The One Muslim Country That Loves America Is Developing an Extremist Problem
Kosovars are traveling to the Middle East to fight the same U.S.-led forces that once helped secure their country’s freedom.
PRISTINA, Kosovo — Musli Musliu's Facebook page looks much like any other 20-something's profile: He posts selfies along with videos uploaded from YouTube, and he has an app for playing Texas Hold 'Em with his friends. But his profile is not actually one of a typical millennial. The videos Musli posts call for jihad, urging his friends to join the fight against the enemies of Islam. One photo shows a man with a balaclava covering his face. In another, a man holds an assault rifle with a bullet belt wrapped like a scarf around his neck.
PRISTINA, Kosovo — Musli Musliu’s Facebook page looks much like any other 20-something’s profile: He posts selfies along with videos uploaded from YouTube, and he has an app for playing Texas Hold ‘Em with his friends. But his profile is not actually one of a typical millennial. The videos Musli posts call for jihad, urging his friends to join the fight against the enemies of Islam. One photo shows a man with a balaclava covering his face. In another, a man holds an assault rifle with a bullet belt wrapped like a scarf around his neck.
His family says that the photos were likely taken in the Middle East, where Musli and his brother, Valon, both natives of Kosovo, traveled to join militant groups. In April, Musli called home to inform his family that Valon had been killed during the Islamic State’s campaign in Fallujah. Valon, who would have been 22 now, studied in a madrasa, or Islamic high school, in Kosovo’s capital, Pristina, before moving to Egypt to study at Al-Azhar University. (The family did not discuss Musli’s background.) Eight months after leaving for the Middle East, Valon came home to visit his family, who tried to talk him out of going back.
“We discussed this with him, and so did our uncles,” Selman, another brother, said in an interview in his village of Tushile, about 30 miles from Pristina. “We explained to him that there are manipulative people out there, and that it is usually the innocent ones who suffer.”
The family has not received any notification of Musli’s death, but they are nervous, because as of late September, they had not heard from him in three months.
Valon and Musli are two of the 150 Kosovo Albanians — the ethnic majority in the Balkan country of nearly 2 million, where Islam is the dominant religion — who, according to the Kosovo officials, have traveled to Iraq or Syria to fight alongside various groups. Forty have reportedly died. Fifteen years ago, Kosovo was embroiled in its own war: Led by the United States, NATO waged a bombing campaign that paved the way for Kosovo to declare independence from Serbia in 2008. Now a collection of young Kosovars are in the Middle East, and some of them are opposing the very forces that helped secure their country’s sovereignty.
The government has moved to stem the migration of potential fighters: In recent weeks, Kosovo police have arrested dozens of people suspected of having fought in Iraq and Syria or of inciting terrorism, including 14 imams. Still, the flight of extremist volunteers is seen by some as an embarrassment for a country that is still trying to find its footing on the international stage — and one that largely owes its freedom to Western intervention.
For many years after the NATO bombing, extremist Islam was not a concern in Kosovo. “We spent 15 years worried about all of the unlicensed drivers causing car accidents,” says a senior Kosovo intelligence official, speaking on condition of anonymity, describing the need to build even basic public services from the ground up. But as Kosovo emerged from war in the 2000s, several foreign, conservative Islamic aid organizations established schools and funded the construction of mosques in the country. Then, around the time the war in Syria began, radical Islam became a cause for real worry, according to the intelligence official.
From the start, this concern was focused on mosques and, before long, the worry became that some religious leaders might be influencing Kosovars to go fight in Syria. In 2012, for example, Enes Goga, a Kosovar imam, delivered a fiery sermon about Syria, with quotes from the Prophet Muhammed. “I command you to go to the Sham lands because it’s a chosen land from Allah and in that land live all the great believers of Allah,” Goga said, referencing Muhammed. “Allah’s angels have spread their wings above the lands of Sham.”
“Though he did not explicitly order people to take up arms,” says local journalist Artan Haraqija, who has received death threats for his reports about the Islamic community in Kosovo, “to me [it] is a clear call for anyone to join the fighters in Syria.”
Names began emerging around the same time: In September 2012, a Kosovar named Naman Demolli, who had served in the guerrilla Kosovo Liberation Army in the war against Serbia, died in Syria. Later, in March 2014, a German-born Kosovar, Blerim Heta, who went to fight with extremist rebels in Syria in August 2013, allegedly killed 52 people in a suicide attack in Baghdad, where he was known as Abu Al Khabab Kosovo, according to the news portal Balkan Insight.
In June 2014, footage appeared online of Lavdrim Muhaxheri, a Kosovo Albanian fighting with the Islamic State, giving an impassioned speech in Arabic before a cheering crowd in what is purported to be Fallujah. He vowed to conquer Jerusalem, Rome, and Andalusia before ripping up his Kosovo passport and piercing it with a saber. The following month, Muhaxheri uploaded gruesome images on Facebook allegedly depicting him preparing to decapitate a Syrian teenager. Another photo showed him holding the severed head.
In September, the U.S. government included Muhaxheri, who for a time was thought to be dead, on its list of “specially designated global terrorists,” a distinction that comes with financial sanctions. Muhaxheri reportedly has a history with Americans: He once worked at the U.S. military base in Kosovo, Camp Bondsteel, where 800 American service members are deployed on active duty. He later worked as a contractor for two years in Afghanistan, according to local media reports.
Many Muslim leaders have been outspoken in denouncing those who have joined extremist groups in the Middle East. The Kosovo Islamic Community, an independent religious organization, has called for Kosovar fighters in Syria “to go back to their families and the country as soon as possible.” The organization has also criticized groups that have recruited in Kosovo.
Meanwhile, the government, which remains intensely loyal to Western countries, has sought to weed out alleged supporters of radical groups. In an op-ed in the Guardian on Sept. 30, Kosovo Prime Minister Hashim Thaci vowed to “crush any cells that believe, wrongfully, that they can find cover in Kosovo.” In addition to the recent arrests, the government has also shut down 14 Islamic NGOs and is investigating whether any of the organizations have ties to radical Islamic groups.
“We are paying back our allies,” says the senior intelligence official. He notes that the Kosovo Intelligence Agency, the country’s equivalent of the CIA, does not oppose the United States targeting Kosovo citizens fighting for the Islamic State; at least eight Kosovars were reportedly killed in a U.S. drone strike in September. “They freed us, and now we are responding to their call,” the official says, referencing the recent domestic efforts to stem the flow of fighters.
Between three and six Kosovars have returned from Iraq and Syria each month on average over the past few months, according to the Kosovo Intelligence Agency. But the intelligence official is optimistic that the recent arrests, coupled with active warrants for 30 believed still to be fighting in Syria, will help restrict the migration of radical extremists to the region.
Yet some people are concerned that the arrests could backfire and radicalize more people.
“Kosovo needs a more proactive approach,” says Abit Hoxha, a security analyst with the Kosovo Center for Security Studies. “Arresting these people and accusing them without having done anything [to improve governance] will become a boomerang.”
A young Kosovar from Kacanik, Muhaxheri’s hometown, agrees. “People are dismayed because this is unjust,” the 24-year-old says after Friday prayer. “This worsens the situation. Wouldn’t you be annoyed if your brother were arrested? We Muslims are all brothers.”
Some Kosovars are frustrated that the government is not addressing the root causes of extremism: poverty, a poor education system, and a dysfunctional government. “Our education system is inadequate, and it leaves people susceptible to religious propaganda,” Hoxha says.
Kosovo’s unemployment rate is 45 percent, according to the World Bank; among youth, it soars to 60 percent. Half the country’s population is under the age of 25. Those who do have a job earn on average $470 per month.
Muhamet, the eldest brother in the Musliu family, says Kosovo’s dire economic straits are partially to blame for his brother’s death. “Kosovo is turning upside down,” he says. “If my brothers had a job here, perhaps they would have not thought of going there.”
“But the state,” he adds, “did not care.”
Nektar Zogjani and Petrit Qollaku contributed reporting.
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