TIRANA, ALBANIA - Security officials from the western Balkans and several European Union countries were meeting in Albania Tuesday as part of a U.S. government initiative to fight European recruitment by violent Islamic groups to fight in Iraq and Syria.
U.S. Undersecretary of State Sarah Sewall attended the two-day conference in the Albanian capital Tirana and urged countries in the region to improve cooperation against recruitment and draw up national strategies to combat the problem.
"Violent extremism is spreading geographically and ... no region, no country, no community is immune to this threat,'' Sewall said.
The Western Balkans, she said, had become a "source of foreign terrorist fighters in Syria and Iraq,'' in part, due to recent wars in the former Yugoslavia.
Hundreds of fighters from Albania and Western Balkan countries, which face poverty and high unemployment, have joined Islamic militants in Syria and Iraq in the past three years.
Albanian Interior Minister Saimir Tahiri said cooperation with international law-enforcement agencies and legal reforms had reduced recruitment levels in his country.
According to a study funded by the U.S. and published in Kosovo last month, about 700 fighters from west Balkan countries have traveled to Iraq and Syria, with most originating from Bosnia and Kosovo, and recruitment peaking in early 2013.
The White House launched the Countering Violent Extremism program in February.