•Kosovo has the highest per capita density of Daesh members in Europe.
•In 2017, authorities identified 316 Kosovars who had travelled to Iraq and Syria to join Daesh, Ahrar al-Sham and Jabhat Fateh al-Sham since 2011. As of April 2017, 117 of them returned.
•Kosovo’s political, economic and social challenges are creating conditions that are conducive for radicalisation of marginalised Muslims.
•Islamist militancy and extremism is likely going to become a greater security challenge in 2018 and beyond.
The terrorism risk in Europe is likely to rise this year as foreign fighters return from conflict zones in Syria and Iraq, and Kosovo remains highly vulnerable to this threat. In 2017, the authorities confirmed that 316 Kosovars had travelled to Iraq and Syria to join Daesh (Islamic State, IS), Ahrar al-Sham and the Nusra Front (currently known as Jabhat Fateh al-Sham). As of October of last year, there were approximately 138, including women and children, still there and 117 that were confirmed deceased. Figures for those returning since then are unclear, but the general consensus is that Kosovo will likely see more returnees this year and a greater threat from home-grown radicalisation.
This was highlighted in the government’s National Strategy against Terrorism and Action Plan (2018-2022), which was released in November. The report identified three threat vectors: returning fighters, dormant cells and supporters/sympathisers. It also highlighted the threat of indoctrination of youths to extremist Salafi ideology and recruitment.
In previous years, Kosovo had a relatively low Islamist militancy/terrorism threat profile. This was largely due to Kosovo having one of the most secular Muslim populations in the Balkans, but there has been a gradual pivot towards radical variants of the religion since 2011. Much of this has been driven by the clerics, mosques and maddrases subscribing that are funded by Saudi Arabia, which has been exporting its extreme interpretation of Islam—Wahhabism. This is not a new phenomenon, but one that has been occurring for several years.
The Balkan conflict of the 1990s unleashed the virulent forms of this extremist ideology. Separatist movements from Kosovo’s majority Muslim Albanian community were brutally suppressed by the minority Christian ethnic Serbs. Cessation of the conflict was achieved, but the rebuilding and reconciliation process has been extremely challenging. Kosovo is still fraught with several political, economic and social difficulties that foster an environment conducive for the proliferation and sustainment of extremism.
Serbia, as well as much of the international community, still does not recognise Kosovo as an independent state, and this is problematic in terms of instilling and promoting a national identity among its citizens. Instead, communities are left with clinging to more local identities, mainly along ethnicities and religion. This is more evident in rural areas, where communities still feel marginalised politically and economically, than in major urban centres such as Pristina.
It is in these rural communities where radical Islam has thrived, particularly among youths. Nationally, unemployment is around 30 percent, but this figure is doubled when it comes to the youth demographic. Radical clerics have appealed to a younger generation of would-be Islamist militants, who are disaffected and marginalised by the poor state of socio-economic and political conditions, and the low prospects of improvement are only piquing their interests to extremist ideology and the opportunities it provides.
The ethnically-divided city of Mitrovica came into the spotlight on 16 January, when Kosovo Serb politician Oliver Ivanovic was killed in drive-by shooting. The incident occurred on the same day that normalisation talks were to commence between Kosovo and Serbia. His death reignited concerns over a flaring up of ethnic tensions with violent ramifications. Mitrovica, Prizren and the Sandzak region (between Serbia and Montenegro) remain potential flashpoint areas in the foreseeable future.
Indeed, such incidents serve to drive antagonisms that can be further exploited by extremists on both sides of divide. It is no secret that Daesh claims the Balkan region as part of the Caliphate. Returning fighters have the experience and credibility to transform existing dormant cells, supporting networks and sympathisers into active operatives. Networks, which had more of a supporting role, may become more active with operational planning and execution of attacks in Kosovo, the Balkans and the rest of Europe.
In November 2017, Kosovo police arrested 19 suspected Daesh members who were plotting simultaneous attacks in Kosovo and Albania, including an assault on the Israeli national soccer team during a World Cup qualification match. Other targets included Serbian Orthodox churches and Kosovo public institutions. The cell received direction from two Kosovar Daesh commanders, Lavdim Muhaxheri and Ridvan Haqifi, who both were reportedly killed in 2017 in Syria. Arrests were made in Pristina, Mitrovica, Ferizaj/Urosevac, Kacenik and Vitia/Vitina, where they also confiscated explosive materials, including TATP, firearms, communications devices and propaganda material.
While the thwarting of these plots demonstrates effective capabilities, it is reactive and it not the most effective means to address the underlying conditions that allows for Islamist militancy. Addressing the political, economic and social drivers of terrorism are largely discussed as a national government problem, but in actuality, efforts to combat radicalisation and terrorism requires localised and nuanced approaches, something Pristina has struggled with.