Kosovo: Is Europe’s ‘Hotbed’ of Islamic Extremism On The Mend?

Kosovo is in the midst of a transition period in its fight against ‘Islamic extremism.’ While the state has been able to stem the outward flow of Kosovan nationals to ISIS and Al Nusra Front, a domestic extremist network continues to operate internally and it remains to be seen what impact the return of Kosovan militants from Syria and Iraq will have. The Kosovan state must now concentrate its resources within its borders to meet this potential internal terror threat.

In the past few years, the worldwide media has branded Kosovo as a ‘hotbed’ of Islamic extremism after it emerged that the country had the highest per capita ratio in Europe of militants fighting in the Middle East, with 316 confirmed cases since 2012, out of a population of 1.8 million. Unofficial estimates of the exodus are as high as 1000.

These figures raised eyebrows due to Kosovo’s image as the most pro-Western Muslim country, influenced by the aid given by the West in their 1999 liberation. How had a country with a statue of Bill Clinton and numerous young boys named Tony (after the British PM) also become a breeding ground for radicalised militants?

The situation has now evolved. A combination of state repression, including a law prohibiting Kosovans from joining foreign conflicts in 2015, and losses for ISIS at the front have resulted in no Kosovan nationals leaving to join the conflict in 2016. The current focus is the breaking up of domestic extremist networks, which has become all the more important due to the fact that around 130 Kosovans have returned from the conflict with unknown motives.

How to react to the threat posed by the returning Kosovans has proved to be a source of contention, especially amidst calls from ISIS for acts of domestic terror due to the recent decline in their fortunes on the battlefield. Albert Berisha, who returned to Kosovo from Syria in 2014, argues that many of these Kosovans have returned out of disillusionment with the extremist cause and need help to reintegrate into society. Albert started INSTID, an NGO, with the intention of assisting the militants to reintegrate back into society. Too harsh a response could certainly exacerbate the problem, but caution must prevail. It only takes one or two returning for the wrong reasons to cause a huge amount of damage.

Despite this new set of challenges, the executive director of Kosovar Centre for Security Studies (KCSS), Florian Qehaja, is optimistic, stating “we are gradually winning the battle against this phenomenon.” Recent successes such as the thwarting of a plot to attack the Israeli football team in November has supported this statement. However, the international community are less than convinced by the national prevention plan. Both a recent UNDP survey and US state department report have suggested that more needs to be done, particularly criticising the lack of involvement of municipalities; the religious community and civil society in the Kosovan prevention strategy.

It should be acknowledged that Kosovo has employed impressive innovative methods to tackle the spread of extremism domestically. They have sought to counter the use social media for radicalization with their own social media initiatives, such as Interfaith Kosovo, a platform encouraging dialogue over issues of religious tolerance and national heritage. The Kosovan authorities are also trying to raise awareness with women through a national referral mechanism with drop-in sessions, along with an enhanced role for women in the police service.

These methods may be effective in the shorter term, but the appeal of Islamic extremism is deeper rooted than the influx of Turkish and Saudi funded Muslim charities, schools and mosques since liberation in 1999. Youth unemployment (16-25) sits at 60%. Thus, Islamic extremism is providing the prospect of prosperity as well as an identity or purpose that the weak Kosovan state structures are unable to provide. It is imperative that these issues are tackled, or the Kosovan youth will continue to be vulnerable to extremism.

With the threat of extremism being common to all of the Balkan states and wider Europe, international cooperation is a necessity, but cooperation has not been a reality for Kosovo. Political tensions with Serbia have seen Kosovo excluded from regional security initiatives such as Interpol, as well as other international institutions such as UNESCO. International recognition and cooperation with other nations is the key to solving Kosovo’s identity crisis and economic stagnation, which would surely enhance security from the extremist threat domestically and in the Balkans states as a whole.