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Risk of Islamist radicalisation in Bulgaria: a case study in the Iztok neighbourhood of the city of Pazardzhik

The qualitative study is the first of its kind to be conducted in Bulgaria. It is intended to aid in attaining understanding about the vulnerabilities to Islamist radicalisation of a group considered at risk. The identified risk group regards a small sub-community of Roma inhabiting the Iztok neighbourhood of the city of Pazardzhik.

The study aims to provide understanding about the root causes and the social meaning of certain manifestations of sympathy with radical Islamist ideas and organisations, as well as the vulnerabilities of the risk group to potential radicalisation. The study further aims to raise awareness of selected risk and vulnerability indicators among law enforcement and intelligence officers at central and local level.

The study is designed on the premise that the formulation of risk indicators with relevance to the context of Bulgaria should be based on an understanding of the actual processes that may lead to Islamist radicalisation and the root causes and driving factors lying behind it.

The risk group for the conduct of the qualitative case study has been identified based on desk research involving the collection and analysis of data relating to government strategies, expert policy analysis, court proceedings, and related media coverage. The identified risk group regards a small sub-community of Roma inhabiting the Iztok neighbourhood of the city of Pazardzhik who profess recently adopted Salafi interpretations of Islam. The risk group has been selected based on indications that some of its members have recently manifested and expressed sympathies with radical Islamist organisations such as ISIS.

The research is based on qualitative data about other people’s observations, views, and experiences pertaining to the community professing Salafi Islam in the Iztok neighbourhood. These are primarily representatives of both central and local institutions whose professional duties require them to come in direct contact with members of the Salafi community and, to a lesser extent, other inhabitants of the same neighbourhood. The study does not present the viewpoint of the group of people professing Salafi interpretations of Islam, as during the field visits to the Iztok neighbourhood of the city of Pazardzhik all local community representatives regardless of their religion and language demonstrated anxiety and a defensive attitude.

Key Findings

The emergence within the Iztok neighbourhood of the city of Pazardzhik of a community of people professing Salafi interpretations of Islam, untraditional for Bulgaria, is the outcome of a set of factors, each weighing into the process. The main critical factors include: 1) the establishment, as a result of labour migration to Western Europe, of connections with the transnational umma of devout Muslims which in turn has facilitated familiarisation with interpretations of Islam uncommon for this country; 2) the emergence of a powerful leader enjoying strong moral authority in the community; 3) creating and maintaining robust social cohesion within the community based on active religious life by dint of common rituals and practices, mutual assistance, and opportunities for involvement in economic activities; 4) an opportunity to lead a religious life in a mosque of their own; 5) an opportunity to outgrow the stigma of the Roma identity by claiming affiliation and identification with the transnational Muslim community.

It is important to stress that the discussion of factors contributing to the formation of a community that adopted the Salafi interpretation of Islam is not a discussion about the factors leading to Islamist radicalisation. The factors that have potentially contributed to the formation of a Salafi community are likely to have played a role in creating vulnerabilities to penetration of more radically charged ideas channelled through the internet, the local informal leader, or through contacts with Islamist influences abroad.

The study has been conducted with financial support under the Prevention and Fight against Crime Programme of the European Commission.


Mila Mancheva, Rositsa Dzhekova – Centre for the Study of Democracy