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'Dead' Kosovar Albanian IS Militant Resurfaces In Gruesome Killing Video


Undated photo of Lavdrim Muhaxheri, a Kosovar Albanian who joined Islamic State.

Undated photo of Lavdrim Muhaxheri, a Kosovar Albanian who joined Islamic State.

In August, media in the Balkans reported with some relief that Lavdrim Muhaxheri, a notorious Islamic State (IS) militant, had been killed in an air strike in Syria.

An ethnic Albanian from Kacanik in Kosovo, Muhaxheri caused outrage in his home country in July when he posted grisly photographs of himself on Facebook appearing to behead a man.

But although Muhaxheri has been presumed dead for some months, new evidence has raised speculation that the militant could be very much alive.

A gruesome video shared on May 21 by Raqqa Is Being Slaughtered Silently, an underground group of Syrian activists in IS's de facto capital in Syria, appears to show Muhaxheri killing a Syrian man with a rocket-propelled grenade (RPG).

Activist Abu Muhammad from Raqqa Is Being Slaughtered Silently told RFE/RL that he did not know exactly when the killing shown in the video occurred, but said he believed it to be recent. Abu Mohammed said he obtained the video from a contact in Deir al-Zor, Syria.

Ebi Spahiu, a researcher tracking Albanian militants at the Tirana-based Albanian Institute of International Affairs (AIIS), told RFE/RL that it was not clear whether the video of Muhaxheri was new.

"The media in Kosovo and Albania are treating it as a new video without considering that it may be old [footage]," Spahiu said.

Dead Or Alive?

Spahiu said she has "no doubt" the militant shown in the RPG killing video was Muhaxheri, but she questioned whether it was new footage that proved he was still alive.

Muhaxheri was a prominent militant who acted as a link between IS and ethnic Albanians in Albania, Kosovo, and Macedonia, Spahiu said.

The ethnic Albanian militant was featured in an IS propaganda video, Clanging Of The Swords Part 4. In that footage, Muhaxheri is shown brandishing a sword and vowing to conquer both Rome and Spain. He and his fellow Albanians then burn their passports.

As befits an inspirational IS recruiter, Muhaxheri was a charismatic speaker who was very active on social media. But since the rumors and claims of his death, he effectively vanished. His Facebook page has been deleted.

If Muhaxheri had chosen this time to reemerge after his long silence, "he would have come out with a stronger message," Spahiu said.

Meanwhile, a new figurehead, an ethnic Albanian named Rivdan Haqifi or Ridvan al-Albani, emerged in Muhaxheri's stead, Spahiu said. (Haqifi, who appeared alongside Muxaheri in Clanging Of The Swords Part 4, shocked Kosovo in November by ordering the death of those who had helped bring a young Kosovar boy home after his militant father abducted him and took him to Syria.)

The Al-Sheitaat Tribe

Another clue that the video of Muhaxheri might not be new is the identity of the Syrian man killed by the Albanian militant.

The video footage shows Muhaxheri "interrogating" the Syrian man shortly before he is killed. The Syrian identifies himself as Ibrahim Shraideh, a member of the Al-Sheitaat tribe from Abu Hammam village in eastern Deir al-Zor. Shraideh "confesses" to having fought against IS, saying that he fired an RPG, killing two IS militants. Muhaxheri says that Shraideh should similarly be put to death by RPG.

Shraideh is not the first member of the Al-Sheitaat tribe that IS has killed for fighting against the militant group.

In early August, IS carried out a number of execution-style killings in the Al-Sheitaat tribal areas in Deir al-Zor as part of a campaign to smash a pocket of resistance in the area.

IS gunmen beheaded two tribesmen in the town of Al-Shaafa, southeast of Abu Hammam, and killed 19 more members of the tribe on the outskirts of Deir al-Zor city.

Could the video of Muhaxheri's killing of Shraideh have been filmed at around that time, just before the Albanian militant was reported killed?

While it would certainly fit with a pattern of IS violence in the area, there are unanswered questions about that theory, too.

"Muhaxheri showed photographs on social media. So why would he not have shown this video?" Spahiu asked.

And Adrian Shtuni, a Washington-based foreign policy analyst, said it was possible the video was new footage, or at least newer than August 2014.

One clue is Muhaxheri's appearance in the video.

In a photograph of Muhaxheri taken around the summer of 2014, the militant appears to be heavier than he is in the video, although his outfit is the same, Shtuni said.

A photograph of Muhaxheri posted on social media in September to "prove" the Albanian militant was still alive also shows him sporting a somewhat fuller figure, suggesting that the RPG killing video was taken at a different time than the two photographs.

The ethnic Albanian militant's entourage in the RPG video is also different from those who appeared with him in earlier photographs and footage, Shtuni pointed out. Apart from one militant, Basri Sylejmani, who is also pictured in the summer 2014 photograph of Muhaxheri, the gunmen accompanying him in the video are all native Arabic speakers -- Tunisians and Moroccans, according to Raqqa Is Being Slaughtered Silently.

With question marks hanging over the video, Kosovo police said they are working with international partners to verify the authenticity of the video and the time of its publication.

The Kosovo authorities are operating under the assumption that Muhaxheri is alive.

Fatos Makolli, head of the Counterterrorism Department of the Kosovo police, told RFE/RL that Muhaxheri was an internationally wanted person and that a red notice for his arrest had been issued by Interpol.

"With all due reports issued earlier about his death, the Kosovo police do not have any information that could confirm Lavdrim Muhaxheri is dead," Makolli said.

A Strategist?

If Muhaxheri really is still alive, why has he apparently chosen to drop out of sight?

"Because he is a strategist," said Shtuni. "He is much smarter than your regular fighter."

The prominent ethnic Albanian militant could also be emulating other senior IS figures, including the group's leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, and its military commander, Umar al-Shishani (like Muhaxheri, Umar al-Shishani has also been reported dead several times by the Kurds).

That Muhaxheri is intelligent and an experienced military strategist is well-known.

The ethnic Albanian reportedly worked at Camp Bondsteel, the main U.S. military base under NATO's Kosovo Force (KFOR) in Ferizaj in eastern Kosovo, though it is not clear what he did there. In 2010, he is thought to have been hired, via a private company, to work for two years in NATO camps in Afghanistan.

Back in his native town of Kacanik, Muhaxheri was involved with the Islamic Community of Kosovo (ICK), an independent Islamic organization, before traveling to Syria to join IS.

He is believed to have traveled in Syria for the first time in 2012, to return to Kosovo a year later. That was when the Kosovo police began investigating him, and he departed again for Syria.

Ethnic Albanians In Syria And Iraq

There are around 500 ethnic Albanians from the Western Balkans fighting in Syria and Iraq, according to a recent report by Shtuni.

Around 232 of those are from Kosovo, a recent report by the Kosovar Center for Security Studies has said, making Kosovo rank eighth-highest overall (and first per capita) among the 22 Western states with citizens fighting in Syria and Iraq.

At least one Kosovo Albanian has traveled to Syria from outside Kosovo: Fatlum Shalaku, a 20-year-old bodybuilder from London, was one of six suicide bombers who blew themselves up fighting for IS in Ramadi, Iraq.

-- Joanna Paraszczuk with contributions from RFE/RL's Balkan Service

About This Blog

"Under The Black Flag" provides news, opinion, and analysis about the impact of the Islamic State (IS) extremist group in Syria, Iraq, and beyond. It focuses not only on the fight against terrorist groups in the Middle East, but also on the implications for the region and the world. The blog's primary author, James Miller, closely covered the first three years of the Arab Spring, with a focus on Syria, and is now the managing editor of The Interpreter, where he covers Russia's foreign and domestic policy and the Kremlin's wars in Syria and Ukraine. Follow him on Twitter: @Millermena

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