Giovanni Giacalone 150

Islamist infiltration in Kosovo: A threat to Europe

Posted on Posted in Analyses, Balkans & East Med, EU & NATO, International Developments, Terrorism, Organized Crime & Security

By Giovanni Giacalone, Analyst KEDISA

As the conflict in Syria and Iraq evolved, especially in relation to the Russian anti-jihadist military campaign, Kosovo appears to be more and more at the center of dynamics linked to Islamist extremism, as several facts that occured in the last four weeks show.

On December 12th, 2016 prosecutors in Kosovo revealed that a citizen from the Balkanic country was charged for joining the terrorist group Jabhat al-Nusra in Syria. The suspect, identified as N.A., travelled to Turkey in 2014 and entered Syria from the town of Gazantiep in order to join the Qaedist group that recently changed name to Fatah al-Sham.

The attempt did not succeed and one week later the suspect returned to Kosovo. In his second attempt to go to Syria, Turkish authorities turned him back “because of his links to the war zone. He is now charged with participation in a terror group and now faces up to 15 years in prison if convicted.

On Tuesday December 6th, 2016 a raid conducted by the Belgian police brought to the detention of eight ethnic Albanians: five were later released while the remaing three who were kept in custody have been identified as Egzona K. (a 23-year-old ethnic Albanian with Serbian documents), Kastriot M. and Mahid D. (23 and 27-year-old, both Kosovaris).

The prosecutor’s office said that those arrested were “suspected to be involved with recruiting people to leave for Syria and with having financially supported Isis.”.

In mid-November Kosovo police, in cooperation with authorities of Albania and Fyrom, arrested 19 men suspected of links with Isis, who were planning to carry out attacks in Albania, specifically during the football game Albania-Israel, that was supposed to be played in Skutari and moved to Elbasan for security reasons, on Israeli request.

During the arrests, substantial explosives, including 281 grams of TATP, 2.5kg of other explosive substance, as well as personal weapons and radio-communication devices, were found.

Moreover, on November 26th 2016, Italian newspaper “Il Fatto Quotidiano” revealed that authorities inside the Rossano Calabro prison (where most of the detainees charged with Islamist extremism are incarcerated) intercepted communications where jihadists from Kosovo were invited to perpetrate attacks on Italian soil. In addition, the message provided directives on how to infiltrate Europe, using Kosovo as a hub for transition and moving on through Bosnia and the city of Trieste.

Two weeks earlier Digos in Brescia arrested 22 year-old Kosovari citizen Gaffur Dibrani, who was accused of apology and instigation of terrorism. In his Facebook profile Dibrani showed clear support for radical Islam with posts picturing Usama Bin Laden, Emir al-Khattab (the former leader of Chechen jihadists) and for radical preacher Rexhpe Memishi, currently detained in Fyrom for terrorism. Strangely enough, after two weeks, an Italian court did not confirm the detention and released Gibrani for lack of evidence.

These facts show how recruitment of ethnic Albanians from Kosovo by ISIS-related networks remains a major security risk not only for a majority-Muslim Kosovo, but also for the Balkanic region and for Europe.

Specifically there are some points that emerge from the events cited above:

  • Kosovari networks are not a problem confined within the country’s borders, but they are transnational and with objectives that go beyond attacks on local authorities considered “misbelievers”.
  • Individuals from Kosovo play a major role in the international terrorist network connected to Isis and al-Qaeda. For instance, Lavdrim Muhaxheri and Ridvan Haqifi are currently high ranks of the Balkanic militias of Isis and, according to intelligence sources, they are most likely the ones who ordered the foiled attacks at the Albania-Israel football game.
  • Reports say that around 300 Kosovo Albanians have joined ISIS since the beginning of the conflict in Syria in 2011 and if we keep in mind that the total population of the country is less than 2 millions, then we can draw some conclusions.
  • Islamist preachers such as Rexhep Memishi, Zekerija Qazimi, Shefqet Krasniqi, Idriz Bilibani play a major role in radical indoctrination not only in Kosovo but also among the diaspora in Europe.

Some Kosovari analysts have often minimized the problem, refering to “media sensationalism” and reducing the extremist presence in Kosovo to “areas with high concentration of Salafis”.

However the situation seems to be different. In late 2014, Kosovar officials closed 14 charities suspected of having ties to Islamic extremist groups. These Arab-funded charities offered education and welfare programs but also peddled a hardline vision, targeting poor families, and often single mothers. In exchange for attending the sermons, the charity would give students accommodations, expense money, and new clothes and shoes.

In Kosovo it is often not easy for the medias to face the problem: Arbana Xharra, a journalist who has investigated their activities, said that anyone who speaks ill of them can find themselves denounced and threatened as “Islamophobic”.

As Kacanik’s mayor Besim Ilazi explained, the government crackdown on the charities has pushed Kacanik’s extremists out of the town, but he also points out that some extremists have simply gone underground and continue to operate in private houses:

“Locals talk of cabins in the woods where the extremists hold meetings and sermons. One local points to a rocky hill in the distance. “Over there is where they meet at night,” he says, talking on condition of anonymity. “No one can go there because they have armed guards.” [1]

Overall, as facts show, the problem of radical Islamist infiltration in Kosovo appears to be far away from                       “mainstream media sensationalism”.