Geopolitics

The Temptation Of Radical Islam In Kosovo

The Muslim majority Balkan nation, liberated from Serbia with the help of Western forces in 1999, is no longer immune to the worldwide nexus of radical Islamic forces.

A mosque in the eastern Kosovo city of Gjilan. The vast majority of Muslim worshipers in Kosovo have no extremist links.
A mosque in the eastern Kosovo city of Gjilan. The vast majority of Muslim worshipers in Kosovo have no extremist links.
Christophe Châtelot

PRISTINA â€" A.B."s horizon has shrunk. For months, the universe of this Albanian Kosovar who used to dream of adventures and holy war in Syria has been limited to his modest family home located in an old Yugoslav army building in a drab little village near the Macedonian border.

Placed under house arrest ahead of his trial later this year, the 28-year-old feels downhearted. His mood is as black as the flag of the jihadists he joined around Aleppo, Syria, two winters ago.

"I thought I was doing something pure and just," he says. "I've been branded with a red-hot iron: terrorist, even though I'm not one. I won't get a girlfriend anytime soon. There are no wives for terrorists."

A.B."s romantic troubles are nothing compared to the time he will likely spend behind bars. In the summer of 2014, local police launched a vast operation against Islamist networks here in Kosovo, a small country that gained independence from Serbia in 2008 thanks to NATO warplanes and the EU's political support. A source close to the case says that police were "in all likelihood alerted by American intelligence services, worried about the Kosovar authorities' passiveness." It's a brand new country with 95% Albanians, who for the most part claim a tolerant "Muslim tradition" inherited from the Ottoman empire.

Kaçanik, Kosovo, and its surroundings have been of particular interest to the police. This town of 30,000 residents, located on the road to Macedonia, has built itself a dirty reputation since ISIS follower Lavdrim Muhaxheri, one of its children, exposed his cruelty on social networks. In a video published in May, he's seen using a rocket launcher to pulverize a young man attached to a tree in Syria.

Nurturing radicals

About 20 people from the area are said to have gone to Syria to fight with the jihadists. "It's a very poor region, with poor education, and it's close to Macedonia where imams can preach radicalism, call for holy war and get away with it," says Skender Petreshi, researcher at the Kosovar Centre for Security Studies (KCSS). "We cannot exclude Russia's ambiguous game through Serbia that could be using these radical groups to destabilize Kosovo," he adds.

Serbia never really accepted losing Kosovo, the "cradle" of its orthodox Church. As for Russia, beyond the orthodox fraternity, it has always considered the Balkans a strategic region, a corridor between Europe and the East.

During the 1998-1999 war led by Kosovo Albanians to gain independence from Serbia, Serbian propaganda described the Kosovo Liberation Army (UCK) as a dangerous pack of Islamists. "It was never a religious war" â€" meaning between Muslim Albanian Kosovars and Orthodox Christian Serbs â€" says Kadri Veseli, head of the Kosovar National Assembly and former chief of the Intelligence Service of the UCK.

UCK troops turn over their weapons after the end of the war. â€" File photo: U.S. Marines

Many former leaders of UCK, which has been in power since the end of the conflict, have actually been trained at the atheist school of Communist Albanian dictator Enver Hoxha (1908-1985).

His "mistake"

In the early hours of Aug. 11, 2014, A.B. was arrested at his workplace, seven months after returning from Syria. Forty other people like him who had made that journey were also arrested. The most dangerous ones are still in prison. A.B. is under house arrest, where he thinks about his "mistake" and his boredom living with his depressive father. "My only outings are my appointments to the dentist, under police escort," he says.

A.B. could be sentenced to between five and 10 years for participating in terrorist activity. "He will in all likelihood be found guilty, but judges could show discretion because he admitted that he'd gone to Syria," says his court-appointed lawyer, who wishes to remain anonymous. "And I've never seen anything in his case that proved that he fought with either ISIS or al-Nusra. I wouldn't have defended him if I hadn't been forced to," she admits. The black flag of ISIS and the atrocities broadcast on the Internet aren't popular in Kosovo.

Youtube is where it's believed to have started for A.B. "I was outraged by the images of Syrian children killed by Bashar's army," he says. "I was thinking of the Kosovo war. I started on social networks and I organized my departure alone," he claims. The trainee jihadist speaks only Albanian. But his brother, a former UCK fighter, traveled to Syria before him. "He was probably taken care of by the Albanian groups who were already there, among them Lavdrim Muhaxheri," says researcher Skender Petreshi.

A.B. remains evasive when he talks about his time in Syria. "There are 300 Kosovars in Syria, some of whom have gone with their families," says Kadri Veseli. That's in addition to some 60 others who have been killed.

Hetem Dema, another former UCK fighter, is among those dead. Unlike A.B., whose religious commitment isn't striking, this forty-something was radicalized before he left in 2014. "I'm happy for him, he's probably in heaven," says his wife, wrapped in the niqab she's been wearing for the past two years, which is something of an oddity in Kosovo.

Fear of growth

But these minor drifts worry Kadri Veseli and others. "Especially when you observe a religious comeback in Albanian society, against a backdrop of poverty and identity crisis," says Linda Gucia, sociology professor at the University of Pristina. "What future do the youth of a country that remains outside Europe have, except for religion or emigration?"

Street scene in Pristina, the capital of Kosovo. â€" Photo: Quinn Dombrowski

On Nov. 27, two weeks after the Paris terror attacks, Kadri Veseli went to Pristina's madrasa. The message he gave to the 500 students of Islam gathered there was twofold. He reaffirmed the separation of state and religion in Kosovo, and reminded them that "those who committed the attacks are enemies of God and faith, criminal groups that seek to destroy our mindset of religious tolerance and solidarity."

Says a former diplomat, "Nobody doubts that Kosovar authorities are sincere in their fight against religious radicalism. On the other hand, some criticize the slowness of their reactions against certain disturbing phenomena." By that, he means "the activity of a number of NGOs from Saudi Arabia, among others, that are engaging in proselytism under humanitarian aid cover."

This goes back to the aftermath of the Kosovo war. "These organizations took advantage of the post-war void, of the lack of a state, to circulate their extreme and rigid religious vision," admits Xhabir Hamiti, professor at the Faculty of Islamic Studies of Pristina. Mosques have been built with Gulf money, worshippers have been paid to go there, and imams have been trained in Egypt and Saudi Arabia, among others. All of this happened outside of the Islamic Community of Kosovo, the representative organization for Islam, which was taking its marks amid the collapse of Yugoslavia and the rise of Albanian nationalism.

"That doesn't make them terrorists," says Kadri Veseli. "But religious fundamentalism bears the seeds of terrorism." A dozen imams who "were spreading hatred and were calling to join the holy war in Syria," Xhabit Hamiti says, were thus arrested in the summer of 2014. Among them was the imam of Pristina's Great Mosque. "The seeds of radicalism were planted more than 10 years ago," concludes sociologist Linda Gucia. "They've had time to grow since then, and it'll be hard to get rid of them."

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Geopolitics

How Thailand's Lèse-Majesté Law Is Used To Stifle All Protest

Once meant to protect the royal family, the century-old law has become a tool for the military-led government in Bangkok to stamp out all dissent. A new report outlines the abuses.

Pro-Democracy protest at The Criminal Court in Bangkok, Thailand

"We need to reform the institution of the monarchy in Thailand. It is the root of the problem." Those words, from Thai student activist Juthatip Sirikan, are a clear expression of the growing youth-led movement that is challenging the legitimacy of the government and demanding deep political changes in the Southeast Asian nation. Yet those very same words could also send Sirikan to jail.

Thailand's Criminal Code 'Lèse-Majesté' Article 112 imposes jail terms for defaming, insulting, or threatening the monarchy, with sentences of three to 15 years. This law has been present in Thai politics since 1908, though applied sparingly, only when direct verbal or written attacks against members of the royal family.


But after the May 2014 military coup d'état, Thailand experienced the first wave of lèse-majesté arrests, prosecutions, and detentions of at least 127 individuals arrested in a much wider interpretation of the law.

The recent report 'Second Wave: The Return of Lèse-Majesté in Thailand', documents how the Thai government has "used and abused Article 112 of the Criminal Code to target pro-democracy activists and protesters in relation to their online political expression and participation in peaceful pro-democracy demonstrations."

Criticism of any 'royal project'

The investigation shows 124 individuals, including at least eight minors, have been charged with lèse-majesté between November 2020 and August 2021. Nineteen of them served jail time. The new wave of charges is cited as a response to the rising pro-democracy protests across Thailand over the past year.

Juthatip Sirikan explains that the law is now being applied in such a broad way that people are not allowed to question government budgets and expenditure if they have any relationship with the royal family, which stifles criticism of the most basic government decision-making since there are an estimated 5,000 ongoing "royal" projects. "Article 112 of lèse-majesté could be the key (factor) in Thailand's political problems" the young activist argues.

In 2020 the Move Forward opposition party questioned royal spending paid by government departments, including nearly 3 billion baht (89,874,174 USD) from the Defense Ministry and Thai police for royal security, and 7 billion baht budgeted for royal development projects, as well as 38 planes and helicopters for the monarchy. Previously, on June 16, 2018, it was revealed that Thailand's Crown Property Bureau transferred its entire portfolio to the new King Maha Vajiralongkorn.

photo of graffiti of 112 crossed out on sidewalk

Protestors In Bangkok Call For Political Prisoner Release

Peerapon Boonyakiat/SOPA Images via ZUMA Wire

Freedom of speech at stake

"Article 112 shuts down all freedom of speech in this country", says Sirikan. "Even the political parties fear to touch the subject, so it blocks most things. This country cannot move anywhere if we still have this law."

The student activist herself was charged with lèse-majesté in September 2020, after simply citing a list of public documents that refer to royal family expenditure. Sirikan comes from a family that has faced the consequences of decades of political repression. Her grandfather, Tiang Sirikhan was a journalist and politician who openly protested against Thailand's involvement in World War II. He was accused of being a Communist and abducted in 1952. According to Sirikhan's family, he was killed by the state.

The new report was conducted by The International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH), Thai Lawyer for Human Rights (TLHR), and Internet Law Reform Dialogue (iLaw). It accuses Thai authorities of an increasingly broad interpretation of Article 112, to the point of "absurdity," including charges against people for criticizing the government's COVID-19 vaccine management, wearing crop tops, insulting the previous monarch, or quoting a United Nations statement about Article 112.

Activist in front of democracy monument in Thailand.

Shift to social media

While in the past the Article was only used against people who spoke about the royals, it's now being used as an alibi for more general political repression — which has also spurred more open campaigning to abolish it. Sirikan recounts recent cases of police charging people for spreading paint near the picture of the king during a protest, or even just for having a picture of the king as phone wallpaper.

The more than a century-old law is now largely playing out online, where much of today's protest takes place in Thailand. Sirikan says people are willing to go further on social media to expose information such as how the king intervenes in politics and the monarchy's accumulation of wealth, information the mainstream media rarely reports on them.

Not surprisingly, however, social media is heavily monitored and the military is involved in Intelligence operations and cyber attacks against human rights defenders and critics of any kind. In October 2020, Twitter took down 926 accounts, linked to the army and the government, which promoted themselves and attacked political opposition, and this June, Google removed two Maps with pictures, names, and addresses, of more than 400 people who were accused of insulting the Thai monarchy. "They are trying to control the internet as well," Sirikan says. "They are trying to censor every content that they find a threat".

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