Geopolitics

Kosovo's Path From Secular Nation To Europe's Jihadist Stronghold

Birds flying by an abandoned Orthodox church in Pristina, Kosovo
Birds flying by an abandoned Orthodox church in Pristina, Kosovo
Krsto Lazarević

PRISTINA — In front of socialist era high-rise blocks, Bill Clinton waves to the Kosovars. Kosovo Albanians built the statue in the capital, Pristina, in gratitude for the bombing of then Yugoslavia by NATO in 1999, which a few years later led to independence.

U.S. and Albanian flags flutter alongside each other on the rooftops. In no other Muslim country in the world is the United States as popular as here in Kosovo. On the square in front of the statue, young women stand around in their skirts and head scarves.

This is one facet of the young state. The other is only a few meters away in a back-alley mosque. In front of the building are two men with long beards who react angrily to our camera: "Put it away immediately or there will be trouble!" A third bearded man comes by and mollifies them. "Don't be rude to the guests," he says, leading us into the mosque.

The three Salafists begin praying with many other men congregated in the mosque. Some say they come here because it is near. When asked, they say they were unaware that the building once housed the headquarters of the Saudi Joint Relief Committee, which experts say served as a front for Saudi aid organizations that brought a particularly radical form of Islam into the country.

Kosovo was transformed into a Salafist stronghold in Europe within a few short years.

The worshipers also deny knowing that one of the committee's leaders, Wa'el Hamsa Julaidan, was not only a co-founder of al-Qaeda but also a confidante of Osama Bin Laden.

The spread of Salafism originated in Bosnia-Herzegovina in the 1990s, when thousands of jihadists fought alongside Bosnian Muslims during the war. Many received Bosnian passports as tokens of gratitude after the war ended in 1996. Saudi Arabia invested millions of dollars in the country, which prompted the spread of Salafist teachings in the Balkans. The Salafists gained a foothold in Kosovo in 1999, after the NATO bombed the rest of then Yugoslavia.

clinton_kosovo_pristina

Bill Clinton statue in Pristina — Photo: Lazy Susan 23

Saudi Arabia has been exporting its extreme interpretation of Islam, Wahhabism, ever since the founding of the Muslim World League in 1962. The royal family, the state and rich private individuals have been financing the spread of this variant of Islam, which is nearly identical to Salafism. With Saudi Arabia's money, previously secular Kosovo was transformed into a Salafist stronghold in Europe within a few short years.

Even if Saudi Arabia is officially fighting the so-called Islamic State, or ISIS, the monarchy and the terrorist group often agree on the fundamental interpretation of Islam. Which is why, according to experts, Saudi Arabia's money also laid the foundations for the Balkan-based militias.

Kosovo has the highest per capita density of ISIS fighters in Europe. There are 316 confirmed cases of Kosovars who joined Jihadi groups in Syria or Iraq, out of a total of 1.8 million Kosovars. At the moment, there are still 75 Kosovar jihadists in Iraq and Syria, along with 40 women and 29 children who joined them. According to the security services, 57 Kosovar men died fighting for ISIS.

For a long time, the Kosovar government did not want to acknowledge the dangers posed by the Saudi Arabian associations. They were happy to receive funds, and with corruption in Kosovo rife, much of the money lined the pockets of civil servants. At the same time, the United States and Europe also invested billions in the young democracy.

Only in 2004 were some Saudi groups banned, after U.S. authorities had established their ties to al-Qaeda. One of these was the al-Haramain Foundation. But the radical Islamist group did not leave Kosovo and continued working under a different name: As the Salafist organization al-Waqf-al-Islami, they built more than 20 mosques in the Balkan state.

But Salafism and ISIS recruiters are not only to be found in small back alley mosques. Imam Shefqet Krasniqi is currently being prosecuted for allegedly calling in his sermons and on social media to join the jihad in Syria and Iraq. Krasniqi is not unknown in Kosovo: He was the imam of the country's largest mosque and a lecturer at the Islamic Studies faculty in Pristina, one of the country's top religious educational institutions. He is also a close confidante of the grand mufti of Kosovo.

Salafist teachings are spreading less in Pristina than in villages and small towns in regions forgotten by the international community and the Kosovar government.

Researchers attribute the spread of radical Islam in rural regions to youth unemployment of up to 60% and to extreme poverty. People barely trust the state, and the extremists address their material and religious needs. Also, the fact that Kosovo Albanians in the former Yugoslavia tended to be more religious helped radical Islam to spread. Their ignorance about Islam made them more vulnerable to indoctrination.

The wave of radicalization can only be stopped within Kosovo's Muslim communities.

Some 115 ISIS fighters have now returned to Kosovo and a total of 300 Islamic potential offenders are on the authorities' watch lists. The threat they pose extends beyond Kosovo's borders, but the security services of the Balkan states have had a hard time coordinating their investigations. Still, so far they have miraculously been able to prevent large terrorist attacks.

Kosovo has responded to the current situation with new laws: Those who return now face up to 15 years in prison, and recruiting jihadists is punishable with up to five years in prison. Since Kosovo joined the international alliance against ISIS in 2014, the offices of 10 foundations and associations, including the Al-Waqf al-Islam Mosque, have been closed for alleged connections to terrorism or anti-constitutional activity. But the strict security measures have only led the Salafists to move their activities underground.

Visar Duriqi, an imam and journalist, believes the wave of radicalization can only be stopped within Kosovo's Muslim communities. In his opinion, the state, society and the international community, on which Kosovo depends, should support moderate imams. They should also tackle the many problems plaguing the region, such as extreme poverty, corruption, unemployment, a lack of justice and democratic inequality.

But with the Saudi groups now banned, the flow of money into the country has become even more opaque. It is impossible to verify whether money is still entering Kosovo and who receives it. But at this point, it looks like radical Islam can continue spreading even without it.

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Art installation "Greetings From Giza" by French artist and photographer JR faces the pyramids of Giza in Egypt

Anne-Sophie Goninet, Jane Herbelin and Bertrand Hauger

👋 你好*

Welcome to Tuesday, where violence erupts after Sudan's military coup, Australia finally gets onboard with climate change goals, and Harrison Ford stars in Raiders of the Lost Credit Card. From Bogota, we also see what the capture of drug kingpin Otoniel means for Colombia, a country long stained by cocaine trafficking.

[*Nĭhǎo - Mandarin Chinese]

💡  SPOTLIGHT

Saving the planet is really a question of dopamine

The elite of the ecologically minded are set to descend on Glasgow next week for the Cop 26 conference on climate change. But beyond debating policy prescriptions, French daily Les Echos explores the role our own brains have on making the right choices for the planet:

Almost every week, a new scientific study alerts us to the degradation of the environment. And yet, we continue not to change anything fundamental in our systems of production and habits of consumption. Are we all suffering from blindness, or poisoned by denial?

In his popular books Le Bug humain (The Human Bug) and Où est le sens? (Where is the Sense?), Sébastien Bohler, a journalist in neuroscience and psychology, provides a much more rational explanation: The mechanism responsible for our propensity to destroy our natural environment is in fact a small, very deep and very primitive structure of our brain called the striatum.

This regulator of human motivation seems to have been programmed to favor behaviors that ensure the survival of the species.

Since the dawn of humanity, gathering information about our environment, feeding ourselves, ensuring the transmission of our genes through sexual intercourse and asserting our social status have all been rewarded with a shot of dopamine, the "pleasure hormone."

Nothing has changed since then; except that, in our society of excess, there is no limit to the satisfaction of these needs. This leads to the overconsumption of food and addictions to everything from sex to social media — which together account for much of the world's destructive agricultural and energy practices.

No matter how much we realize that this is leading to our downfall, we can't help but relapse because we are prisoners of the dopamine pump in the striatum, which cannot be switched off.

According to Bohler, the only way out is to encourage the emergence of new values of sobriety, altruism and slowness. If adopted, these more sustainable notions could be recognized by the striatum as new sources of dopamine reward. But there's the challenge of promoting inspiring stories that infuse them with value.

Take the photo-collage exhibition "J'agis ici... et je m'y colle" ("I'm taking action here... and I'm sticking to it"), a collection of life-size portraits of residents committed to the energy transition, displayed on the walls of the French coastal city of La Rochelle.

Backed by the French National Center for Street Arts, photographer Martin Charpentier may be employing artistic techniques, but he's also tinkering with neuroscience in the process.

Stefano Lupieri / Les Echos

🌎  7 THINGS TO KNOW RIGHT NOW

• Sudan in chaos following military coup: After Sudan's military seized power from the transitional government, defiant anti-coup protesters have returned to the streets of the capital city Khartoum, for a second consecutive day. At least seven people have been killed and 140 injured. Coup leader General Al-Burhan has announced a state of emergency across the country, while the military cut off access to the internet and closed roads, bridges, and Khartoum's airport. Washington condemned the coup and suspended aid, and the U.N. Security Council was expected to discuss Sudan behind closed doors later today.

• Egypt lifts state of emergency in force since 2017: Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, announced the end of a four-year-old state of emergency, undoing powers that had given the government sweeping authority to quash protests, make arrests, search people's homes without warrants, and control everyday life in the most populous Arab country.

• Platforms take down Bolsonaro video linking vaccine and AIDS: Facebook, Instagram and YouTube have removed an anti-vaccine video from their respective platforms posted by Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro. Beyond blocking the video, in which Bolsonaro falsely linked the COVID-19 vaccine with developing AIDS, YouTube went further and suspended the far-right leader for a week.

• COVID update: The U.S. will launch a new travel system on November 8, imposing new vaccine requirements for most foreign national travellers and lifting severe travel restrictions over China, India and much of Europe. Meanwhile, authorities in northern China are reimposing lockdown, and other emergency measures as COVID-19 infections spread to 11 provinces.

• Australia pledges net zero emissions by 2050: As one of the world's largest emitters of greenhouse gases per capita and a major exporter of fossil fuels such as coal, Australia has finally committed to becoming carbon-neutral by 2050. This is a target already adopted by most nations heading to next week's COP26 international climate conference, but that Australia had so far refused to pledge.

• Japanese princess loses royal status over wedding: Japan's Princess Mako married her boyfriend Kei Komuro, giving up her royal status. Under Japanese law, female imperial family members lose their status upon marriage to a "commoner" although male members do not.

Raiders of the Lost Credit Card: A tourist returned the credit card of American actor Harrison Ford, who had lost it in Sicily while shooting scenes for the latest Indiana Jones movie.

🗞️  FRONT PAGE

"Out of control," titles German daily Süddeutsche Zeitung, reporting on the release of a series of articles by a consortium of 17 U.S. news outlets, called the "Facebook Papers," that reinforce whistleblower Frances Haugen's claims that the social media giant is prioritizing profits over the well being of its users and society.

#️⃣  BY THE NUMBERS

$1.01 trillion

After striking a deal to sell 100,000 electric vehicles to car rental firm Hertz, Elon Musk's Tesla has joined Apple, Microsoft, Amazon and Google's Alphabet in the club of companies that have reached a $1 trillion valuation.

📰  STORY OF THE DAY

What the capture of a drug kingpin means for Colombia

While the capture of Otoniel, Colombia's most wanted drug trafficker, made global headlines, Bogotá daily El Espectador writes about the significance of the news for a country that has battled narcotrafficking for decades.

👮 The arrest of the Colombian mobster Dairo Antonio Úsuga David, a.k.a. "Otoniel," is a victory for Colombian intelligence, law-and-order forces and the broader fight against crime. Details of the eight-year-long pursuit of the head of the Gulf Clan, of the tireless and meticulous work, testify to the capabilities that the police and army have managed to develop in the fight against the narco-trafficking that has long been a stain on Colombia.

🇨🇴🇲🇽 Otoniel is responsible for a criminal organization with more than 3,800 members and influence on 12 departments and 128 districts in Colombia (though data from the Bogotá-based Peace and Reconciliation Foundation counts 211 districts). The Gulf Clan sends half the drugs going out of Colombia, and is the main exporter to Mexico. Its ties to the Mexican cartel chief Joaquín "el Chapo" Guzmán are well-documented — and Otoniel had aspired to fill the power vacuum left by Guzmán's capture.

⚖️ Some have observed that the ensuing power vacuum will engender more violence, which is true. But we are, in any case, far from eliminating drug trafficking in Colombia or cutting its tentacles across public life. That shows the limitations of the hard-line response to drugs, when we have seen it is not enough. Still, it is essential in any fight against crime for the state to show its operational capabilities. The message is clear: not even drug overlords are above the law in Colombia.

➡️ Read more on Worldcrunch.com

📣 VERBATIM

"I love Mako. I would like to spend my one life with the person I love."

— Kei Komuro said during a news conference after his wedding with Japan's Princess Mako, the niece of the current emperor and the sister of the likely future sovereign. The princess lost her royal status as a result of her marriage with Komuro, a "commoner."

📸  PHOTO DU JOUR

An art installation "Greetings From Giza" by French artist and photographer JR faces the pyramids of Giza in Egypt, as part of the 2021 exhibition "'Forever Is Now," the first international art exhibition to take place there — Photo: Balkis Press/Abaca/ZUMA

✍️ Newsletter by Anne-Sophie Goninet, Jane Herbelin and Bertrand Hauger

Send all commoner and royal well wishes to Mako and Kei — and let us know what the news looks like from your corner of the world! info@worldcrunch.com

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