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Kosovar Imam, Radicalized At Home, Vanishes Abroad To Join Islamist Fight

Abedin Maliqi, the principal at Hasan Prishtina, Alejhim Maliqi's elementary school.
Abedin Maliqi, the principal at Hasan Prishtina, Alejhim Maliqi's elementary school.

BUSAVATE, Kosovo -- We trudge up a steep, muddy path off the village's main street to get to a shabby, tiny brick house.

A middle-aged man in dirty overalls stands at the far end of the garden, a chaotic mess of furniture and weeds. He is slathering white paint on a wooden shed, rubbing the sweat from his brow.

“It's a tragedy,” Fehmi Maliqi, a soft-spoken farmer, says as he takes a seat on a creaky stool. He is referring to his nephew, missing since he left this poor community in the picturesque wooded valleys of eastern Kosovo.

In 2014, 27-year-old Alejhim Maliqi told his family he had received a scholarship to study at the prestigious Al-Azhar University in Cairo. Then he simply packed up his wife and two young children and left the country.

Never to be seen or heard from again.

The silence raised suspicions among relatives that he was fighting in Syria. Those fears were given substance when Kosovar authorities in May issued an international arrest warrant for his arrest.

Fehmi holds his hands, covered in dry paint, over his face and shakes his head. “We don’t have contact with him anymore so we don’t where he is or whether he is alive,” he says wearily.

The government estimates that Alejhim Maliqi is among more than 300 people from Kosovo who have gone to fight for extremist groups in the Middle East, making this predominately Muslim country of nearly 2 million inhabitants the biggest contributor per capita in Europe. Around 50 homegrown jihadists have been killed in fighting in Syria and Iraq, while 120 more have returned to Kosovo.

The tiny, stone house where the Maliqi family lived before moving to Gjilan, a nearby town.
The tiny, stone house where the Maliqi family lived before moving to Gjilan, a nearby town.

Fehmi tends to the family home now that other relatives have moved to nearby Gjilan. The media attention proved unbearable, and the scrutiny has taken a visible toll on Fehmi.

Fehmi describes Alejhim as a “kind, respectable, and smart” man. “He loved school and was an excellent student. He was a good person.”

Radical Madrasah

His uncle says Alejhim’s path to radicalization started after he finished elementary school and enrolled in a madrasah, or religious school, in Gjilan, where he studied the Koran for several years.

Alejhim was forced to go to the madrasah because the family couldn't afford to send him to high school, Fehmi says. The madrasah was free and Alejhim was given a room in the school’s dormitory and money for expenses and clothes.

SPECIAL REPORT: Inside Kosovo's Islamist Cauldron

The school was run by Zeqirja Qazimi, a notorious imam who was handed down a 10-year jail sentence on May 20 for trying to gather young Kosovar recruits and for fighting for militants from the armed radical group Islamic State (IS) in Syria.

In late 2014, Kosovan authorities closed 14 charities -- including where Alejhim attended religious classes -- that were suspected of having ties with extremist Islamic groups. Under a new law, Kosovo can jail its citizens for up to 15 years if they participate in foreign wars. But few have been charged and many have been released.

Sheep headers on the main street in Busavate, a poor village in the picturesque wooded valleys of eastern Kosovo.
Sheep headers on the main street in Busavate, a poor village in the picturesque wooded valleys of eastern Kosovo.

Dozens of secretive charity organizations and madrasahs funded by Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states operate throughout Kosovo and promote an extreme version of Islam. The charities are accused of brainwashing Kosovar youths and recruiting them for extremist groups abroad.

The Middle Eastern-funded charities have penetrated poor, rural communities like Busavate that go largely neglected by the government and where unemployment can top 50 percent, making young men easy targets for indoctrination.

That ultraconservative ideology appears to have gained a foothold in Busavate.

"The young don’t have anything else to do," says Fehmi, who points in the direction of the main mosque, the only new building in the whole village. “They’re poor, so to pass the time they go to the mosque to pray.”

'We All Feel Ashamed'

After his studies at the madrasah in Gjilan, Alejhim returned to Busavate and became the village imam. He would serve as imam for the next six years.

“That’s when I noticed he had changed,” says Abedin Maliqi, the principal at Hasan Prishtina, Alejhim’s elementary school, the only one in the village. “We could see that he had become more extreme.”

Alejhim wore an untrimmed beard and gave fiery sermons at the local mosque, where he preached strict Shari'a law, including a total ban on alcohol and mandatory veils for women.

“I loved him very much because he was such a good kid,” Abedin, a short, stocky man in his late 50s, says inside his crammed office at the ramshackle school. “I’m surprised that such a kid ended up where he is. I think he’s a victim.”

Abedin points toward a closet full of medals and trophies, most of which were won by Alejhim, who the principal calls his “best-ever student.”

“Today, he’s in a situation that we all feel ashamed of," he says as he leans back in his creaking chair.

‘He Stole Pears’

Three years ago, Alejhim asked his father to help him travel to Egypt to study.

The father sold their only cow -- the family’s prized possession -- for the equivalent of $900 to fund what he thought was his son’s education.

Abedin says poverty and desperation left Alejhim open to the “manipulation” of radical Islamic charities and madrasahs active in the area.

He recalls a memory from Alejhim’s childhood that still haunts him: “He stole pears from my house so he could sell them and buy a notebook for school.”

“When I think about Alejhim, my heart aches,” he says as we walk through the dark, dusty corridors of the school.

“If I could, I would sit down and talk with him,” says Abedin. He stops momentarily to rub his eyes with his shirtsleeve, then adds, “But I don’t know how to find him or if he’s still alive.”

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    Frud Bezhan

    Frud Bezhan is the regional desk editor for Iran, Afghanistan, and Pakistan in the Central Newsroom at RFE/RL. Previously, he was a correspondent and reported from Afghanistan, Kosovo, and Turkey. Prior to joining RFE/RL in 2012, he worked as a freelance journalist in Afghanistan and contributed to several Australian newspapers, including The Age and The Sydney Morning Herald.