What Happens when Montenegro Citizens Return Home After Fighting in Foreign Wars?

Screenshot from the online version of the documentary film “The Road of No Return?” by Center for Democratic Transition (CDT), from Montenegro.

Milica Bogdanović, the author of this post, is a member of the Center for Democratic Transition (CDT), the organization which produced the film mentioned.

The documentary film “The Road of No Return?” explores the topic of Montenegro and Balkan citizens who return home and face convictions after enlisting in foreign wars in countries like Syria or Ukraine.

The film, produced by the Center for Democratic Transition (CDT), a non-governmental organization, was made available online this week, increasing its accessibility with added English subtitles. It presents the lives of returnee ISIS fighters in Montenegro and the role of state institutions in the process of radicalism prevention:

In Montenegro, a country with 623,000 citizens, over 20 people are known to have participated in conflicts in Syria, Ukraine, and Iraq. There are no official estimates for returnees, but field research shows that several fighters have returned home. The European Union 2016 report on Montenegro noted:

Institutional awareness needs to be increased to monitor possible terrorist threats, including radicalised Montenegrin nationals returning from battlefields. There is evidence of approximately 20 nationals on the battlefield in Syria since the beginning of the conflict, of which five reportedly died. Preventive activities in this area need to be strengthened and anti-radicalisation measures implemented. A track record in the area of preventing terrorism financing needs to be developed.

Like other Balkan countries, Montenegro had adopted new laws that make “joining or participating” in foreign armies, police, paramilitary or para-police groups a criminal offense, punishable by jail terms of six months to 10 years. Only two people have been prosecuted in relation to radicalization, recruitment, supporting and funding terrorist activities or fighting in Syria and Ukraine.

The documentary provides insight into the motives of both Sunni Muslim and Orthodox Christian fighters claiming noble motives to defend “oppressed brethren” in faraway countries. Such claims are contrasted with statements by local religious authorities, who strongly condemn all crimes committed in the name of religion or “patriotic” affiliation.

The film presents interviews with civil society activists, analysts and psychologists also, pointing to various perceptions of fighters going to the battlefield according to their religion. They also stress that other factors such as family issues, mental health, and one's economic situation are driving forces behind their decision to join a cause they consider ‘heroic.’ Feelings of personal honor, courage, and chivalry define Montenegrin identity. Psychologists also note that joining a war might be appealing to persons prone to violence who may have been victims of trauma earlier in life.

The state's official documents show that returning foreign fighters are recognized as a danger to national security and society as a whole, but Montenegro's state institutions have not yet created a program of de-radicalization after serving time in prison.

Security agencies frequently collect data about foreign fighter returnees and follow their activities, but other institutions do not implement supported programs for taking care of their families and children, or for providing de-radicalization prevention:

What is the role of the community in the struggle against violent extremism? #PoliticsMN

On 24 October, CTD premiered the film on national TV Vijesti and organized a screening in the capital Podgorica on 31 October to stir public debate, signaling attention to mainstream politics in Montenegro.

During the event, CDT live-tweeted remarks by the participants using the hashtag #PolitikaCG (#PoliticsMN), starting with the Minister of Interior of Montenegro, Melvudin Nuhodžić, as well as panelists from other civil society organizations who shared relevant research:

Nuhodžić: Violent extremism is a complicated phenomenon and represents a challenge requiring joint efforts by all of us. #PoliticsMN

Elvira Hadžibegović-Bubanja from Forum MNE: Young people think it's justified to use violence to defend one's religion.

Aner Zuković from Atlantic Initiative [a Bosnian NGO]: The internet plays a key role in spreading radical ideas. It's being used for recruiting new followers…

While there is political will at the highest level to increase the role of community in the struggle against violent extremism, Montenegro has only begun to establish such a system. Except for incarceration and surveillance, former foreign fighters and their families are on their own in terms of re-integration in Montenegrin society.

Minister Nuhodžić announced the creation of the National Platform for Countering Violent Extremism, but many institutions are still unaware of their role within it. Civil society must pioneer an empathetic approach to preventing the spread of radical ideas online and through the media, and help former fighters reexamine their value systems.

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