Kosovo, one of NATO’s closest allies with a jihadist issue

At the end of May the authorities of Kosovo have launched a series of controversial actions in Serbian populated territory that have been seen by Belgrade as provocations in order to cause an escalation of violence, possibly by generating a Serbian reaction. Something which did not occur, as indicated by Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic: “We don’t want to cause a war and we are protecting peace at all costs”.

It all began on May 28th when the Kosovo police forces invaded the northern part of Mitrovica, inhabited by the Serbians, in order to arrest 23 people including 19 police officers (11 Serbians, 4 Bosniaks and 4 ethnic Albanians).

The government of Kosovo claimed that the operation was conducted in order to arrest a criminal gang active in smuggling and bribery, in collusion with police and custom agents, adding that the Serbian side was informed before operation.

Additionally, Kosovo police officers also arrested two members of the UN Mission in Kosovo, including Russian diplomat Mikhail Krasnoshchenkov, who was injured during arrest and detained for over 24 hours before being released and moved to a Serbian medical facility where he received treatment.

The authorities of Kosovo simply ignored Krasnoshchenkov’s diplomatic immunity and went far beyond by banning him from re-entering the territory as “persona non grata”.

According to the PM of Kosovo, Ramush Haradinaj, the Russian diplomat “acted against the constitutional order of Kosovo and the universal value of peace and stability”. Such accusation is related to the presumed participation of Krasnoshchenkov in a barricade to block the entrance of the Kosovo police forces in Serbian territory. Additionally, the government of Kosovo claimed that their police forces tried in all possible way to avoid casualties.

However, the report provided to BIRN by Serbian journalist Zoran Maksimovic exposes a different perspective:

I was driving down the road, and near the village of Ugljare [near Gracanica] I saw barricades, Serbs and Kosovo Police members on the opposite side. So I stopped to make some footage. But then Kosovo Police started their operation to break down the barricades and they started to shoot in the direction where I was”.

An again:

Kosovo police continued to shoot in the same direction while driving armored vehicles and demolishing everything in their way, so I decided to stop the car and escape into the woods… I saw Kosovo police vehicles damaging cars too, and mine was among them. And I had a press card in it, so it was properly marked, and they saw me with a camera”. [1]

In the morning of the assault, as alarms rang throughout the city and people gathered in the central square, the mayor of northern Mitrovica, Goran Rakic, invited the Serbian citizens not to respond to the provocation from Kosovo:

I ask you to resist provocations that were prepared in Western kitchens. As long as Serbs will remain in Kosovo this land will be ours as well”.

Local residents claimed that the act perpetrated by the Kosovo police was excessive in force and numbers, with the police firing against demonstrators.

The action perpetrated by Kosovo was strongly condemned by Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov during a news conference following a meeting with his Solvenian counterpart Miro Cerar:

As far as the events in Kosovska Mitrovica are concerned, such provocations play into the hands of those who wish to turn the Balkans into a ‘sanitary cordon’ against Russia”. [2]

The provocations perpetrated by the authorities of Kosovo did not end there, as on May 31st the authorities in Pristina banned Serbian Prime Minister Ana Brnabic for life from entering Kosovo after accusing her of racist comments against Kosovo Albanians in relation to her statement in relation to political leaders of Kosovo involved in the war against Serbia in the 1990s:

“What scares me the most is that [in Kosovo] you are facing irrational people, the worst kind of populists, people who literally got out of the woods”. [3]

The Secretary of the US Army visits Kosovo

It is quite interesting how the invasion of northern Mitrovica occurred right before the arrival in Kosovo of the Secretary of the US army, Mark Esper, who visited NATO’s Camp Bondsteel on June 2nd to meet with soldiers from the Hawaii, Tennessee and California National Guards, reservists from Pennsylvania and soldiers from 2nd Brigade, 10th Mountain Division.

The Army Secretary also met with US Ambassador to Kosovo, Philip Kosnett, for closed-door talks, focusing on the political situation in the area.

There are currently about 600 US soldiers deployed in Kosovo as part of Multinational Battlegroup East, one of two battlegroups that make up NATO’s KFOR.

The government of Kosovo is well aware of the ongoing strong support received by both Washington and NATO and it is very likely that it’s trying to take advantage of the situation with a series of “demonstrations of strength” aimed against the Serbian population and authorities, or at least that’s what many in Belgrade believe.

After all the US and NATO have an interest in creating a buffer zone in Kosovo to contrast what they perceive as “Russian interference”. Hence, the US and NATO presence in Kosovo might go far beyond the “peace keeping objective”.

It is also important to keep in mind that Kosovo’s geographical position is extremely important from a strategic perspective as it is a crossway between the bordering countries of Albania, Northern Macedonia, Montenegro and Serbia.

Islamist extremism in Kosovo

Kosovo ISIL Ridvan Haqifi and Lavdrim Muhaxheri (Source: Global-Politics.eu)

However, Kosovo itself is a big paradox as it is NATO’s closest ally in the western Balkans but it also has the highest number of jihadist foreign fighters in Europe in relation to population number; in fact between 350 and 400 individuals have left Kosovo to join jihadist forces in Syria and Iraq over a population of roughly 1 million and 900.

Among these was notorious ISIS leader Lavdrim Muhaxheri, leader of a Balkanic jihadist group and well-known for his beheading of prisoners and killed in June 2017 during an air strike.

Strangely enough, Muhaxheri worked at KFOR’s “Camp Bondsteel” (the one currently visited by the Secretary of the US army) until 2010 before being promoted and transferred to a NATO training camp in Afghanistan where he remained until 2012 when he returned to Kosovo and joined Islamist circles such as the Islamic Youth in Kacanik. [4] [5]

Muhaxheri arrived in Syria in 2012 and became military leader of a jihadist group linked to al-Qaeda’s “Jabhat al-Nusra”. He was even able to return to Kosovo in 2013 for Ramadan where he took part in the festivities organized by the Islamic Community of Kosovo in Kacanik before going back to Syria and becoming the military leader of a Balkanic militia of the Islamic State.

One of Muhaxheri’s close associates in jihad was Ridvan Haqifi, alias “Abu Muqatil al-Kosovi”. Haqifi took part in a famous video where Muhaxheri and several other ethnic Albanian jihadists burnt their passports and called for other countrymen to join jihad in Syria.  The two were both followers of Kosovan preacher Zekerija Qazimi.

In another video, released in May of 2015, Haqifi and seven other jihadists from Albania, Bosnia and Kosovo invite their followers back home to either immigrate to the “Islamic State” or wage war against the misbelievers and their leaders in the Balkans. Haqifi’s brother, Irfan, also fought in Syria.

Conclusion

Kosovo’s situation is a paradox because, as previously stated, on one side it’s one of NATO’s closest allies in the western Balkans, however it also counts the highest European number of volunteers for jihad in Syria (in relation to its population).

The Islamist radicalization inside Kosovo is still ongoing with preachers spreading extremist ideology through different channels such as Internet and personal interaction and especially targeting the disillusioned youth, disappointed by high unemployment, rampant corruption and a difficult economic situation.

It is well known how jihadism infiltrates those areas where the State presence is absent and inefficient. Russian expert Alexei Grishin indicated how jihadist recruiters are often looking for young individuals in social and economic distress, with a strong sense of social protest.

Hence Kosovo is a perfect place to pick new volunteers. As the nationalist campaign in Kosovo left many young people angry disillusioned, it is now Islamist extremism and jihadism that run the show and this factor only makes the whole situation far more dangerous as the Balkans are historically an unstable area due to its multitude of ethnicities and religions living side to side.

Notes

[1]https://balkaninsight.com/2019/05/29/serbian-journalists-car-damaged-in-kosovo-police-operation/

[2] http://tass.com/world/1060607

[3] https://balkaninsight.com/2019/05/31/kosovo-bans-serbian-pm-russian-unmik-staffer/

[4]http://www.kosovapress.com/sq/nacionale/ekskluzive-biografia-e-lavdrim-muhaxherit-9749/&prev=/search%3Fq%3
Dlavdrim%2Bmuhaxheri%2BFerizaj%26start%3D10%26sa%3DN%26biw%3D1608%26bih%3D805

[5] https://www.b92.net/eng/news/world.php?yyyy=2014&mm=08&dd=19&nav_id=91333


AUTHOR

Giovanni Giacalone. A senior analyst for the Italian Team for Security, Terroristic Issues and Managing Emergencies (ITSTIME) in Milan’s Catholic University and a contributor for Il Giornale/Inside Over. Sociologist with an MA in Islamic Studies at Trinity Saint David University of Wales and a specialization in terrorism and counter-terrorism. His main areas of expertise are terrorism and radicalization and his research activities currently focus on Islamist extremism and jihadism in the Mediterranean area.