Last night, police and intelligence forces in Macedonia raided multiple locations in the small Balkan country, seeking to root out the Islamic State infrastructure that has established a foothold in recent years.
According to Macedonian press reports, Operation Cell, which had been planned since late September, was executed in several locations in the capital Skopje as well as the provincial cities of Gostivar, Tetovo, Kumanovo and Struga, Specific sites where police conducted searches included Skopje’s Tutunsuz mosque, which known for its radicalism, an internet cafe, and two unnamed NGOs, as well as more than two dozen residences.
Nine suspected Islamic State militants have been arrested, including Rechep Memishi, the imam of the Tutunsuz mosque, who is considered by Macedonian state security to be the group’s ideological ringleader. In all, three dozen arrest warrants were issued; the missing men, twenty-seven in all, are believed to be abroad, fighting with the Islamic State in the Middle East.
The men in custody range from nineteen to forty-nine years of age and will face criminal charges of aid to terrorism and supporting illegal paramilitary organizations. Among the items confiscated by police include several computers, SIM cards, significant amounts of cash, a gas pistol, and brass knuckles, while an Islamic State flag was seized at the Tutunsuz mosque (left).
Macedonian intelligence assesses that 130 of its citizens, mainly ethnic Albanians, have gone abroad to wage jihad with the Islamic State, of whom sixteen are believed to have been killed.
Operation Cell, which was planned in coordination with multiple partner intelligence services, appears to be an important success in the struggle against terrorism and radicalism in Southeastern Europe. Given the fragile state of interethnic relations in Macedonia, including large-scale still-murky terrorist acts, as well as string-pulling by Putin’s Russia, it’s imperative that Skopje gets a handle on its Islamic State problem. This seems to be a step in the right direction.
UPDATE (1315 EST, 6 AUG): latest reports from Skopje indicate that the NGOs raided last night are Spark of Mercy (Искра на милоста) and Islamic Youth-Saraj (Исламска младина-Сарај), which are suspected radical fronts. Police seized a total of 38 computers, 18 laptops, 18 tablets and 119 phones. The Interior Ministry has stated that those arrested have “some overlap” with the Kumanovo radical group, which is blamed by Skopje for recent terrorist attacks in Macedonia.