As the supposed “caliphate” in Iraq and Syria crumbles, authorities in a country unflatteringly dubbed “Europe’s jihadist stronghold” are wrestling with both how to handle those trickling back, and how to nip radicalization in the bud.
In the seven years since the start of Syria’s war, Kosovo police have identified 316 Kosovans – including 31-year-old Berisha – who joined up with extremist groups in Iraq and Syria, including IS, Ahrar al-Sham, and the Nusra Front (now known as Jabhat Fateh al-Sham). Different countries have also sent great raw numbers of fighters abroad – Russia, Saudi Arabia, Jordan, and Tunisia come out on top – but Kosovo’s 316 is the highest number per capita in Europe.
According to a report published by IRIN, despite becoming such a fertile recruiting ground for extremism, Kosovo has taken a relatively lenient approach so far: preferring shorter jail terms than many other countries and offering a greater emphasis on de-radicalization.
Berisha, an Albanian, was arrested in a dawn raid the year after his 2013 return. He had spent a few days with the rebel group Ahrar Al-Sham, where he was taught how to care for and use a Kalashnikov.
Despite his plans to put that knowledge to use, he left before he could begin the official training. He managed to leave by telling his commander he had neglected to get permission from his mother to fight. By some miracle, he says, he was excused.
Set to begin his three-and-a-half-year prison term in mid-March, Berisha has started his own organization to fight radicalization, after experiencing what it really entails, if only for a few days.
“During my stay I met a group of Albanians who wanted to join IS,” he told sources. Berisha may not have become a fighter, but some of the most high-profile IS figures have hailed from Kosovo.
Among their number was Ridvan Haqifi. He appeared in an IS propaganda video warning Kosovo of “black days” ahead, before he was killed in combat in February 2017.
Hundreds were radicalized and recruited, Kosovo investigators say, by a corps of extremist clerics and secretive associations funded by Saudi Arabia and other conservative Arab gulf states using an obscure, labyrinthine network of donations from charities, private individuals and government ministries.
“They promoted political Islam,” said Fatos Makolli, the director of Kosovo’s counterterrorism police. “They spent a lot of money to promote it through different programs mainly with young, vulnerable people, and they brought in a lot of Wahhabi and Salafi literature. They brought these people closer to radical political Islam, which resulted in their radicalization.”
Kosovo police say they have investigated 400 people on suspicion of terrorism activities since 2013 (a mix of returnees and those who stayed at home), arresting 152 and filing indictments against more than 120. In total, the Kosovo police have registered 133 returnees, including several children.
The government is supporting non-governmental organizations and religious institutions in projects including debates with citizens, seminars, and workshops that combat radicalization. There is also work inside prisons to prevent extremist ideology from spreading.
In some parts of Kosovo, the government is also testing out a pilot program that is supposed to identify extremism quickly and enable teachers, psychologists, and parents to intervene early.