Saturday, June 29, 2019

Kosovo, country profile Islamism

American Foreign Policy Council: World Alamnac of Islamism

Islam’s footprint in Kosovo dates back seven centuries, to the time of the Ottoman conquest. Although much of the ethnic Albanian-majority population practices a moderate form of Islam, the slow pace of social, political and economic development since the 1999 NATO intervention has created fertile soil for Islamic radicalization. 

Adding to this dynamic is the fact that the post-intervention period (even after national independence in 2008) has seen amorphous and unaccountable UN and then EU missions linger on, with wide authority and influence. A smaller NATO detachment led by the United States, Kosovo Force (KFOR) also remains, though it has handed over most security duties to local government bodies. However, due to the unaccountable governance of supranational organizations, numerous Islamic states and fundamentalist-oriented charities have been allowed open access to this economically underdeveloped corner of Europe.

The result today is that, while most Kosovars are still moderate, the country has produced the highest number of foreign fighters per capita among European countries joining ISIS and al-Nusra Front, with 125 fighters for every million people. While numbers of foreign fighters have dropped sharply in the last year, due to governmental remediation efforts, the issue of countering violent extremism (CVE) and the potential for attacks from returning fighters are prominent concerns for the government and its Western backers today.

While the Kosovar government has tended to downplay the role of Islam (and Islamic extremism) in its nation, it is taking steps to deal with security and social issues associated with radicalization, passing laws against foreign fighters and arresting scores of previous or aspiring homegrown jihadists since 2014. 

While there are specific connections between Kosovo and the Syrian conflict, in the long term the development of education, health and work opportunities for local youth is probably the greatest challenge Kosovo faces in countering violent extremism. At the same time, the ethnic linkages between Kosovars at home and those in Western European countries has resulted (and will result) in police actions elsewhere on the Continent involving Kosovo-related terror cells linked to ISIS. This will remain a concern going forward.

Level of Islamist Activity: 


Islamist Activity: 

Today’s Islamist activity in Kosovo was, in the beginning, expedited by the 1999 NATO intervention, which replaced Serbian rule with a porous international administration that was preoccupied with matters of inter-ethnic violence, organized crime and institution-building. Relatively little attention was paid to the possibility of Islamic extremism, in part because the narrative of an ethnic nationalist liberation struggle allegedly precluded this possibility. 

Ultimately, though, the participation of Kosovo Muslims in modern jihad owes to the support of foreign Islamic donors, who sought to build mosques, schools and NGOs in the country following the 1999 NATO intervention. Although many of these groups have since been closed or voluntarily left, they did provide indoctrination and financial support for impoverished Kosovars at a key post-conflict time. Their influence has lingered and has created an extremist fringe that took on a leading role in the Syrian conflict.

The first foreign Islamist actors came to Kosovo in 1999 via in an assortment of Islamic charities. The most important was a Saudi government umbrella organization, the Saudi Joint Commission for the Relief of Kosovo and Chechnya (SJCRKC). It was matched by its official Kuwaiti counterpart, the Kuwaiti Joint Relief Committee (KJRC). 

Along with then-returning Albanian refugees, representatives of these groups (and the Islamic charities organized within them) entered Kosovo from neighboring Albania, where Albanian and U.S. authorities had been monitoring, and working to control, suspected international terrorist suspects. 

The Saudis initially allocated over $22.5 million for the rebuilding or new construction of mosques and schools, and also for supporting orphans in Kosovo. However, Kosovo investigators of the now-closed charity found in 2016 that most of the Saudi money could not be accounted for, and that very little has ever actually been given to help orphans.

Although the volume of personnel would gradually diminish over time, and in some instances disappear completely with the progressive downsizing of the UN mission, Kosovo was clearly vulnerable to foreign Islamist penetration in the early years of post-Yugoslav rule. 

Kosovo’s internationally uncertain status also meant a no-visa policy, and with essentially open borders, Kosovo became Europe’s primary “safe zone” for foreign radicals. Pressure from the EU—which Kosovo hopes to join someday—led the government to plan to impose visas on over 80 countries in 2013. But, as of August 2016, citizens from over 100 countries (including most of the Gulf states) still did not need visas to enter Kosovo.

Estimates for the number of foreign fighters from Kosovo have varied widely in recent years, with the Kosovar government only admitting to the problem once it began to garner international interest in 2015. Since that time, there has been an almost complete stoppage of jihadists exiting the country. Statistics in 2015 claimed some 232 Kosovo-born fighters had joined the ranks of jihadist groups, making Kosovo the highest exporter of jihadists per capita in Europe. However, a U.S. Institute of Peace study from December 2016, concurring with a State Department country assessment from the summer of 2017, put the total number of foreign fighter from Kosovo at 314.

Interestingly, the USIP analysis noted that “none of the five municipalities with the highest rates of foreign fighter mobilization (Hani i Elezit, Kaçanik, Mitrovice, Gjilan, and Viti) were classified as being among the municipalities with the lowest 2014 Human Development Index in Kosovo.” The research, which made use of official state statistics, found that “no correlation is readily observable between income and educational levels and vulnerability to mobilization.” While most Kosovo Muslim foreign fighters were men aged 17-30, they had relatively higher educational levels than did similar foreign fighters from Bosnia. Also, while in absolute terms urban areas (like the capital, Prishtina, and Prizren) were sources for Islamist fighters, the regular tours of Albanian extremist preachers from Macedonia created jihad pockets in tiny municipalities (Hani I Elezit, Kaçanik) that are near the border, and that turned out a disproportionate number of fighters bound for Syria and Iraq.

Islamic radical activity relating to Kosovo has taken on an international profile, particularly since the Syrian war began in 2011. Yet it is not only that conflict zone that has drawn Albanians from the Balkan country to carry out jihad; in addition, the traditionally large and embedded Albanian diaspora spread throughout Western Europe is offering new potential for logistics and recruitments of terrorist bases, as has been indicated by several arrests in Italy since 2015. Most infamously, three Kosovar Albanian ISIS devotees (Fisnik Bekaj, 24, Dake Haziraj, 25, and Arian Babaj, 27) were arrested by Italian police in March 2017, after their plan to blow up Venice’s historic Rialto Bridge was uncovered by Italian police. According to police wiretaps, the aspiring terrorists (one of whom had returned from Syria) were inspired by the contemporaneous terrorist attack on London’s Westminster Bridge.

As with other cases, all of the men were living legally in Italy—in fact, two worked as waiters in central Venice—indicating again the unique nature of Kosovo’s terrorist threat.Kosovo thus continues to be an exporter of instability and also faces the threat of terrorism on its own soil from returning ISIS and al-Nusra fighters. 

Finally, given the very high rate of economic migrants during and after the 2015 European migrant crisis, the potential for radicalization grows among both embittered forced returnees and new diaspora members attracted to radical mosques in Western Europe.