At least 232 Kosovo citizens are fighting alongside militants in Syria and Iraq, making Kosovo rank eighth overall (and first per capita) among the 22 Western states with citizens fighting in Syria and Iraq, a new report has found.
The Kosovar Center for Security Studies (KCSS), a nonprofit think tank established in 2008 in Kosovo to research security issues, has found that, as of January 2015, there are 232 confirmed cases of Kosovo citizens fighting alongside militant groups in Syria and Iraq, including Islamic State (IS).
The first Kosovo citizen to be killed fighting alongside opposition forces in Syria was a militant named Naman Demolli from Pristina, whose death was announced in a video uploaded to YouTube in November 2012.
Demolli's death "raised some eyebrows" in Kosovo, the report said, because it became apparent that he was not the only person from Kosovo who was fighting alongside militants in Syria.
The majority of Kosovars fighting in Syria and Iraq are thought to have joined militants there in 2013. During that year, the recruitment of Kosovars intensified as IS and other foreign fighter factions strengthened their positions in the country, the report said.
In October 2013, another Kosovar -- 24-year-old ethnic Albanian Lavdrim Muhaxheri -- appeared in an IS video calling on Albanian Muslims to join the militants fighting against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.
Muhaxheri appears alongside other ethnic Albanians from Macedonia, Kosovo and Albania in an IS propaganda video, Clanging Of The Swords Part 4. In the footage, Muhaxheri is shown brandishing a sword and vowing to conquer both Rome and Spain. He and his fellow Albanians then burn their passports.
Muhaxheri, who hails from the town of Kacanik in Kosovo, gained even more notoriety in July 2014, when a news report published graphic photographs of him apparently cutting the head off a young man. Muhaxheri went on to explain his actions in an interview with Tirana daily Dita on August 2, 2014, saying that he had decapitated the teenager because he suspected him of being a spy and that he had done "nothing more than what members of the KLA [the Kosovo Liberation Army, an ethnic Albanian paramilitary organization] did during the war [in Kosovo]."
A Kurdish television station reported that Muhaxheri had been killed in August 2014, but a man claiming to be a friend of the militant denied the report on social media.
Rooted In Poverty, Corruption
Shpend Kursani, one of the authors of the report, told RFE/RL's Balkan Service that poverty, corruption, and weak state institutions are among the reasons driving Kosovars to join IS and other extremist groups in Syria and Iraq.
However, the outflow of Kosovars to join IS and other extremist groups is not a phenomenon that occurred in a vacuum.
After the Kosovo War ended in 1999, religion became more popular in the country thanks to societal disorientation and weak economic and political conditions, the report says.
The KCSS accuses international and local government structures of neglecting Kosovo's rural communities after the war, which the report says created space for "Middle Eastern charity organizations to massively penetrate these areas."
The poor economic conditions experienced after the war have continued, the report says, and have meant that religious and political Islamic groups have gained more credibility than the government, state institutions, and the secular elite.
Kursani told RFE/RL's Balkan Service that those in Kosovo who embrace the IS ideology are opposed to state institutions.
"They are against all the state institutions, police and army, they’re against voting, against handshaking with a police or a soldier for that matter, because in such a case, you would be immediately regarded as infidel," Kursani said.
Despite this, those who have fought and died in Syria are treated with caution or even rejection by local people.
"For instance, when we met a brother of a person who was killed in Syria, he was very isolated, neighbors kept calling him a 'terrorist'," Kursani told RFE/RL.
The report recommends that efforts to deradicalize those who have embraced the IS ideology be stepped up.
As part of those efforts, the report says that secular institutions must join efforts by religious leaders to tackle radicalization.
According to the KCSS report, Kosovo has already taken a number of steps to fight radicalization. In a wave of arrests in January, the republic's security services detained over 80 individuals suspected of involvement in terrorist groups. However, police have lacked evidence to file indictments against over 60 percent of those arrested, who have been released in house arrest or freed completely, the report said.
Just as in the former Soviet Union -- particularly in the Chechen Republic and Russia -- the KCSS report to some degree blames what it describes as "Wahhabism" for the phenomenon of Kosovars becoming radicalized and joining foreign extremist groups like IS.
While in Russia the term "Wahhabism" is used as a derogatory term to refer not only to the radical brand of Islam practiced by Islamic militant groups such as the Caucasus Emirate but also to other Islamic activist groups, the word's original meaning refers to an Islamic revivalist movement that emerged on the Arabian peninsula in the 18th century.
The KCSS report said that while "Wahhabi" influences were an "enabling factor" for "schisms within and between Kosovo's Islamic community and.... the secular part of society," the ideology that pushed Kosovars to join IS was "much more complex."
According to the report, the ideology embraced by Islamic State is a "Takfir radical extremist ideology," which focusses on Koranic verses dealing with "punishment" while ignoring those referring to "mercy and rewards."
The IS ideology came to Kosovo via a "number of Skopje based imams who have visited and studied in the Middle East," the report said.
In terms of recruiting Kosovars to fight in Syria and Iraq, Kosovar militants fighting alongside militants in the Middle East are targeting uneducated people back home, the report found.
The report says that the majority of Kosovo citizens in Syria have only completed a secondary education.
One former militant named as A.A. and who spent about a month in Syria told the KCSS that notorious militant Lavdrim Muhaxeri had asked recruiters in Kosovo, including an imam named Zekirja Qazimi, not to send educated people. Uneducated people were better able to follow orders without asking questions, Muhaxeri reportedly said.
-- Joanna Paraszczuk