The largest export from Kosovo, the smallest country in the Balkans, has long been metals. However, it is the country’s export of foreign fighters to Syria which is causing an increasing number of sleepless nights for officials in Pristina.
“We have over 1,800s prisoners in the country at any time,” says Nebi Halil the head of the legal department of Kosovo’s prisons. “There are currently 150 Kosovars under various forms of prosecution in the country for a variety of terrorism-related offenses.”
There are already some 85 Kosovars who have been prosecuted under the laws of Republic of Kosovo. Some have been prosecuted against laws which bar citizens from joining criminal organizations. Others are on trial for fighting or being involved in combat and fighting for an entity other than the government of Kosovo.
Some 256 men and 52 women accompanied by 47 children are said to have traveled from Kosovo to the Middle East to join the cause of terrorist groups.
Given the population of Kosovo is less than 2 million it represents one of the highest per capita rates of any nation whose people joined ISIL.
At least 250 adults have since returned to Kosovo. Roughly 100 have been killed in combat—dozens remain missing or otherwise unaccounted for. All returnees have been a subject of investigation and processing by Kosovo’s judiciary. The government of Kosovo believes they have a problem largely at hand but the authorities are trying to learn the lessons of the past few years. The main aim is to prevent other young people from proceeding down a similar path.
There are myriad causes that drive young Kosovars to radicalize and join terrorist organizations. The trauma of growing up in a country ravaged by war, the spread of extremist ideology, and other factors.
One contributing factor is the declining economic rate. Kosovo has a very high unemployment rate, well over 29% according to figures from the Kosovo Agency of Statistics (KAS).
Indeed, KAS statistics from the first quarter of 2019 suggest that unemployment amongst young adults from 15-24 was 50.6%
While roughly 2,000 foreign fighters are still believed to be in Syria, an estimated 14,000 non-combatants including women and minors have also been detained for their relationship to the combatants. The children of terrorists, especially those who are deceased become an international issue that could be tied up in legal proceedings for decades. Last year the government created a Division for Prevention and Reintegration to deal specifically with returning families and children.
“The real problem is these children who grow in such families and such situations, all they know is fighting — for them the only question is not fighting but, whom to fight,” Says Halil.
For an earlier generation of Kosovars there was no question to who to fight. Kosovo won its independence in a brutal war with Serbia in the 1990s. The Kosovo Liberation Army, the main guerrilla group, committed a number of atrocities. But, Kosovars fared far worse at the hands of their Serbian occupiers with some 30,000 people being killed in brutal repression campaigns. Thousands were raped and nearly 2,000 are still missing. The entrance to Kosovo parliament includes a narrow passage whose black walls portrays photos, and the names of some of the victims.
Kosovo’s youth are not the only ones in the Balkans attracted to extremism. Groups like the Serbian Honor Balkan Cossack and the Night Wolves have sprung up with support from Moscow and often promote a mandate to create violence and mayhem amongst Slavic peoples in the Balkans.
Only 45% of Kosovars who headed to Syria and Iraq left before the 2014 declaration of the Caliphate by 2015. Just less than half of the foreign fighters have returned to Kosovo.
Half a dozen Kosovars have been arrested for involvement in domestic terrorist attacks. The most serious of various plots involved a plot to attack a soccer match between Israel and Albania in 2016
“More needs to be done and the COVID-19 crisis has affected the process and furthered isolation and marginalization,” says Besa Ismail a member of Kosovo’s parliament, “But the good news is that the government is now fully in charge of the process not some informal or ad hoc structure or center.”
Kosovo’s various governments have remained committed to fighting terrorism. In January the government even dug into its reserve fund to provide 250,000 euros to the Global Coalition against ISIS.
In one example, a woman who tweeted in support of the former commander of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Qaseem Suliemani was arrested in January.
“The problem is solved through woman’s education, through which she can steer her family to avoid extremism and nonsense. Many of these women were groomed online and taken there…they didn’t know what they were getting into,” Ismail explained.
Zyhdi Hajzeri, is a Kosovar-trained Imam who studied in Egypt at Al Azhar University, the most prestigious institution in the Sunni Muslim world. Hajizeri blames money from the Middle East in empowering extremist currents that have disenfranchised local and traditional imams.
He believes that cracking down on such funding remains key. Moderate voices should be empowered. In the long-term, Hajzeri also affirms the importance of the role of women.
“You teach a man, you teach a man but, if you teach a woman, a mother, you teach an entire family and a generation,” he says with a smile.