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Hope workshop about Bulgaria’s radicalisation and extremism state-of-play

The 7th Transnational Thematic Workshop of the HOPE project about Bulgaria’s radicalisation and extremism state-of-play: Approaches and consequences for the security, criminal justice, and community settings was held on June, 15th 2022 in Sofia, Bulgaria.

The nine partners of the project have participated in the workshop together with front-line experts and professionals, dealing with different aspects of the reality of violent extremism in Bulgaria and the efforts to deal with it from government entities and those of civil society.

Participants initiated the discussion on the extremist trends in Bulgaria and how to promote training and multiagency cooperation within Bulgarian security, criminal justice, and community stakeholders considering the role of non-governmental organisations on preventing radicalisation in Bulgaria.

The discussion also broached the topics of the role of police officers on dealing with violent extremist and terrorist offenders and how to enhance police officers competencies on preventing radicalisation.

The history of violent extremism in Bulgaria has a journey that begins at the end of the 19th century with the attacks of the Bulgarian anarchist movements against the government of the Ottoman Empire in Istanbul or Thessaloniki. However, looking back, most Bulgarians would define the militants of these movements as national heroes who facilitated the country’s independence. A social worker in a Bulgarian NGO explains how this only confirms the classic phrase that someone who is a terrorist for some may be nothing less than a national hero for others.

In the session it was also observed how, according to the National Security Agency in Bulgaria, the motivation to justify the use of political violence in our days has diversified, including groups of Shiite and Sunni Islamic inspiration, or extremist groups of other ideological inspirations imported from neighboring Turkey. However, this agency does not see extreme right or extreme left groups as problematic in this regard.

Lastly, the workshop dealt with the issue of the work of civil society in the prevention and mitigation of violent extremism. The case of the Bulgarian city of Pazardzhik, where a movement in support of the so-called Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (Daesh) recently emerged, was presented. This community also adopted ways of life similar to those practiced by Daesh in Iraq and Syria, such as not sending girls to school. In view of this important problem, a local NGO took the initiative to work in this community by developing English classes for boys and girls. The work of this organization was arduous and required various meetings with the leader of the movement until, after 6 months, they were granted permission to start classes. However, shortly after the start of the project, the police arrested the leader of the movement, which caused a major media stir at the national level. This detention increased the community’s distrust in the work carried out by any external entity, which forced the project to end. The example demonstrates, according to the speaker, a classic conflict between the security forces and bodies and the entities that work on community development. A conflict that is not unrelated to the work of prevention and confrontation of violent radicalization and that demonstrate once again the importance of collaborative work between the different actors involved in this type of initiative, whether they are governmental or civil society.

These challenges and lessons learned in the Bulgarian context allow for a solid and enhanced progression towards better results in radicalisation prevention. HOPE will continue seeking to engage relevant stakeholders in preventing and countering violent extremism through a holistic lens. This European initiative is developing a network for continuous training and knowledge sharing in the Balkan, Southern, and Eastern European countries. The goal is to increase the knowledge base and cooperation between stakeholders to develop and implement successful P/CVE practices.

One way to get involved is by joining HOPE’s Radicalisation Network. In this online hub, members can stay abreast of all project initiatives, access hundreds of relevant resources, and network with dozens of P/CVE experts from over 40 organisations worldwide.

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