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Macedonia on Alert for Returning Jihadists

Security officials said they are closely monitoring potential threats from Macedonian Islamists returning from Syria and Iraq, but cautioned that the refuge crisis is complicating the situation.

The security conference on Wednesday. Photo by: Sinisa Jakov Marusic

Army and police officials said on Wednesday that they are closely watching for threats from Macedonian nationals who have reportedly fought alongside radical Islamists in Syria or are close to them.

At a conference in Skopje on security risks, they insist that although the threat is heightened, there is no place for panic.

“If you look at it historically, that threat has always existed, before and after the Paris terror attacks,” said retired general Dragan Andrevski, head of the Macedonian Generals’ Club, which organized the conference. 

“But if need be, the security structures will undertake measures to prevent the situation worsening,” he added.

The conference that brought together current and retired army officers and was also attended by police officials, concluded that the greatest threat comes from radicalized Macedonian nationals, and not so much from the inflow of refugees who transit the country on their way for Western Europe.

However a police representative at the conference told BIRN on condition of anonymity that “the heightened security measures after the Paris attacks are still in force”.

The previous day, Macedonian President Gjorge Ivanov for the first time revealed specific numbers of suspected radical fighters from Macedonia who have joined armed groups in Syria.

He said that at the moment in Macedonia there are 69 returnees from Syria, 110 are still there, and 25 have died during the conflict so far.

Ivanov insisted that the refugee crisis is diverting the attention of the security forces from the terror threat.

“We have a threat inside the country from radical Islam and we are spending our resources on the migrants instead of dealing with the security threats and acting preventatively,” Ivanov told Kanal 5 TV.

The Macedonian president said he has urged the country’s second largest Muslim body, the Islamic Religious Community, IVZ, to boost efforts to educate people against radicalization.
 
While most ethnic Macedonians espouse Orthodox Christianity, most of the country’s Albanians, who make up a quarter of the population of 2.1 million, are of the Muslim faith.

Last Friday, the police said they arrested a Macedonian national they identified as ‘S.R.’, aged 21 from Skopje, on suspicion of being involved with ISIS in Afghanistan.

Macedonia this year made joining or recruiting for foreign paramilitaries a crime.

However, the police dismissed some media reports of a group of jihadists, including notorious Lavdrim Muhaxheri from Kosovo, allegedly hiding in ethnic Albanian villages near Skopje, saying that neither they nor the Kosovo authorities have such information.

Earlier this week, several Serbian, Macedonian and Kosovo media published unconfirmed reports that Muhaxheri, regarded as one of the most well-known jihadists from the region, who has appeared in a several execution videos on YouTube, might be hiding in Macedonia after entering the country illegally along with refugees.
 
There have also been previous unconfirmed reports of Muhaxheri being killed in Syria.