Kosovo is the youngest republic in Europe, proclaiming itself to be independent of Serbia in 2008. Today it seems to have become fertile recruiting ground for ISIS. During 2014, dozens of people were arrested for suspected terrorist activity and more than 300 left for the Middle East to join ISIS and Al-Nusra Front; more than 30 have been killed, according to government figures. The strong presence of foreign fighters from the Balkans and Kosovo was suggested when Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi’s speech declaring himself to be the “caliph” was translated into English, French, German, Turkish, Russian and Albanian.
The process of indoctrination and religious politicisation, as well as the recruitment of young Kosovars to become “soldiers of Allah”, has been observed by Kosovo’s and foreign intelligence agencies. One insider in Kosovar intelligence said that the government has been at various stages both an actor in and spectator of the jihad recruitment process.
Late last summer, Kosovar police began a massive operation against people suspected of having fought for or supported either ISIS or Al-Nusra Front. The police claimed that during a series of about 60 raids across the country they confiscated many weapons, including AK-47 rifles, various electronic equipment, ammunition and explosives.
The relatives of those arrested tell a different story. Qamil Hyseni, whose son Musli was arrested in November, described the police claims as “a total hoax” and part of a “political agenda” of the government. “The police raided my home and seized my licensed hunting rifle and chemical fertiliser used for our crops,” he revealed. “They wanted to ‘prove’ my son’s involvement in ‘terrorist’ activity.”
Genc Selimi is a young Albanian who was arrested in November 2013 on charges of being involved with ISIS. His family claim that Kosovo’s special police force beat him “brutally” during the arrest and subsequently in prison. Press photographs claiming that Selimi was with Al-Qaeda in 2004 are nonsense say his family. “He was just 10 years old at the time,” they protest, “but the media doesn’t take any notice of this.” They complain at the lack of justice for their son.
There are dozens of such people being detained by the Kosovar authorities, without any evidence; their families are kept in the dark and they can’t afford lawyers’ fees of around €300 a week.
All of this, it is claimed, masks the direct involvement of the Kosovo government in the enlistment of Kosovar Albanians in ISIS. Many Albanians have travelled from Pristina and Tirana to Istanbul even though they have no visa for Turkey; they leave the country without the usual necessary documentation. Some Kosovars fighting in Syria have no stamps in their passports. There is thus much confusion – and many questions – about how young Kosovars aged between 18 and 30, can enter and leave a NATO country to go to Syria, suggesting that the government in Pristina has a very different private stance on the issue of foreign fighters.
The official policy is reflected in the wave of arrests intended to stop Islamic radicalism and terrorism. This has involved some senior religious leaders who are accused of indoctrination and inciting young people to go for jihad.
Imam Nehat Hyseni stands accused by local media of encouraging young people to join the Kosovar Albanian forces in the Middle East. “About two years ago,” he explained, “the Islamic Council of Kosovo asked us to talk about the importance of Al-Sham [Greater Syria]. I preferred not to, since we have more serious problems at home to discuss, including unemployment and the lack of a good education system.” It was his understanding that the council supported the idea of sending fighters to Syria.
At least one member of the Islamic Council has been arrested. Imam Enis Rama spent ten days in jail on charges of suspected terrorist activity by recruiting young fighters for Syria and Iraq. He insisted that the Kosovo government would have to invite its citizens to return home before passing a law criminalising those who have gone to Syria to fight against the Assad regime.
It is reasonably clear that it was not religious fanaticism which prompted young Kosovars to go to Syria but solidarity with the rebels fighting against the government in Damascus. In 2012, Kosovo’s Foreign Minister, Enver Hoxhaj, expressed his “strong support” for the Syrian rebels.
As part of the police crackdown, a number of Islamic NGOs thought to have “links” with terrorist groups have been closed down. Such humanitarian organisations arose during the wars in the Balkans. Now they are accused of recruiting people for terrorist activities.
Ndjeshmeria is one such NGO which has been accused of terrorist activity and closed down. According to Imam Samir Salihu, one of its founders, the government is thus guilty of leaving 300 orphan children without food. “We were the bridge for humanitarian aid for the orphans,” he pointed out, “but the day that our organisation was closed we could not do anything. We are now trying to reopen so that the children are not left without support.”
Kosovo is a nation which arouses a lot of interest from the various world powers. It has a historic and large Turkish community, mainly in the city of Prizren. Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan visited in 2013 and declared, “Turkey is Kosovo; Kosovo is Turkey.”
The US also has strategic interests in Kosovo, which is home to its largest military base in Europe. Despite its majority Muslim population, Kosovo supported the US-led military action against Iraq in 2003.
It is one of the poorest countries in Europe, with widespread corruption and 30 per cent unemployment. Almost 50 per cent of Kosovars, 1.8 million people, live below the poverty line.
With this sort of disastrous social situation at home, around 30,000 Kosovars tried to enter the EU illegally through Serbia and Hungary last month alone. As the young people of Kosovo find the doors of Europe closed to them, the doors to the Middle East appear to be wide open.
Images by Laura Aggio
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.