratives spread prolifically over the Internet, showing both the atrocities of Assad and the appeal of joining the End Times prophetic battle and building the “Caliphate,” alongside the spiritual and materialistic benefits accrued by doing so, thus creating a powerful worldwide appeal. It was one that resonated especially to citizens of the Sandjak region who strongly identified with the victims of interethnic and sectarian conflict and it was multiplied in the small Wahhabi communities who have already withdrawn from mainstream society advocating living by shariah law.

Recruitment by successful leaders in the battlefield (e.g. Abit Podbicanin, a notorious ISIS commander from Velika Zupa, Prijepolje)—also made it clear that they could aspire to become prominent players in this “Caliphate”—as well as extremist networks operating on the ground providing financing and logistical support to travel to Syria—easily facilitated the movement of citizens of Novi Pazar, including the Sandjak region, into the conflict zone.

It should be noted, however, that not all went to Syria and Iraq with the intention of fighting. As informed by the respondents, some went simply to pursue a life inside the ISIS “Caliphate,” travelling with their families to the conflict zone to live in the “Islamic State” according to what they believed would be the “righteous principles” of Islam and not to necessarily participate in hostilities.[37]What happened once there was another story, however.

Foreign Assistance and Muslim Identity as a Vulnerability and Motivating Factor

Both Islamic Communities in the Sandjak region follow and practice the Hanafi school of Islam, a traditionally liberal and moderate version of Islam, as do the majority of the Sandjak’s citizens. With the fall of the former Yugoslavia, however, Turkey and Gulf countries entered helping to rebuild mosques, the later introducing Salafi and Wahhabi streams of Islam into the country and creating identity confusion. The schism between the Islamic Community itself has also paved the way to those who promote religious extremism, as well as those who have used extremist elements to promote their political clout in Belgrade while creating a profound confusion as to which religious authority has jurisdiction and power over religious matters in the Sandjak region. In the case of ISIS, black and white thinking and a clear Muslim identity is promised to those who travel to live under the “Caliphate,” thereby removing any questions in those searching for their identity and trying to find their way living, according to ISIS, as a true and good Muslim.

Salafi Islam can be protective against militant jihadi ideologies of groups like ISIS and al-Qaeda if taught in ways that denounce their call to violence in the name of jihad and Takfiri extremes (i.e. denouncing and allowing for killing Muslims and others who do not adhere to their strict interpretations of Islam). However, if it is not taught in this manner, Salafi streams of Islam can also provide a ready gateway into more extremist Takfiri streams of thinking and acting. It appeared from respondents that the Takfiri ways of thinking were infecting the highly conservative, secretive, and withdrawn masses of the population in the Sandjak region.

Desire for Freedom from Repressive Government Policies

For those practicing Wahhabi/Salafi strand of Islam and associated with mosques and towns where there are many who traveled to Syria, government surveillance can become a motivating factor for others to also leave for Syria and Iraq. The desire to practice Islam and live by shariah practices without government surveillance and interference or Islamophobic attitudes by moderate or secular citizens was a motivating factor for some. While according to respondents the state security services continue to view conservative communities in the region (e.g. Wahhabi/Salafi) as a security threat, there are others who did not share such sentiments and denied the existence of such threats on a large scale. More specifically, some respondents stated that most Wahhabi/Salafi adherents are peaceful and are often exploited for political reasons, adding that such policies unjustly target religion for political purposes. Even more importantly, the same argued, powerful religious institutions (e.g. Islamic Communities) often exploit the Serbian state to target such communities for their own political goals and expediency. The argument was also made that discrimination against any religious community (often blamed on the media), especially in an environment that is deeply rooted in poverty and ethnic tensions, can only further exacerbate the existing tensions, making it easier for extremist groups to recruit new members. [38]

Ignorance, Lack of Education, and Illiteracy as Vulnerabilities

Respondents reported on the naiveté of poor and rural, stating that many are aware of work migrants to Europe and believe it is like landing in Paradise.As a result of these positive examples of migration, they also are easily convinced the same about Syria when sold that view by terrorist recruiters. Many who become involved are said to live in isolated villages and know little of the world and thus easily fall prey to recruiters claims.  In the Sandjak region, as elsewhere affected by terrorism, foreign recruitment into groups like ISIS is often facilitated by arguing with recruits that the recruiter is able to speak Arabic, whereas the recruit is not. Therefore, they are told they should not question the Koran as interpreted to them by the recruiter able to read the Koran in its original language and interpret it as placing the duties of hijrah, jihad, protection of the Muslim ummah, and building the “Caliphate” upon them.

Material Benefits of Joining

ISIS foreign fighters are promised salaries, free housing, food and propane allowances, the possibility of cars, arranged marriages, and sex slaves. The group sends out pictures of large homes with swimming pools as possibilities—so seductive that a thirteen- year- old from U.K. being groomed for travel to ISIS reported she thought she would be traveling to “ISIS Disneyland” if she joined.[39]

When asked about his pay, one Kosovar foreigner fighter to ISIS reported his monthly salary as being equal to those of “high paying politicians in the country [Kosovo],” which is a tempting alternative compared to average monthly salary of $200 in Kosovo. [40]This would be similar in the Sandjak region where salaries are commensurate to those in Kosovo.  In addition to high paying salaries, some ISIS defectors have reported supplementary income in the thousands of dollars derived from looting houses in territory that ISIS overtook or large bonuses for taking part in ISIS raids.[41]

Unmarried men and women with poor prospects of marriage also might find the allure to ISIS powerful propaganda. Many respondents stressed how often unemployed men find it hard to obtain wives but are promised them inside ISIS, as are women promised husbands, and free housing and the ability to practice a traditional lifestyle.

Unemployment and Poor Economic Conditions as a Vulnerability

According to data, those typically drawn into Syria and Iraq, including as foreign fighters, may be characterized as young, lacking education, having criminal backgrounds, and coming from poor economic upbringings. Younger populations and poor economic conditions among the predominantly young (including the Sandjak region) make Balkan countries particularly susceptible to radicalization, including radicalization leading to violence (See below).

Table Two: Balkan Youth Unemployment (as % of total labor force, ages 15-24)

Country 2009 2010 2011 2012 2013 2014 2015
Kosovo 73.0 55.3 60.2
Albania 25.2 25.8 27.0 28.3 28.7 29.2 NA

Novi Pazar

41.7 45.5 50.4 50.6 49.7 49.5 NA


Macedonia 55.2 53.7 55.4 53.8 51.8 50.8 NA
Montenegro 35.8 46.0 37.2 41.3 40.5 39.5 NA
Romania 21.0 22.3 23.9 22.8 23.8 25.1 NA
Greece 25.5 32.4 44.1 54.7 58.0 53.9 NA
Bulgaria 16.0 22.9 25.2 28.2 29.7 25.9 NA

Source: The World Bank, Kosovo Agency of Statistics, and UNDP (2015-2016).[43]

High levels of unemployment and poverty appear to be main motivating factors for many who are currently on the radicalization path, including for those who have joined the Syrian and the Iraq conflict. The official census data dated 2011 estimated unemployment rate to be at 37 % in the territory of Novi Pazar, though unofficial data gathered during our research revealed this rate to be 50 %, while the unemployment rate among those under the age of 30 is estimated to be around 75%.[44]That said, there are others who appear strongly opposed to such reductionist viewpoint, specifically, “Radicalization and extremism manifest themselves the same as in the other parts of the world. One of the reasons is economic, but it is not the main reason. Suppression, degradation, lack of religious freedom, lack of respect for human rights, and marginalization, among others, often lead to frustration. These are the root causes of terrorism. Most don’t discuss the root causes of violence and focus only on consequences.”[45]One must admit, however, that with 75% unemployment rate among the young and widely held views of the former Mufti, Muamer Zukorlic, as an avid businessman accumulating wealth via what many believed to be corrupt relationships with the government might certainly make some consider ISIS promises of salaries, free housing, food, and propane allowances as well as lives of dignity, significance, and purpose as attractive.

When one studies the chart above, it must be noted that unemployment alone is clearly not a sufficient motivator to join violence; exposure to terrorist groups and their ideologies alongside social support for taking part in extremism clearly plays a role in who becomes a foreign fighter or a terrorist. Strong resonance in the regions with Islamic terrorist groups’ demands that one must fulfill duties to the Muslim ummah and fight jihad, clearly exists much stronger in the northern Balkan region than in Greece, for instance, where the population are primarily Christian, although one can see an alarming youth unemployment rate in Greece as well. Among unemployed or underemployed Greek youth we see that instead of responding to Internet-based call of groups like ISIS and al Nusra as a response to their poor economic conditions, those drawn into extremism instead tend to respond to anarchists groups that have a history of operating there. Thus, it is important to understand that while high youth unemployment is an important vulnerability leading to radicalization and movement into terror groups in the region (as elsewhere affected by terrorism), it still requires exposure to an active group, an ideology, and social support to exploit this vulnerability for violence and terrorism.[46]

A counter argument can also be made from these statistics if one looks at the 100,000 to 150,000 Muslims, mostly Albanians, living illegally and working in the black market in Thrace and Athens.  Few, if any, have been radicalized by ISIS. So, employment of any nature may be protective, as is not being exposed to on-the-ground recruiters as we were told are active in the Sandjak region, Kosovo, and other northern Balkan countries.

Migration for Employment

Many respondents pointed out the radicalizing influence of Islamic communities operating among the Bosnians living in Austria who have been identified by Austrians as having highly radicalized elements as well.[47]Money and violent extremist ideology flowinto the Sandjak region with migrants who spent time in Vienna particularly. One mother told about her son going to Vienna and very quickly being recruited into a group that provided him with free group housing with a fully stocked refrigerator and freezer while encouraging him to body build with his new apartment mates while the leaders groomed him in violent extremist ideologies and pumped him up as someone with an important mission for the group. “He came home with a beard and short pants (Salafi style). The young men he was with were all working out together, and they would go out at night walking all in a line shoulder to shoulder on the streets of Vienna to intimidate everyone else. He said it made him feel powerful and important in a way he never had before,”the mother explained.

Desire for Personal Significance

Underemployment and unemployment creates a vacuum of personal significance and life purpose. ISIS leadership, by contrast, is filled with vocal leaders from Bosnia, Kosovo, and the Sandjak region calling their peers to jihad in Syria and Iraq. As role models, they promise the Sandjak men in particular the possibility of significant leadership roles in what appeared for some time to many vulnerable persons as a realistic emerging “Caliphate.”

Familial Ties

Females who traveled to Syria from the Sandjak region—that is, for whom data were already available—as discussed in the ensuing sections, were nearly all married. When wives do accompany their husbands, it appears too often be out of a desire and need to keep familial ties intact, financial dependency, and fear of abandonment and hardship if left behind as well as traditional mores of obeying the demands of one’s spouse. In some cases, parents and children traveled together to Syria. While respondents depicted wives who traveled to Syria as traditional wives obedient to their husbands and without much personal agency, we question that view having found in other countries with traditional family structures (i.e. Kyrgyzstan and Kosovo) many counter examples to this with when women encourage their husbands to go and are active decision makers alongside their husbands.

In summary, the trajectories into violent extremism and terrorism in the Sandjak region share commonalities with other theaters, but asresearch has shown in multiple other venues, the individual motivations and vulnerabilities for terrorism are always contextual. That said, the lethal cocktail of terrorism nearly always involves exposure to a terrorist group, it’s ideology, and some level of social support for endorsing both. Vulnerabilities and motivating factors alone are not sufficient to make a violent extremist.[48]


Legal Infrastructure: International and Governmental and Non-governmental Responses

National level policies in Serbia are binding for the local level (i.e. Sandjak region), although none of them directly reference measures to prevent radicalization or violent extremism in the region, nor do they discuss any gendered approach to the issue. Some of the national and regional documents that directly reference local vulnerabilities and to a lesser extent the issues of radicalization and extremism include: Action Plan for the Implementation of National Strategy for Sustainable Development for the Period 2009-2017[49]; Local Action Plan for Improvement of the Position of Women and Promotion of Gender Equality in the City of Novi Pazar 2012-2015; and Strategic Plan for Sustainable Development of the City of Novi Pazar for the Period 2008-2016.

There are a number of efforts supported by international organizations (e.g.  Swiss Embassy and  OSCE) focused on addressing the most pressing socio-economic and political issues (e.g. addressing growing unemployment, supporting further economic and infrastructure development, crime prevention, etc.), though  CVE current only recently has made it into the scope of project interest.

A local NGO, “DamaD,” has recently undertaken a project focused on detection of early signs of radicalization and early radicalization prevention efforts. Supported by the Swiss Embassy, the project is focused towardsworking with youth and identifying appropriate referral mechanisms from within the community and professional practitioners. This project worked long and hard to win the trust and cooperation of the ICiS Muftiate and hopes to work cooperatively in the future on prevention projects. Similarly, Community Support Foundation has been engaged in an exploratory research project on radicalization and extremism titled, “The Challenges of Growing Radicalization in Multicultural and Multiconfessional Communities and the Search for Solutions.”

Emphasis has been placed on developing specialized mobile teams (e.g. comprised of local imams, police, community members, etc.), modeled after domestic violence, to specifically target and deal with preventative issues in the municipality of Novi Pazar.[50]For almost two years now, Helsinki Committee for Human Rights (HCHR) has been developing local teams of young people trained in understanding the manifestations of extremism who engage in outreach activities within their communities and work to strengthen relationships and communication with the local police, while local UrbanIn NGO in Novi Pazar is currently focused on undertaking research on radicalization and violent extremism that encompasses several municipalities in the Sandjak region. These communities, however, are very difficult to reach and study and require time and effort to win trust.

Policy Considerations

Islamic Community

The current Mufti  of the Islamic Community in Serbia (ICiS), Mevlud Dudic, stressed that parallel Islamic community structures inhibit their ability to deal with the issue of radicalization and extremism in the region. The Mufti complained, “ How can I as a Mufti act and lead to positive change when I am ostracized? How can we talk about peace and engagement when we have all this?” He also pointed out that he cannot control Islamic communities that neither answer to him nor fall under his control.  He strongly argued for state supervision and requirments for local Islamic communities, such as the Wahhabis who currently meet informally and in their own mosques, to have to register and fall under the control of his muftiate. He argued that this is necessary  to be able to answer to the central government for their preaching and activities. He also pointed out the paramount role of local institutions in tackling the issue of radicalization and extremism while also criticizing NGOs dealing with what they referred to as “religious issues” that he felt were either out of their purview or were extremist in nature.  He stressed that “NGOs need to be NGOs in a real sense” and not just organizations that funnel ideologies and money from Gulf countries and Turkey into the region.[51]

The division within the Islamic community itself represents a series of obstacles in this regard. Some of the participants mentioned the need for a unified Islamic Community in order to increase the legitimacy and integrity of such institutions while others stated that the central government in Serbia prefers the Islamic community to be divided and weakened. Some respondents stated that a unified Islamic community that would be responsible for ideas and behaviors of its community members and could increase accountability of such institutions. As one of the respondents noted,” We don’t know who to hold accountable and who to consult when it comes to addressing radical elements in our communities.”[52]Similarly, Mufti Dudic, himself noted,” I have 250 mosques in my region, yet I can’t control them. How do I answer to my followers when I don’t have control and legitimacy? If you give me legitimacy and control you can expect accountability as well.”[53]On the other hand, some of the respondents also stressed the Islamic community’s interference in not only religious life, but also in political and public life. “Conflicts become apparent and debates heated when Islamic community attempts to project their way of thinking,” one of the participants noted. [54]

The participants described a complex relationship between the two Islamic Communities, specifically a long history of rivalries and competition that does nothing but weaken the position of Muslims in Serbia, though not necessarily of Muslims in the Sandjak region, according to some respondents. Many question the need for two Islamic Communities given the relatively small number of Muslims living in Serbia. As argued by some, the separation has also resulted in the lack of mosques being built and serviced outside the Sandjak region.

ICiS and ICoS continue to refuse to take part in each other’s initiatives, though some firmly believe that bettering economic ties between Turkey and Serbia could change the existing relationship and lead to reunification of the two. Moreover, some mentioned how a “politically” active Muftiate in Novi Pazar continues to represent a security threat to Serbia—that is,  as something they can control and therefore it is unlikely that the state will relinquish its grip on the ICiS and the Sandjak region in general.

As reflected in a number of responses, the divisions within the Islamic community, starting from the divisions at the institutional level and down to mosque level, continues to fuel intolerance between Muslims in Novi Pazar and greater Serbia, as well as widen the gap for tolerant religious discussions and dialogues. The division has come alongside of the emergence of external conservative influences in the region, such as Wahhabis, which appear to be a strongly radicalizing influence in the region and also thwarting full integration of the Sandjak’s Muslims into greater Serbia Muslim community. Equally important, absent a proper oversight, specifically by a single, credible authoritative body, certain groups will continue to radicalize and isolate themselves from the mainstream society. In this context, a unified Islamic community is viewed by many respondents as having an integral role in preventing security risks, specifically related to radicalization and extremism leading to violence.

While important, the experiences of other countries, such as Kosovo, and as mentioned by some respondents, suggest that a unified Islamic Community may not be a solution to the problem absent political will and resolve to curb the influence of radical imams, often injected through dubious Saudi-funded projects and Salafi indoctrination  campaigns targeting especially the youth and the vulnerable. The Islamic community in Vienna, Austria, also seemed to exert a considerable influence, indoctrinating and recruiting vulnerable migrants working there and infusing funds for extremist activities back into the Sandjak community. Equally important, given the limited institutional capacities to target radicalization and extremism, absent a political will to address the issue, such groups will continue to utilize the institutional vacuum to impose a more rigid interpretation of Islam and, by extension, introduce further tension into the Islamic community and escalate their efforts to spread extremist and intolerant ideologies in the wider community.

The Islamic community could also play an important role in the development of counter narratives and organizing roundtables and meetings with community members to raise awareness about the issue of radicalization and extremism. Upon viewing short video clips of ISIS defectors denouncing the group made by the International Center for the Study of Violent Extremism (ICSVE), Mufti Dudic  showed great enthusiasm for them and expressed his desire to have the  copies subtitled in Serbian to used in prevention and educational efforts.  The videos  were provided some weeks later.[55]Clearly, such individuals need powerful tools to combat the virulent and slick online propaganda tools used by groups such as ISIS to recruit members into their group.

Similar to recent efforts in Albania, the Islamic community could also reach to mothers of young people to discuss pressing issues as well as continue to work on the counter- messaging efforts related to individuals who have returned or are currently in Iraq and Syria. In addition, independent and cooperative studies that look separately into domestic and foreign-trained imam practices and trends are needed.

Socio-economic conditions

High levels of unemployment and poverty along with feelings of being marginalized by the central Serbian government appear to be main vulnerability factors for many who are currently on the radicalization path, including for those who have joined the Syrian and the Iraq conflict, though one must be careful with such line of argumentation. The Sandjak region, including Novi Pazar, remains economically underdeveloped and vulnerable, as evidenced by high levels of poverty and unemployment, especially among the younger generation. Many of the respondents shared how Novi Pazar offers little to no prospect for economic growth to its citizens, and how many young struggle to find meaningful forms of employment. Moreover, several of the participants stressed that the lack of localized political and economic autonomy as not dictated by the state level, as well as state neglect to the area, continues to hinder economic growth and prosperity in the region. Lack of economic prosperity, coupled with what many described as “institutional failure” caused by widespread corruption, lack of respect for law and human rights, etc., continue to cause vulnerabilities for radicalization and extremism into groups that promise prosperity, inclusiveness for Muslims, and justice. Lack of employment opportunities and an environment that breeds insecurity for its citizens (i.e. due to corruption, respect for the rule of law, etc.) creates a very dangerous and vulnerable environment for many unemployed, especially among the youth. In this context, although a rather complex endeavor, there is a need for new economic development initiatives in those areas and communities with low socio-economic status that remain susceptible to radical elements.

Police and Community Policing

The prevailing argument among many participants was that the lack of rule of law and ineffective regulations, or lack thereof, continue to decrease the legitimacy of government institutions. In fact, many respondents described institutional failure, clear examples of corruption and indifference as the main factors leading to divisions and conflicts within the communities in Novi Pazar and giving up on the state in general. Several of the respondents mentioned the issue of lack of trust in local police, as one of the respondents put it, “Many of our citizens have close ties with Turkey and Bosnia, but we still believe in the state. However, they [the state] don’t trust us.”[56]Equally important, many respondents mentioned the lack of guidelines and strategies related to extremism and radicalism in policy frameworks both at a national and at a local level.

Equally important, given the lack of trust in local police, there is a need to further strengthen the trust and relationship between the local and national police. Several of the participants noted the importance of promoting values of community policing, which could be implemented gradually and over time. but would likely require that Muslims and ethnic Bosniaks are better represented in the counter-terrorism units of the national police serving the area. It is possible to address this also by introducing new police reforms and community policing initiatives that deal with CVE efforts. The police could also be trained on how to build positive and trusting relationships with their respective communities and how to identify early signs of radicalization which are currently sorely lacking. Counterterrorism police are seen as outsiders and not interested in the welfare of local inhabitants and therefore are unlikely to be alerted by community members of those recruiting for or leaving for extremist groups or returning from them. More importantly, such initiatives need to be included into formal community policing training and curriculum.

Some other strategies or training in this area to consider would be to gather representatives among the community members (e.g. through meetings, workshops, etc.) to openly discuss responsibilities of local and national police as well as clarify information on certain law enforcement policies that are poorly understood, community policing which is supportive of local communities vs. informant policy, as also stressed by many respondents. Another important aspect of the strategy would be to openly discuss threat assessment approaches within the community, and how collected information is shared or stored. Equally important, community members could identify their own experts that could provide essential cultural sensitivity training to the local police. Efforts should also be made to show support to communities by sharing unclassified information on pressing issues to the representatives of local communities as well as showing support for those communities that suffer a backlash for certain prosecutions (e.g. those who participated in the Syrian and the Iraq conflict, conservative Wahhabi, etc.). Many respondents, including a Novi Pazar city council member said they had no access to information about the numbers of persons under surveillance or arrested by police in their area.

As mentioned above, bridging the trust and cooperation between the local and national government is a key to dealing with issues of radicalization and extremism. In addition, community policing is essential to strengthening the trust and relationship between the local police and the community. Negative expressions and undertones used by many respondents to describe government institutions, such as” corrupt, discriminative, ignorant, unprofessional, Islamaphobic, etc.,” will continue to affect the credibility of local police. Such statements reflect not only the feelings of injustice and dissatisfaction among the citizens of Novi Pazar, but also a failure of its governing bodies, including the local police, to recognize pressing issues in their respective communities and their inability to deal with risky behaviors. Unless the aforementioned issues are addressed, legitimacy and trustworthiness of relevant public safety and security institutions, including those dealing with community policing, will continue to decrease.

NGOs and Civil Society Organizations

Several of the interviewed respondents noted that NGOs and civil society organizations are the only ones who are seriously dealing with the issue of radicalization and extremism, despite the criticisms on the part of some religious figures who stated that discourse on radicalization and extremism is being defined by political circles and institutions being pushed by certain NGOs rather than handled by religious authorities. Some participants also mentioned a great deal of fear and insecurity in dealing with the issue of radicalization and extremism.

In light of such arguments, it is essential to further strengthen the capacities of local NGOs and civil society organizations as well as include them as essential players in CVE strategies.  NGOs and civil society organizations are important to introducing a “holistic approach” to dealing with the issue of radicalization and extremism.  As mentioned by a number of respondents, they can be instrumental in promoting the role of families, women, and local communities and institutions in general alongside government while also including government and other non-security institutions (i.e. Department of Education, HHS, etc.). They are also instrumental in decentralizing government reach and potentially removing fear towards government that many might feel from within certain communities (e.g. Wahhabi and others considered as “high-risk” communities in terms of radicalization and terrorism).

Many participants, however, raised concerns that many NGOs are accepting external funds from Gulf and Turkish sources in the name of madrassas, mosques, etc., but when in reality, they are utilizing such funds for spreading radical messages and propaganda. In this regard, it is important to ensure that NGOs and civil society organizations are not exploited by radical and extremist elements. Equally important, it is essential to provide a safe platform and environment for such organizations to operate, including freedom from political parties and their influence to ensure transparency and neutral stance on the part of government. Some of the participants stressed the need for a unified government and NGO approach to dealing with extremism, specifically collaborative efforts by NGOs, police, local authorities, relevant educational institutions and community services, and women.[57]

The Media

Some respondents pointed out the role of the media as an instigator of extremist conflict in Novi Pazar. In other words, the media is viewed as a vehicle by which frustrations and intolerance are being channeled into wider masses. Some also pointed out the lack of respect for one another among the religious and political groups including the main religious leaders, as well as devastating effects of religious, political, and mainstream media rhetoric on forming dangerous norms and values and a culture that promotes hatred and intolerance.

There is a need to fully support online and mainstream media efforts focused on educating masses on issues related to CVE, including efforts to delegitimize extremist groups and their ideologies. Much needed are carefully moderated debates and discussions on integration, secularism, inter-ethnic and inter-religious tolerance, dangers associated with intimidation and aggressive political discourse and hate speech, etc. In other words, there is a need to create awareness and understanding about other cultures and religions and promote a culture of respect and tolerance. The lack of understanding of other cultures, including conservative Wahhabi streams of Islam, which according to many participants are often demonized by the media, will continue to further fuel tensions and reinforce further distrust and estrangement between communities. One approach to dealing with prevailing sentiments is to provide training to non-governmental and faith-based organizations on how to deal with media. Efforts should also be made to create joint non-governmental and governmental strategies, through the help of communications experts, to provide basic training in media marketing strategies, delivering important public messages, and providing of effective media tools to fight online recruitment into violent extremism.

Women’s Specific Vulnerabilities and Roles in Violent Extremism

Estimates are that of the 20-30 individuals from the Sandjak region (10-20 Novi Pazar) who have traveled to Syria and Iraq to join Islamic State, at least seven are believed to be women and children. Lejla Brahovic (17-19)[58]from Novi Pazar is believed to have left via Turkey to Syria in December 2014. She was allegedly a member of the female jamaat at the Islamic Youth organization “Furkan,” which according to many respondents is linked to violent extremist elements in the Sandjak region. She was considered a brilliant student at the madrassa. [59]It is believed that her boyfriend at the time, 7 years her senior, facilitated her recruitment via Austrai into the conflict zone. According to sources, she is also credited to be fighting alongside ISIS, but more likely is a member of the armed hisbah, or Islamic ISIS police, as ISIS does not  routinely put women in combat roles. Alma Smajlovic (25) from Novi Pazar traveled to Syria in August 2014 with her two children. According to sources, she abandoned her then husband, Jasmin, and married Ramu Grahovic, whom she had met and plotted with over the Internet. They both left from Vienna, again showing the importance of Austrian involvement and the Sandjak citizens’ migrant work there regarding radicalization of those still living in the Sandjak region. Emina Plojovic (28), also from Novi Pazar, traveled to Syria in November 2013. She left with her husband, Rejhan Plojovic, and their two children. She, too, was active in “Furkan,” and is believed to be working as a nurse in the Islamic State and ISIS.[60]These figures are tentative, however, as some parents and families do not report their foreign fighter relatives, particularly females, to the authorities for various reasons. Similar to many parts of the world, there is no single explanation on the motivations that drive women to join the Islamic State, which represents a challenge when it comes to seeking solutions to minimize the risk and recruitment of the Sandjak region women into terrorist organizations. However, all of the factors discussed previously alongside those specific to women are active among the Sandjak region females.

Familial Ties and Female Agency

As the data suggest, with regards to female travelers to Syria, women generally accompanied their spouses or intended spouses and did not travel alone to be wed there, the latter normally expected of women in extremist groups. There is at least one case of a single woman who joined ISIS in the battlefield (Lejla Brahovic) but she had a boyfriend luring her into the group and did not go totally on her own. Respondents stated that travel with husbands was the norm due to hierarchical, traditional family structures in which women are expected to follow the lead of their husbands.While this may be true, it also appears a sense of adventure, seeking a new life and new husband were also important motivators for female joiners.While those who followed their husbands were often characterized as having no real sense of personal agency, that seems unlikely given one female (Lejla Brahovic, 19) has become active in ISIS and many of them also appear to have endorsed the idea of building a utopian “Caliphate’.

While female agency in deciding to go to Syria and Iraq mostly likely exists in greater proportion than male police credit them with, on the other side, one must also acknowledge complexities of wives and mothers being left behind by their husbands—that they can face dire circumstances and may accompany for that reason as well.  Without a good social safety net losing ones husband and father of one’s children can create dire hardships and following him into ISIS may appear as a rationale choice, especially if the woman knows little about conditions in Syria.

Female Roles in Extremist Groups

ISIS and al Nusra limit women’s roles by encouraging them to be in traditional marriages and bear children for the cause. However, ISIS encourages foreign fighter females to join the hisbah, and also allows them to teach, provide health care, and carry out other roles as long as these roles are segregated to interacting with children and other women. Some are put to the task of online recruiting.[61]In journalistic reports one Sandjak female, Lejla Brahovic, is believed to involved in the fighting, although  she is likely in the armed hisbah, and this is misreporting as our previous research with ISIS defectors found female roles in ISIS to be extremely limited when it comes to combat. They included being armed to serve in the ISIS hisbah (morality police) and also women are rarely recruited for suicide missions. No one of the interviewed reported to us about women joining actual battles.

Escaping ISIS

Official data of individuals who have returned from Islamic State controlled territories is lacking. Likewise, notable is the fact that the numbers of women returning are proportionally much smaller than of men. For example, the rates of return for Kosovar women are only nine percent (4/44) versus forty-one percent (113/272) for men. It is unlikely that so many more women were killed, but this may point to unique vulnerabilities of women when it comes to escaping ISIS. Women who are widowed when their fighter husbands are killed are expected and heavily coerced to remarry. Married they live under the control of their new spouses. In the brief time they find themselves unmarried, they likely find it extremely difficult to escape ISIS unaided. To escape, they need to have access to funds,which their husbands likely controlled, and to be able to secretly find and hire a smuggler, and then may be raped or have sexual favors extorted by the smuggler, a common story in our larger ISIS defector interviews project.  The data did not reveal any any female returnees in the Sandjak region.

Vulnerabilities Specific to Female Returnees


The likely imminent return of foreign fighters to the Sandjak region occurring, as the ability of ISIS to hold territory is destroyed, also means more terrorist convictions and imprisonments of male foreign fighters with their wives, if returning with them,  perhaps not receiving convictions. No females have thus far been imprisoned in Serbia for traveling to ISIS. This likely means that spouses of imprisoned foreign fighters will live in the communities likely experiencing social stigma and challenges of reintegration while separated from their spouses who may remain radicalized and communicating with them from prison. One such case exists in neighboring Kosovo in which a female spouse regularly interacts over social media with her former ISIS cadres in Syria and is married to an imprisoned spouse who she takes orders from who claims he wants to return to ISIS.  The usual pattern for groups that are increasingly desperate is to turn to females to enact suicide terrorism as they are less suspected and more easily cross security checkpoints, and if their spouses are in prison they may be more easily manipulated to act against the state. ISIS may be no exception to this rule and may work to incite terrorist acts with female returnees that are not in prison.  For that reason, we recommend rehabilitation and reintegration programs to extend to spouses and family members of imprisoned ISIS returnees as well.

Local Female Roles in Extremism

Family members often say they were blindsided by their sons or daughters leaving for Syria, yet they also praise them in death referring to them as “martyrs,” thereby glorifying their roles in terrorist groups, perhaps creating social support for others to follow in their path. Likewise, according to respondent discussions, many parents often believe their daughters are correct to dutifully follow their husbands, especially if they are raised in conservative communities  (i.e. Wahhabi/Salafi). While these family members are hardly extremists, they contribute to a narrative of passive duty for females to follow their husbands even into “jihad” in extremely dangerous conflict zones and glorifying deaths of those who die there. Glorifying death in “jihad” as “martyrdom” also contributes to the militant jihadi narrative. While these family members might, if worked with, provide powerful examples of the painfulness and price paid when their adult children leave for Syria, they have been largely ostracized and left alone to deal with their grief and confusion.

Current Women’s Initiatives and Policy Recommendations

According to recent data, women comprise 52 % of Novi Pazar. Efforts are being made by local NGOs to empower women and promote gender equality in the region. There are also government measures in place that specifically target vulnerable groups, women, such as the Action Plan for the Improvement of the Position of Women and Promotion of Gender Equality in the City of Novi Pazar 2012-215. However, there are no specific measures or policies in place that address the role of women in radicalization and extremism. There are a number of ongoing initiatives and activities, as stated in the preceding sections, that look specifically into the role of women in CVE efforts and may inform future local and national level CVE strategies.


Community Policing and Women Involvement

Community involvement and community policing are crucial to fighting violent extremism in the Sandjak region. As also reflected in a number of participant responses, different actors across the governmental and non-governmental spheres must be involved in drafting CVE strategies that look at the role of community in prevention, rather than just focusing on solutions derived from the perspective of the security sector, especially those that are solely repressive. Some pointed out the important role of community policing in building trust with local communities and addressing local needs, as opposed to just relying on communities for intelligence purposes without offering them much in return. As mentioned earlier, given the lack of trust in local police, there is a need to further strengthen the trust and relationship between the local and national police. Several of the participants noted the importance of promoting values of community policing, which could be implemented gradually and over time.

Participants also stressed the need for more reforms on community policing that could engage women in countering violent extremism.  Community policing is crucial for both raising awareness among communities about the threat of violent extremism and empowering communities to prevent its emergence and spread while helping the community to meet needs of those who are vulnerable to recruitment to redirect them to more productive paths.

Community meetings and trainings that involve and empower female community members—who often know a lot about their radicalizing fellow community members—are a way to involve female community leaders, teachers, doctors, mental health care workers, etc. in countering violent extremism. It is important that females be involved in identifying youth at risk of radicalization and there be modes of reporting them that do not lead to repressive measures and that there are rapid and effective responses occurring to disrupt them from progressing on the terrorist trajectory. Helplines staffed by trained female volunteers—mothers, teachers, and female “imams” can be powerful and effective tools for those who are vulnerable to reach out for help. Although the next step is to also create rapid intervention teams to effectively intervene in taking individuals back off the terrorist trajectory, either run by voluntary teams or through government interventions as discussed above. Measures should be made to ensure that females are involved in direct proportion to males and that these women are given trainings and tools that help them recognize violent extremism. They also need to be  be equipped to work strongly against it both in terms of prevention and interventions.

With the collapse of the ISIS “Caliphate,” dozens of returnees from Syria are likely—and most will—to be convicted and imprisoned. However, some may reenter under the radar of government and safety and security services. Some will be dangerous and still convinced of terrorist ideologies while others battle fatigued and simply seeking shelter. Community policing will be especially important to quickly recognize and act against any individuals or cells that form around returned individuals. Female family members are often aware of radicalized individuals and can serve as useful informants and in prevention and intervention roles if adequately empowered and trained to do so—and  provided they have trust in local police.

Prison Rehabilitation and Community Reintegration for Foreign Fighter Returnees

Those who are imprisoned will need rehabilitation in prison and special prison services that are not yet in place. It is often hard to bring convictions against ISIS returnees for actual crimes committed other than, for assistance, as a foreign fighter. Likewise, given that prison sentences are relatively short in Europe, highly indoctrinated and weapons trained individuals must be carefully dealt with before they are returned to their communities. Even when they return to their communities, untreated PTSD from the battleground and social stigma may cause them troubles and further grievances, contributing to their return to or deeper commitment to terrorism. Therefore, ideological commitment, the psychological resonance to extremist ideologies. PTSD, and  social stigma must be addressed. There is an ongoing discussion on how to rehabilitate prisoners and move them safely and productively back into their communities, perhaps involving community police as bridges to help reintroduce and reintegrate them.  Research and trainings are needed to develop effective prison rehabilitation and reintegration services.

An overlooked area of concern is that it is only males that have been convicted thus far, but if wives also return and are not imprisoned, they also will face issues of reintegration and need for treatment as mentioned above. Many ISIS members, both male and female, have been exposed to multiple traumas (e.g. witnessed beheadings, crucifixions, etc.) and violence, and rejection of anyone not adhering to their violent Takfiri beliefs has become normalized for them. The women whose husbands are, or will end up in prison, also need special programs as terrorist groups have repeatedly shown their willingness to recruit and use women in suicide missions, particularly when they are angry, desperate, or feel strong grievances, which may be the case for stigmatized wives trying to live on their own while their husbands spend time in prison. As ISIS loses its territory, it has turned increasingly to calling for and guiding on the ground homegrown terror attacks. Women who have lived under ISIS and who are indoctrinated into its thinking and living vulnerable while their husbands are in prison may be the easiest to recruit into terrorist attacks or use them to recruit others.

Female Policing

Female police officers in the region, for example in Kosovo, are already involved in community policing initiatives, and action plans continue to further involve them. Many respondents in Kosovo reflected on the success achieved by the establishment of the Association of Women in the Kosovo Police (AWKP), a membership association with well over 700 female police members with a primary mission to “make gender balance an integral part of its success.”[62]Many of its members have been sent abroad to pursue training in CVE, such as in the United States. The Association leadership is determined to bring in more renowned experts to further strengthen member training on how to utilize their capacities as mothers, daughters, and sisters, all in an effort to enlighten those who are being drawn into radicalization and extremism. [63]

Such efforts are promising in the sense that they strengthen women-led organizations in terms of capacity building, specifically as it relates to training, community engagement, etc., and CVE efforts in general. The same efforts can be applied in the context of the Sandjak region as well. Equally important, having female-led police associations and female police officers that are representative of the population they are tasked to help and protect might help with CVE efforts. While female officers may be more responsive to females and their families affected by the phenomenon of radicalization by virtue of their gender, the overall and individual skillset of an officer must be considered as well.

A female police association can serve as powerful voice that could also produce guidance for police and those generally engaged with CVE efforts on “best practices” on how to engage and retain women in CVE efforts. These guidelines should directly reflect local conditions and spell out current barriers to female engagement and retention in CVE efforts from the perspective of the police association. Hopefully, female police have fewer gender stereotypes applied to the women they are trying to protect than their male counterparts may have.

Surveillance & Repressive Measures

Prior to the current and hopefully imminent collapse of the so-called ISIS “Caliphate,” some members of Islamist groups, as noted by respondents, stress what they believe to be unfair targeting of their respective community through surveillance and their only hope to live their Salafi lifestyles and endorsement of Sharia unhindered is to migrate elsewhere.[64]While surveillance is an essential counter-terrorism tool, reliance on building goodwill in these communities and open communication with the police is equally important.

Hence, it is important to elaborate on specific strategies that would ensure that women are not recruited as security tools to spy on their communities and target specific individuals, which would likely create a backlash, but rather ask them to be more aware of what is happening in their households, communities, etc., and to train them to intervene in a more natural manner versus simply become informants. Moreover, future policies should clearly spell out the distinction between women’s integration in CVE efforts and counterterrorism efforts rooted in intelligence activities. This is especially important as women who trust that the state will actually help them to prevent terrorist recruitment will likely turn to the state for help. They may on the other hand become more insecure about participating in CVE efforts and not report themselves and their family and community members out of fear of arrests and police scrutiny.

Women can be an extremely powerful force speaking out against violent extremism in their families and to their community members but they need tools and training to do so. CVE efforts must prove themselves to women and all stakeholders as being truly protective of the community members—even those radicalizing—versus simply repressive, a problem that is common to many Western states grappling with terrorist recruitment on their soils. Failure to make such distinctions may prevent women from seeking access to important and available services—that is, discourage them from accessing services for fear of exposing family and community members—and even oneself.

Silencing Dissenting Female Voices

A serious concern in the Sandjak region were the threats and dangers that are posed to females that speak out against violent extremism. For instance, one female journalist (Aida Corovic Darko) who reported on increasingly conservative Arab Islamic practices and influences that she witnessed and felt infringed on secular females found her life threatened on social media and in person.  An ISIS operative in Syria created a portrayal of her being murdered there photo- shopping her face onto the body of a slain enemy of ISIS and used it to incite locals to kill her. The laws protecting females (and males) that speak against extremism and receive actual threats to their physical safety does exist and needs to be properly enforced and for women’s voices against violent extremism not to be silenced. In a functioning society, females who speak out against violent extremism need to be protected by police from any threats against their freedom of speech and freedom of expression—that is, about their rights and concerns about infringements upon their ability to continue to practice their secular lifestyles.

Raising Awareness and Counter-Messaging Efforts

Emphasis has also been placed on including mothers, sisters, wives and other female family members in counter narrative messaging and equipping them to argue persuasively against terrorist propaganda. More specifically, many respondents argued that mothers have a great emotional pull on their children as wives also do on their spouses, and are therefore essential to creating effective counter- messaging. This is true of sisters as well. Yet, all of these actors need powerful training and tools to help them speak and act effectively against terrorist groups to delegitimize them inside their families and communities.

Many parents are unaware of the terrorist propaganda that exists on the Internet or how to speak against it. Just like parents and schools equip youth with messages about safe sex and the dangers of drug use, the same needs to occur for terrorist ideologies—to inoculate youth against such ideologies. Short education modules to be offered in 8thgrade civics class, or even earlier, on the current virulent ideologies that youth are currently exposed to and rational arguments to steer them clear of such groups are needed. Likewise, parents need to be equipped with training and tools to guide their children through the morass of online terrorist propaganda that promises them significance, meaning, purpose, material benefits, and the chance to live a religious lifestyle, albeit one that embraces rejecting, if not outright killing, those who do not adhere to their violent interpretation of Islam. While youth imbibe such poison, parents, particularly mothers, need to be trained and equipped to be able to guide their children and guard them against believing the lies that such terrorist groups spread and the dangers of participating in these groups. Without easily accessible tools to do so, mothers are likely to fail in this task.

Mothers without Borders offers a good model of enhancing parenting skills and creating a pyramid of prevention efforts that can cascade through a large number of mothers. We recommend following a similar model in identifying key female figures from among young university women, female clerics, NGO leaders, mothers, police and others to be trained and equipped to act against violent extremism in vulnerable communities and throughout the Sandjak region. They need to be equipped with adequate knowledge and readily accessible tools to fight ISIS and other extremist groups’ propaganda.



Tools to Counter Violent Extremism

The tools that mothers can use to have the “extremism” talk with their children before they encounter terrorist propaganda and recruiters do not yet exist in adequate forms to easily and fully equip mothers. Nor do they exist to adequately and quickly equip teachers, police, university students, imams, etc. to effectively fight groups like ISIS.

Cogent cognitive arguments should be made against extremist ideologies. However, cognitive arguments are not enough, as clearly evidenced by the U.K.’ Prevent efforts that feel flat in the face of al-Qaeda and ISIS being extremely adept at using graphic images and emotions to seduce youth and propel them along the terrorist trajectory. Emotion- based and graphic multimedia tools to counter violent extremist groups are needed to be developed to fight these groups.

As the current violent extremist groups operating in the Sandjak region are using a combination of face-to-face recruitment and internet based multimedia tools that use emotions to capture the hearts and minds of youth, we recommend using the same—loading equally emotionally evocative and persuasive materials to the Internet and making them available for offline use to facilitate discussions at home, in classrooms, in youth centers, in mosques etc. These tools should adequately portray what groups like ISIS are and are not and the ways in which extremist violence are illegitimate in Islam and generally. The stories of ISIS defectors denouncing the group with their inside perspective of how they fell prey to are powerful examples of messengers with full information enough to emotionally discredit this group. They are especially powerful if their stories are portrayed in video format..[65]

We focus tested the ISIS Defector videos made by ICSVE and found them to spark lively discussions among Kosovar youth, and we also found professionals in the Sandjak region, including the Mufti, enthusiastic about receiving access to such tools. Tools like this can equip and make it easy for a teacher, police officer, NGO worker, or mother who is trying to counter ISIS propaganda coming at youth over the Internet to powerfully fight back. When we showed them to various community leaders in the Sandjak region, they all immediately recognized their power and usefulness in fighting ISIS. Additional such materials are sorely needed.[66]

Youth, females included, can also be trained to be active on social media identifying those who are endorsing violent extremism and be equipped to counter them, under adult supervision, with opposing internet-based materials. A recent Google project tested this concept and resulted in a fifty-eight percent response rate on contacting individuals on Facebook who were endorsing extremist groups. The dangers in doing such work are significant however, as some of the responses were to try to talk the intervener into the extremist ideology. Thus supervision is necessary.

Youth and adults, females included, can also be activated to take down violent extremists messaging through actively reporting it to social media companies. The youth may be willing to work with police carrying out such efforts as it gives them a purpose and the possibility to work purposefully and with a mission alongside adults.

We also recommend that efforts be made to spotlight male and female role models, sports figures and other youth “heroes,” speaking out against violent extremism, and to promote youth campaigns that undermine extremist narratives. These could also include counter narrative religious messaging spotlighting female (religious) models that could be accessed via the Internet or telephone immediately by vulnerable female populations if they need help.  If such role models could be identified among the Salafi community, it may be highly protective as well.

There is a need for both government incentives and voluntary initiatives that could serve to further incentivize women’s engagement and help to shape effective counter extremist messages.

While encouraging the dissemination of counter narratives is crucial, it is equally important and necessary to provide authoritative and appropriate communication channels, including actors that are trusted.

Role of Religious Actors in Counter-Messaging and Interventions

During the course of our interviews, including our research in other parts of the world, we learned that women are likely to work with religious authorities they trust. When working with vulnerable and religiously conservative women, it is especially important and necessary to involve women as facilitators of treatment, and often religious women are the best equipped to reach them. We learned that because a great deal of authority rests in the hands of male-dominated religious authorities and institutions, women may be distrustful of such authority and feel disrespected by them. Or, if they are highly conservative, they may avoid interactions with male religious leaders and prefer to be taught by other women or their spouses at home.

In the Sandjak region, similar to Kosovo, only the males become imams; however, this does not mean that women cannot be trained to be “spiritual leaders.” Similar to Morchidat program introduced in Morocco in 2005,[67]women receiving the same training as the male imams could serve to practice religious practices traditionally reserved for the male imams and provide religious education—to women—in mosques, prisons, and families of those affected by the phenomenon of foreign fighters. The Salafi/Wahhabi communities are extremely difficult for most NGOs and the mainstream Muftiate to penetrate, but women trained to understand and speak to Salafi adherents could be particularly powerful. Women religious authorities can also be paired with individuals active on social media, especially the young, to counter propaganda and the recruitment into extremist and terrorist groups.

Female religious authorities we spoke to in Kosovo also raised the issue of how when it comes to religion and religious issues, the government only invites men to meetings about countering extremism and as a matter of routine does not include female religious leaders. In this regard, it is important also in the Sandjak region not to duplicate the sexism often inherent in religious groups but instead include the voices of female religious authorities and encourage their active participation in government led initiatives to fight violent extremism. The government must also remain transparent about the selection criteria used to form partnerships with religious authorities to address the issue of radicalization and extremism in the country, and the inclusion of female religious leaders must equal their male counterparts

Likewise, to penetrate and reach Salafi adherents who may be vulnerable to radicalizing, it may be useful to prepare Islamic arguments  based on scriptures Salafis respect that counter Islamic arguments on behalf of Takfiri groups like ISIS and al-Qaeda. It may be productive to have such messaging emanating from and possibly messaging from individuals practicing Salafi Islam, although government involvement and employment of Salafi messengers remains a contentious issue. This is primarily because these groups also promote anti-homosexual and anti-feminist teachings that oppose Western democratic values, and sometimes even argue against participation in democratic society including voting—all issues that would likely outweigh using them as government paid and recruited messengers. That said, the Sandjak officials could invite Salafi voluntary participation in fighting extremism through sermons, Internet messaging, and written tracts denouncing terrorist groups and their Takfiri practices and find creative ways to encourage these efforts. They can also require oversight of Salafi imams, training for Salafi imams in scriptures that counter Takfiri ideologies, consider limiting foreign investments in mosque, building and paying imams salaries, or promoting a non-indigenous form of Islam in Serbia. These are delicate issues, however, as they possibly involve restrictions on the freedom to practice religion.

Respondents stressed the need to gain access to closed in and difficult to penetrate communities, and the fact that some covered women seemed unhappy about their situation but difficult to reach. Creative ways to engage and to reach out to isolated communities, particularly covered females, may include working with conservative Salafi women willing to reach out and discuss with them issues related to radicalization and extremism, and how they could make a change in their own families. In particular, several of the participants stressed the importance of reaching out to rural areas where female education is lacking and where women have no access to information.

Empowering Women in the Sandjak region


The respondents pointed out how living in patriarchal societies and not being able to make decisions outside their husbands and  brothers could serve as an incentive to join violent extremist groups to regain self-esteem and empowerment. Although a highly misogynist organization in many regards, ISIS offered free, spacious housing to its foreign fighters, food and propane allowances, and invited female foreign fighters to join the hisbah police. The hisbah female members answer to almost no one and enjoy high status in the ISIS community, which may offer more freedom and power to women than those from rural backgrounds would normally enjoy. Likewise, the materialistic benefits may also entice them.

Some respondents also explained that to challenge extremism, one must also stand up to traditional patriarchal and traditional gender roles that suppress women’s participation in private and public life—that is, to empower them so that foreign enticements hold less power for them.[68]Given the high rates of unemployment, females are less likely gainfully employed than their male family members and may also suffer from financial dependency.

In this regard, the role of women’s influence and power in a family remains a highly debated issue and empowering them to choose between traditional and more modern roles is likely a difficult task fraught with potential repercussions both positive and negative. When it comes to allowing and enabling women to participate in counter radicalization and counterterrorism efforts, future CVE strategies must also ensure that they do not too strongly threaten traditional relationships between genders within certain [conservative] communities and cultures in the Sandjak region in ways that might create a backlash to these initiatives or outright rejection of them.

In our discussion with respondents, we found that women continue to constitute the majority of the region’s poor and illiterate. They also continue to face constraints in owning resources or gain marketable skills. In both instances, this primarily holds true for those living in the rural areas. Many respondents shared that women, especially those living in rural and conservative families, are expected to be covered and argued that, “renegotiating the status of women in Novi Pazar is like questioning Islamic values and heritage,”[69]which in and of itself continues to perpetuate gender inequality on religious grounds. Some women argued against the spread of headscarves among young females, but this is an extremely contentious and difficult area to navigate.

Many respondents also shared how, especially with the influx of Wahhabi conservative ideas, there are more restrictions for women in public life, specifically, “women are expected to dress the certain way, go home at a certain time,”[70]and are forbidden from pursuing professional careers in lieu of marriage or in ordered to remain covered.  Some of the respondents noted that women have no personal agency and must usually follow and be obedient to their husbands, including following them into conflict zones. Moreover, many women remain isolated from the mainstream community,  and creative ways need to be found to engage them without threatening their religious beliefs in ways that lead to rejection of the outreach.  Some women are deprived of government assistance given their husband’s (now deceased) participation in the wars against the Serbian regime (e.g. Bosnia), which leads to further alienation and vulnerability of these women in the community.

Arguably, there seems to be a relationship between growing extremism and strict demands placed on women in Novi Pazar. According to some, many women are forced to cover and follow conservative Wahhabi practices, even support their spouses in terrorism-related endeavors and travel to the conflict zone in Iraq and Syria. That said, as also stressed by some respondents, although conservative Wahhabi practices may limit women’s role in the public life, this does not mean that women cannot hold any power or influence within their own families or inside their closed communities. If they can be reached and engaged to take up counter radicalization initiatives that do not insult their religious beliefs, they can be activated to influence decision-making at a family level, and the experiences of other countries show women’s strong resolve to work with their own families. Although many women in Novi Pazar might continue to give support to religious doctrines in their public life that do not necessarily serve their best interest, this does not mean that women cannot be powerful agents of change within their own families and inside closed communities—they simply need to be enticed and engaged in ways that serve them as well as the wider community.

Interventions to Prevent Spread of Radicalization

Mothers and spouses of those whose offspring or spouses have died in Iraq and Syria and who still hold strong beliefs and convictions about their relative’s involvement in the Syrian and the Iraq conflict, may inadvertently glorify involvement in terrorist groups. It is necessary to provide assistance and support to such families to help them speak out against terrorism while constructively dealing with their grief. It is also important not to collectively penalize the whole family for their adult children’s involvement or for feeling confused about their son or daughter having made the ultimate sacrifice for a cause that unlikely represents the mother or spouse’s true feelings. This is especially important so as to prevent a further radicalization cycle within the families and communities these relatives are influencing. While dealing with trauma is difficult, it is equally important to understand and investigate emotional and psychological dimensions of women, including of their family members in general, who are mourning their children’s death and struggling to come to terms with the death of their loved ones in the service of a terrorist group.

Research on the Roles of Female Radicalization and Prevention

Participants stressed the unique role of women in identifying concerns that may lead to violent extremism, especially among women and the young. Many pointed out to the need for empirical research that addresses women’s motivation for joining violent extremism so as to identify the kind of support women need to deal with radicalization and violent extremism in their families and their communities.[71]There is a dire need for empirical research that addresses both male and female motivations for joining violent extremism in the region and research that examines the differences in their terrorist trajectories into and back out of terrorism, as well as the roles their female family members played in contributing to their decisions for embracing terrorism or in trying to prevent it. While women may play a passive role and follow their men blindly into violent extremism, our research in the region also revealed that women may also encourage their men. Our interviews in the region revealed mothers giving their blessings to go to Syria, and actively intervening to stop their family members from going. In this regard, we need a better understanding of what draws men and women into radicalization and how they are currently preventing and intervening against it,  and how can be better equipped to fight violent extremism in their families and communities. With this type of research, we can better fine tune programming to protect both men and women and enhance the preventative and intervening roles of women.

Research should also include needs assessment for women to more effectively deal with radicalization and violent extremism in their families and their communities. There is a need to identify  needs and services preferred by women, specifically in terms of the type of support they need to deal with their offspring and spouses currently engaged in violent extremism; the kind of support they need and would embrace to increase their knowledge and empowerment to act against the early signs of radicalization; the kind of support they need to increase their critical analysis skills given that many have fallen prey to online recruitment; and the kind of training and tools they need to become more confident about discussing contentious issues with their children and their spouses. It is equally important and necessary to conduct research on needs assessment to understand who mothers and other female family members—wives and sisters—trust for solutions, who they fear, who and what they need to act effectively, etc. It is also important to measure their confidence in responding to contentious issues in the family and community.

There should be a clear conceptualization on what the role of women from the Sandjak region should be in relation to 1) Challenging violent ideology and promoting moderate teachings and moderate views of Islam, 2) understanding and being fully equipped to speak back about the false claims of extremist groups including their materialist and utopian claims, 3) Equipping women with powerful prevention tools and training, 4) Preventing recruitment, 5) Supporting and engaging directly with those vulnerable through interventions, 6) Focus on community resilience, and 7) Addressing grievances, perceived or real, that are exploited by extremists during the radicalization process.

The research revealed both national and international actors’ resolve in not only identifying and diverting violent extremism but also supporting women and their families in countering and disengaging from violent extremism. Strictly speaking in the context of the latter, the respondents stressed the need to establish appropriate, swiftly responding and effective referral mechanisms for services to help radicalized individuals and the families of radicalized individuals, as these days men and women are radicalized into virulent roles to travel to conflict zones and to enact terrorism in matters of weeks and months, not years.

The common theme that emerged during the interviews was that training and powerful tools are needed on understanding violent extremism in all sectors of interventions and that referral mechanisms are important in mobilizing all qualified stakeholders to deliver effective preventative interventions that cater to individual needs. In other words, referral mechanisms allow for mobilizing qualified and credible professionals to deliver effective interventions. This is especially important given that law enforcement and security professionals may not necessarily possess the required skillset and expertise nor have earned the trust of the community. While important, there needs to be transparency when it comes to criteria used to select actors (e.g. civil society, non-governmental, etc.) to participate in the mechanism. There also needs to be transparency on how  interventions are assessed and what are they  comprised  of, and how is important referral information retained/shared with others. Equally important, there need to be clear guidelines that spell out the relationship with the government (e.g. law enforcement), including how referral information is shared with them for preventative and investigative purposes.

Finally, we encourage future research on the topic also to include in-depth interviews with returnees from Syria and Iraq now in prison and their mostly female family members residing in their respective communities to gain additional perspectives on radicalizing factors and women’s roles in these groups. We highly recommend in-depth and psychological interviews with these populations of returnees and their wives, some of whom also spent time as ISIS members, and their mothers and sisters to learn more details about women’s involvement in the groups and how prevention and effective interventions might have occurred and could occur in the future.

About the authors:

Anne Speckhard, Ph.D., is Director of the International Center for the Study of Violent Extremism (ICSVE) and serves as an Adjunct Associate Professor of Psychiatry at Georgetown University School of Medicine. She has interviewed over 600 terrorists, their family members and supporters in various parts of the world including in Western Europe, the Balkans, Central Asia, the Former Soviet Union and the Middle East. In the past two years, she and ICSVE staff have been collecting interviews (n=78) with ISIS defectors, returnees and prisoners, studying their trajectories into and out of terrorism, their experiences inside ISIS, as well as developing the Breaking the ISIS Brand Counter Narrative Projectmaterials from these interviews. She has also been training key stakeholders in law enforcement, intelligence, educators, and other countering violent extremism professionals on the use of counter-narrative messaging materials produced by ICSVE both locally and internationally as well as studying the use of children as violent actors by groups such as ISIS and consulting on how to rehabilitate them. In 2007, she was responsible for designing the psychological and Islamic challenge aspects of the Detainee Rehabilitation Program in Iraq to be applied to 20,000 + detainees and 800 juveniles. She is a sought after counterterrorism experts and has consulted to NATO, OSCE, foreign governments and to the U.S. Senate & House, Departments of State, Defense, Justice, Homeland Security, Health & Human Services, CIA and FBI and CNN, BBC, NPR, Fox News, MSNBC, CTV, and in Time, The New York Times, The Washington Post, London Times and many other publications. She regularly speaks and publishes on the topics of the psychology of radicalization and terrorism and is the author of several books, including Talking to Terrorists, Bride of ISIS, Undercover Jihadi and ISIS Defectors: Inside Stories of the Terrorist Caliphate. Her publications are found here: and on the ICSVE website

Follow @AnneSpeckhard

Reference for this report: Speckhard, Anne (December 21, 2016) The roles of women in supporting, joining, intervening in and preventing violent extremism ins Sandjak: Analysis of the Drivers of Violent Extremism in the Sandjak region with a Focus on Women’s Roles, including a Stakeholder Capacity Assessment Regarding Gender Issues ICSVE Research Reports

[1]Anne Speckhard, “The Lethal Coctail of Terrorism,”The International Center for the Study of Violent Extremism, February 25, 2016, available at

[2]For instance, November 2007 brawl and shooting incident at Altun-alem mosque in the center of Novi Pazar. See

[3]S.K. Interview, Sandjak Committee for Human Rights and Freedoms, October 27, 2016, Novi Pazar.


[5]NCTC Director Nicholas Rasmussen testimony before the House Committee on Homeland Security. Available at The Soufan Group report dated 2015 estimates the number to be between 27,000-31,000.

[6]The Soufan Group 2015 report. See

[7]Bosnia has the highest representation of foreign fighters among the Balkan countries included in the list (330). However, on a per capita basis (per million of its citizens), Sandjak and Kosovo top the list.

[8]Sandjak Police, October 2016.

[9]Judge and Local Council Representative Interview, October 29, 2016, Novi Pazar.

[10]Neumann Peter, “Foreign Fighter Total in Syria/Iraq now Exceeds 20,000; Surpasses Afghanistan Conflict in the 1980s,” January 2015,  available at; The Soufan Group, “Foreign Fighters: An Updated Assessment of the Flow of Foreign Fighters into Syria and Iraq,” The Soufan Group, 2015, available at Data contained in the latter report reflect both 2014 and 2015 findings. In the case of Serbia, the Sandjak, and Kosovo numbers have been updated and reflect 2016 findings. Data collection criteria and methodology: Data gathered based on official government estimates, UN reports, think-tank research reports, academic sources, and other open source and secondary sources. The report cautioned about methodological weaknesses in collecting data about foreign fighters, specifically in that 1) data reporting entities often fail to disclose their data collection criteria and methodology, hence potentially affecting the accuracy of data, 2) while the number often reflects all foreign fighters traveling to join violent groups in Iraq and Syria, others report such number by deducting the number of returnees and those who have died, and 3) women and children are omitted in some reports, while in others they are not.

[11]UNHCR, Country Reports on Terrorism-Serbia,” December 19, 2016, available at; Reuters, “Serbia backs jail terms for Serbs fighting in foreign conflict,” October 10, 2014, available at

[12]The Associated Press, “Sandjak Police Say They Prevented Terrorist Attack on Israeli Team,” The New York Times, November 17, 2016, available at:

[13]Marc Sageman, Leaderless Jihad: Terror Networks in the Twenty-First Century. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2008) Michael and Hallundbaek, Lars, “Al-Shabaab: The Internationalization of Militant Islamism in Somalia and the Implications for Radicalisation Processes in Europe,” Ministry of Justice, Copenhagen. (2010).

[14]Bartlett, Jamie and Miller, Carl.” The Edge of Violence: Towards Telling the Difference between Violent and Non-violent Radicalization.” Terrorism and Political Violence24, no.1 (2014). 1-21.

[15]Ibid., p.2

[16]Schmid, P. Alex. “Radicalisation, De-radicalisation, Counter-radicalisation: A Conceptual Discussion and Literature review,”International Centre for Counter Terrorism, The Hague(2013), p. 10.

[17]Vidino, Lorenzo, “Countering Radicalization in America,” United States Insitute of Peace, Washington, D.C. (2010).

[18]Federal Bureau of Investigation, What is Violent Extremism,” Federal Bureau of Investigation, n.d., available at

[19]United Nations, Resolution, 2178 (2014), p.2, available at


[21]Hasan, N. (2006). Laskar jihad: Islam, militancy, and the quest for identity in post-new order Indonesia. Ithaca, NY: Cornell Southeast Asia Program Publications, pp.139-143.

[22]Lechner, J. F. (2009). Globalization: The making of world society. Hoboken, NJ: Wiley-Blackwell, p.183.

[23]Moussalli, A. (2009). Wahhabism, Salafism and Islamism: Who is the enemy?Retrieved from, p.4

[24]Delong-Bas, N. (2007). Wahhabi Islam: From revival and reform to global jihad. Retrieved from;Zarei, M. (2013). Islamic scholars view about Wahhabism. Journal of Social Issues & Humanities, 1(2), 13-18.

[25]Zarei, M. (2013). Islamic scholars view about Wahhabism. Journal of Social Issues & Humanities, 1(2), 13-18.

[26]Basha, D., & Arsovska, J. (2013). Radical route: Salafism in the Balkans. Retrieved from

[27]S.K. Interview, October 27, 2016, Novi Pazar.

[28]As cited in Balkan Investigative Reporting Network,”Balkan Jihadists: The Radicalisation and Recruitment of Fighters in Syria and Iraq,” March 2016, available at

[29]BLIC, “18 Imena: Ovi su Teroristi iz Srbije koji se bore za Islamsku Drzavu,” June 11, 2015, available at

[30]Denotes age at the time of travel; Western Balkan foreign fighters’ age ranges 16-74, with an average of 32 years of age. The recent research indicates that age groups susceptible to recruitment among ethnic Albanians vary based on the country (e.g. Kosovo and Macedonia, 21-25; Albania, 31-35, etc. This could be attributed to varying social, economic, and political circumstances and dynamics in such countries, Kosovo’s younger median population age, etc. See

[31]Denotes age at the time of travel. See BLIC, “18 Imena: Ovi su Teroristi iz Srbije koji se bore za Islamsku Drzavu.”

[32]S.K. Interview, October 27, 2016, Novi Pazar.

[33]S.K. Interview, October 27, 2016, Novi Pazar.

[34]Ibid; M.J.,City Council Representatives Interview, October 29, 2016, Novi Pazar.

[35]  ISIS has managed to call the largest migration of foreign fighters ever to a battlefield. Estimates are that approximately 38,000 foreign fighters have left for Syria and Iraq—many to ISIS. Zarqawi’s earlier call to jihad with al-Qaeda in Iraq produced only 5000 foreign fighters, while the “jihad” in Afghanistan produced less than 2000 foreign fighters.

[36]S,K. & M.J. Interviews, October 27-29, 2016, Novi Pazar.


[38]J.M.., & and Focus Group Interviews, October 30, 2016, Novi Pazar.

[39]Yasmin Green personal communication June 2016.

[40]Ardian Shajkovci, interview ISIS foreign fighter, 2015, Kosovo.

[41]Speckhard unpublished interview with a Kosovar ISIS Defector, June 2016, Speckhard, A., & Yayla, A. S. (2016). ISIS Defectors: Inside Stories of the Terrorist Caliphate: Advances Press, LLC.

[42]Municipalities and Regions in Serbia (2014). Statistical Office of the Republic of Serbia; M.J. interview, City Council of Novi Pazar.

[43]The World Bank, “World Development Indicators,” The World Bank,2016, available at;

[44]Municipalities and Regions in Serbia (2014). Statistical Office of the Republic of Serbia; M.J. interview, City Council of Novi Pazar.

[45]S.B., Interview,, October 28, 2016, Novi Pazar.

[46]Anne Speckhard, “The Lethal Coctail of Terrorism.”

[47]Personal communication by an Austrian government representatives to Anne Speckhard, March 2016.

[48]Anne Speckhard, “The Lethal Coctail of Terrorism;” Anne Speckhard, Talking to Terrorists: Understanding the Psycho-Social Motivations of Militant Jihadi Terrorists, Mass Hostage Takers, Suicide Bombers & Martyrs (McLean, VA: Advances Press, 2012).


[50]S.K. Interview, October 27, 2016, Novi Pazar.

[51]M.D. Interview, October 28, 2016, Novi Pazar.

[52]Helsinki Human Rights interview…

[53]M.D. Interview.

[54]L. Interview.


[56]M.J. Interview, October 29, 2016, Novi Pazar.

[57]S.K. Interview, October 27, 2016, Novi Pazar.

[58]Denotes age at the time of travel.

[59]CDM, “Jos jedna drzavljanka Crne Gore Pokusala da se Domogne ISIL-a,” May 4, 2015, available at

[60]Interview, Helsinki, October 28, 2016, Novi Pazar; See BLIC, “18 Imena: Ovi su Teroristi iz Srbije koji se bore za Islamsku Drzavu;”

[61] Speckhard, A., & Yayla, A. S. (2016). ISIS Defectors: Inside Stories of the Terrorist Caliphate: Advances Press, LLC.

[62]Available at,26,398

[63]Interview, S.M., October 19, 2017, Novi Pazar.

[64]S.K..& M.J. Interview, October 27-29, 2016, Novi Pazar.

[65]See for example the work of ICSVE here

[66]The ISIS Defector videos subtitled in Serbian and Albanian as well as other languages can be found here

[67]Available at

[68]According to some estimates, the gender distribution in Kosovo is 56.9 % women and 40.7 men. Only 35 % of women participate in job market. Education, lack thereof, is clearly an issue. Sixty-five percent of women have not completed their secondary education, compared to men 41% . See :

[69]S.K. Interview, October 27, 2016, Novi Pazar.


[71]Interview, S, MJ., October 19, 2016.

Back To Top