The challenges of Islamic radicalisation in Kosovo. A conversation with Florian Qehaja

By on March 21, 2017

In the last few years, international attention focused again on Kosovo. This time, because of its role as a primary source of fighters willing to join the Islamic State and other jihadist groups in Syria and Iraq. Notwithstanding the gradual demise of IS on the ground, a deeper understanding of the drivers of Islamic radicalisation, of their future trend and of the most effective counter-measures to adopt remains of the uttermost importance, especially vis-à-vis a critical region like the Western Balkans.

Florian Qehaja is the Executive Director of the Kosovar Center for Security Studies (KCSS), a think tank who has been working extensively on Islamic radicalisation in Kosovo, both in terms of research on its drivers and on engaging communities through de-radicalisation and counter-narratives. We asked him an insight on the latest developments on the ground and on the challenges ahead concerning Islam-related violent extremism in his country.


Much has been written on the drivers making Kosovo Europe’s biggest contributor per capita of IS foot soldiers – high unemployment, poverty, declining trust in State institutions, Gulf-financed imams and charities spreading a radical version of Islam especially among the youth. How is the current situation regarding these factors?

In fact, the problem was exaggerated and I think it is still being seen through the optic of great concern. The truth is that Kosovo may have been more open in terms of statistics, partially because of the international presence which portrayed a situation in a much more objective way (and sometimes beyond objectivity) comparing to other countries refusing to share the exact evidence.

Overall, the situation is better since the police raid in August 2014 (40 alleged Islamic radical and ISIS recruiters were arrested in several Kosovo cities, ed.), which marked the beginning of the fight against violent extremist groups. Since then, Kosovo adopted a law banning its citizens to join foreign conflicts, as well as a national strategy to prevent violent extremism. Government and society, now, speak with one voice when it comes to stop further spread of violent extremism, including conservative ideology such as Salafism. There is a growing awareness among citizens on the ‘traps’ of recruiters, while it is also believed that the radical groups cannot spread their ideology beyond the existing minority due to harsh resistance by the absolute majority.


Have Kosovo institutions neglected the radicalising influence brought by Gulf States’ charities and funds in your country?

Yes. In fact, the mushrooming of NGOs and groups promoting violent ideology started during the international administration of Kosovo (UNMIK, ed.). I think the influence of these states was un-structural in the sense that it was certain groups or individuals who had in their agenda the promotion of Salafism and other ideologies under the banner of humanitarianism. So, the advance of the groups and radical imams took place in front of the eyes of the overwhelming international presence. Perhaps it is not fair to say that both the international administration and local authorities could have done more to prevent that, since Kosovo had many problems of post-conflict reconstruction and reconciliation. The civil society was quite weak while the citizens in general either had a degree of fear to speak up or neglected the problem. Now we are in the position to be reactive rather than preventive, since the seeds were planted after the war and despite the fact that the ideology as such could not spread beyond some limits.


Is Turkey playing a similar role as well?

Turkey is having an increasing role in the Western Balkans including Kosovo. It maintains structural (state) influence through a combination of political, economic, religious and security instruments. It is difficult to depict a direct link between Turkey and radicalisation: rather, part of Islamic practitioners believe that Erdogan and nowadays Turkey are a reference of a developed Muslim country. It is however obvious that religion is used by Turkey as an instrument – along others – to maintain influence. It invested quite a lot in restoration of Ottoman and Islamic religious monuments in our country. On the other hand, it provides unreserved support towards state-building in Kosovo, especially international recognition. Turkey is an active supporter of Kosovo’s pathway to international organisations.


As ISIS loses ground, the flow of European nationals traveling to Syria and Iraq to join the Caliphate is drying up. The current focus is on foreign fighters returning home, the setting of local cells in European countries and the action of ‘lone wolves’. How are Kosovo authorities dealing with this new, more internal threats (e.g. the on-going danger posed by Lavdim Muhaxheri’s network and the arrests following the thwarted plot to attack Israel’s national soccer team during a match in Albania last November)?

I think the security institutions are very cautious of the situation. Kosovo is a small territory and people are easily located. The case you are referring to just shows the good work of police and intelligence structures to prevent a potential terrorist attack. Actually, the level of threat is much lower compared to Western Europe. This is also due to the sense of community affiliation of some of the jihadists, because of their extended family ties. The risk might be greater for those individuals practicing traditional Islam because these are ultimately declared ‘kuffar’ (infidels). There is no prediction for a classical terrorist attack towards the masses although it is not entirely excluded. Muhaxheri’s group is being dismantled while Ridvan Haqifi, one of ISIS Kosovar commanders, has already been killed in the battleground.


Your think-tank, the Kosovar Center for Security Studies, is one of the strongest advocates of counter-messaging as a tool against violent extremism. Would you describe in detail this approach? Are Kosovo institutions adopting grassroots measures in their efforts against radicalisation?

We have a holistic approach to the matter. First of all, we have produced several research papers, which helped the society and institutions to understand the drivers of extremism. Our role is to focus on prevention. This implies consultative process with religious leaders, local government officials and communities. We have targeted a large quantity of students from secondary schools especially along the border with Macedonia, where the largest number of foreign fighters per capita and of conservative practitioners of Islam come from. Furthermore, we support the government efforts to implement the national Strategy on Prevention of Violent Extremism and Radicalisation Leading to Terrorism.


How are the official Islamic institutions in the country (i.e., the Islamic Community of Kosovo, BIK) dealing with the external and internal radicalisation drivers? Are they part of the solution?

Their role is increasing. At some point, in some locations, some of their representatives may have minimized the problem: this also represented a challenge. It is essential to involve BIK especially in creating counter-narratives. The activity of extremists primarily hampers the functionality of traditional practitioners of Islam. BIK is actively involved in the implementation of policy framework in the field.


How would you assess the state response to these phenomena? Are law-enforcement and intelligence agencies up to the task? Is there a good level of regional and international cooperation on the issue?

The state reacted late but the results in the last three years are evident. It begun with more repressive measures while recently it is involved in prevention. The government has a holistic acknowledgment of the role of all civil society actors and this is reflected in the action plan of the national strategy in the field. The challenge at the institutional level is the limited capacity to coordinate the increasing donors’ interest to support prevention of violent extremism. Having said that, the interest of international community is already leading to overlap without prior coordination.

At international level, intelligence and police cooperation is limited. Countries such as Serbia and Macedonia refuse to share intelligence and to cooperate with Kosovo on the matter. There is a huge level of distrust while politics prevail over the need to increase security cooperation in the region. Kosovo is still not part of key regional security initiatives and especially INTERPOL: this hampers largely Kosovo’s ability to cooperate in the field of combating organised crime and terrorism.


Are you optimistic about the future? Will Kosovo society be able to develop its own internal “antibodies” against further religious radicalisation?

I am personally optimistic. I believe society is resilient, and we are gradually winning the battle against this phenomenon. The religious radicalisation caught the society quite unprepared because this challenge is externally-driven and it did not fit into any of the traditional security challenges. For example, people have been prepared for generations on security challenges deriving from Serbia and on problems with neighbours, whereas the religious radicalisation was not a problem before, not even during the Ottoman Empire. There is a sense of national unity in preventing further widespread of violent extremism and there is a single voice on this. The absolute majority of the society is getting prepared to counter the activities of a tiny, yet organised, minority of people subject to a conservative interpretation of Islam. The road to full success however is long and it also relies on global developments.

Author: Dario D'Urso
Dario is an international affairs analyst and consultant with years of experience in both government and private sector. Following a year-long collaboration with the Democratization Department of the OSCE Mission in Bosnia-Herzegovina, Dario worked as a researcher for the Rome-based think tank CeSPI, on conflict-related issues in the Western Balkans and on the EU capabilities in crisis-management. He then contributed to several Government, private institutions and media with his analyses on Europe, Russia, Central Asia, the Middle East, Northern Africa, Turkey and Iran, before spending two years in Strasbourg as a Political Advisor at the Council of Europe. His research areas also include energy security, jihadism and geoeconomics.

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