Novi Pazar, Serbia’s jihadist breeding ground

Sunday 11/12/2016
People walk in the old town of Novi Pazar in southern Serbia. (AFP)

Novi Pazar - In a country proud of its Ortho­dox Christianity, the Serbian city of Novi Pazar is a place apart: Young bearded men in ankle-length trousers stroll the streets, the restaurants do not serve alcohol and the call of the muezzin punctuates the daily rou­tine.

Faced with massive unemploy­ment and a feeling of exclusion against the backdrop of the Syrian war, this Muslim-majority area of south-western Serbia has become a breeding ground for Islamist ex­tremists.

“Death in the way of Allah in Syr­ia, 14 May 2013, aged 27″ was a no­tice posted on the concrete walls of Novi Pazar, which lies in the region of Sandzak.

Killed in Aleppo, Eldar Kunda­kovic used to be one of the young men aimlessly strolling the town, where about half of the 100,000 residents are jobless and one-third of the population is under the age of 19, according to the latest cen­sus.

Kundakovic, who belonged to the ultra-conservative Salafist movement, divided his time be­tween prayer rooms and the tailor shop run by his father, who since the death of his son has spent time at mosques trying to dissuade youngsters from becoming violent radicals.

Novi Pazar is a city without an airport or train station, served by bad roads and enclosed by moun­tains, where the poverty rate is 50%, according to Serbia’s statis­tics institute, making the Sandzak region the most deprived area of the Balkan country.

A centre of textiles and com­merce, it did not withstand the bloody break-up of Yugoslavia in the 1990s. A large number of the warehouses that employed thou­sands of workers fell into disuse.

The Serbia government esti­mates about 40 of its citizens have left to join the jihad in Syria and Iraq, some of whom have since re­turned or died there.

They were mostly either youths from the Sandzak region or mem­bers of the ethnic Albanian com­munity in the neighbouring Pre­sevo valley.

Those who return are monitored by powerful intelligence services that date to the Yugoslav era. East­ward departures have dropped since the Islamic State (ISIS) has begun to retreat.

The presence of Salafist “hu­manitarian organisations”, osten­sibly helping the needy in Sandzak, however, has become a cause of concern.

In an April 2015 report, DamaD, a local cultural centre, said these groups had “completely isolated themselves from the rest of soci­ety” and were “committed to very conservative views on religion which support jihadist fights”.

The region’s official Islamic au­thorities have become weaker after splitting into two rival structures.

According to Serbian media, young people who left for Syria frequented in particular an associa­tion called Furkan, whose follow­ers are linked to a hard-line Wah­habi community in north-eastern Bosnia. One of them fired shots at the US embassy in Sarajevo in Oc­tober 2011.

In 2014, the association disap­peared after the dismantling of a jihadist network whose members were also part of Furkan.

“But where are the people who were part of it?” asked Fahrudin Kladnicanin of Forum10, an initia­tive dealing with integration issues.

“A lot of young people partici­pated in their activities, their con­ferences. I think that… they are still working on silent radicalisation of some youngsters.”

In his pizzeria close to the city’s football stadium, 44-year-old Ad­mir, who declined to give his last name, acknowledged that “penni­less students” receive aid from his religious association Put Sredine (the Middle Way).

He denied any foreign financ­ing, claiming his association ran on money from its members. He also rejects violence but expressed dis­gust towards Shias, “a sect”, and Is­rael, “the world’s biggest terrorist”.

But what Novi Pazar needs most is development, said Kladnicanin. “In last ten years, there has been no investment in Sandzak, not a single factory was opened,” he said.

City Mayor Nihat Bisevac says it was more realistic to rely on fi­nancial support from Sandzak’s diaspora, which remains deeply involved in Novi Pazar — as is clear from the large number of foreign car registration plates.

Still, another hope for the future is a planned highway between the Montenegrin port of Bar and the Serbian capital, Belgrade, which is likely to pass near Novi Pazar, but there is no timetable yet for its con­struction.

In addition to this economic situ­ation, Serbian Muslims are “vic­tims of double standards”, accord­ing to the mufti of the local Islamic community, Mevlud Dudic.

He said Serbs made up 80% of Novi Pazar’s police force until re­cently — despite the city being 80% Muslim. Following a drive to im­prove the balance, Muslims now make up a third of the force.

Muamer Zukorlic, a former mufti and now the member of parliament for Novi Pazar, considers there is a “low level of extremist behaviour” given the circumstances but warns that “the bad economy, social situ­ation, poor infrastructure — it all steps up the tension”.

(Agence France-Presse)