Fifteen influential Muslim leaders have been arrested across Kosovo in a crackdown targeting what authorities say is a recruiting network for Islamic State militants and Al-Qaeda’s branch in Syria, the Al-Nusra Front.
Authorities in Pristina told RFE/RL that those arrested on September 17 include Shefqet Krasniqi, the imam of the Grand Mosque of Pristina, as well as imams at mosques in several other Kosovar cities and towns.
They include Enes Goga, who heads a mosque in the western Kosovar city of Pec, and Enis Rama, an imam in Kosovo’s northern city of Mitrovica.
Rama is also editor-in-chief of programs from Kosovo on Peace TV, a fundamentalist website Rama has used to distribute what the U.S. State Department has described as “numerous anti-Semitic statements.”
Also arrested in the sweep was Faud Ramiqi, the leader of the Islamic Movement Unify, a hard-line Muslim organization that has transformed itself into a political party.
Charges against those arrested include "threatening the constitutional order and security" of Kosovo by preaching extremism, religious intolerance, and racial hatred.
Authorities told RFE/RL the crackdown aimed to prevent young ethnic Albanians from being recruited to join Islamist fighters in Iraq and Syria.
They also said the arrests targeted individuals suspected of helping to finance Islamic State militants and Al-Qaeda.
U.S. Ambassador to Kosovo Tracey Ann Jacobson, in a statement issued on Twitter, commended Kosovo for what she called "its proactive approach against foreign fighters and extremism."
Ramiqi’s party, the Islamic Movement Unify, issued a statement on September 17 that described the arrests as “politically motivated.”
The group vowed to hold protests and take legal action seeking the release of those arrested.
A police statement on September 17 warned residents of Kosovo to be wary of extremist groups that are trying to recruit young people to become Islamic fighters in Iraq and Syria.
In August, Kosovo police arrested 40 suspected Islamists in connection with the alleged recruiting network.
Weapons, ammunition, and explosives were seized during the August 11 raids at 60 locations across Kosovo.
Officials also estimated in August that 100 to 200 ethnic Albanians from Kosovo had joined extremist fighters in Syria and Iraq.
Police say at least 16 Kosovars have been killed while fighting in Iraq and Syria as members of the Islamic State militant group or the Al-Nusra Front.
More than 95 percent of Kosovo’s 1.85 million inhabitants are Muslims and more than 70 percent of the population is under the age of 35.
Terrorism experts say that with an official unemployment rate of more than 30 percent among Kosovo’s young people, the environment is fertile for the recruitment of poor, alienated youth as Islamic fighters abroad.
With reporting by Reuters, AP, AFP, and dpa