Bos/Hrv/SrpShqip 26 Jan 16

Few but Fanatical – the Kosovo Women Who Go Over to ISIS

Kosovo has been one of Europe’s most pro-American states since the United States helped it break free of Serbian control. Yet in a generational shift in this largely secular country, Islamic radicalisation is making some in-roads among the young. And it’s not only men who have gone east to join ISIS

Arbana Xharra Pristina, Ferizaj, Mitrovica, Gjilan and Tërpezë
Infographic by BIRN

Laura Hyseni was a typical Kosovo teenager, hanging out with her girlfriends in cafes and bars, not doing much to worry her comfortably off and open-minded parents.

“She would call a cab to go for coffee meetings with her friends in town. She would wear the same as her peers -- sometimes short skirts, jeans. She was very modern,” says Faik Uksmajli, whose son Arbnor she married.

Tears fill his eyes as he reminisces, sitting on a wooden chair on his balcony in Nerodime e Eperme, a poor village in the agricultural plain surrounding Kosovo’s third-largest city, Ferizaj. Not far away is the main U.S. Army base in the country, Camp Bondsteel.

Uksmajli says Arbnor and his younger brother Albert were sociable and open like Laura, but then something happened to all three of them last year.

“In just a couple of months, the village imam and his wife brainwashed them,” he says.

They became strict Muslims and withdrew from former friends. Arbnor grew a beard, adopted short calf-length trousers, a trademark of some fundamentalists, and talked endlessly of Sham, a religious term for the Syria region.

Laura, in her early 20s and by now a mother of two, concealed herself in a black burqa from head to foot, stayed in her room and rarely spoke to anyone.

“All of a sudden she would not even shake hands with relatives,” Uksmajli says. “I couldn’t recognise my children. They talked about helping their brothers in Syria and said real Muslims were fully committed to the religion. But I was most concerned when they said Camp Bondsteel should be bombed.

“I tried to explain to my children that the USA had helped Kosovo,” he says. “But soon I realised it all … they were planning to go to Syria.”

Desperate to stop them, he went to the police station.

“I asked them dozens of times to confiscate their passports but they did nothing. My children flew from Pristina to Turkey and then crossed the Syrian border.”

That was in August 2014. Things were to get worse the following year.

Faik Ukesmajli, the father of Arbnor and Albert from Nerodime. Photo: Driton Bublaku   

Laura is one of a small but growing number of young Kosovan women, some just in their teens, who have joined the radical militant group ISIS (Islamic State) in Syria and Iraq.

Some, like Laura, follow husbands whose radical views they often share, but others have gone alone, or tried to, and very few have returned.

The trend is worrying Kosovo’s authorities. Police say some 300 males and 36 females are known to have left the mainly Muslim country of just 1.8 million people to join ISIS – the highest per capita ratio in Europe, along with nearby Bosnia.

Many of their stories echo those from other Western countries – rebellion against other-minded parents, indoctrination by fringe religious leaders and an obsession with the Internet.

Although over 90 per cent of Kosovars identify as ethnic Albanian Muslims, the older generation grew up in socialist Yugoslavia and few were devout. The new constitution is strictly secular.

After a conflict in the late 1990s the West largely supported Kosovan autonomy from Serbia and then independence in 2008, convincing many here that their closest allies were in Washington and Brussels.

But all the while, Islamic groups have been gaining influence.

Since the war, religious charities from Arabic countries have established a strong presence, offering English and computer lessons – along with Quran instruction. Many young men have taken scholarships to train as imams in Saudi Arabia, Egypt and other countries.

Women in veils or burqas and men with short trousers and untrimmed Islamic beards have become a common sight.

Imam rejects blame

Kosovo is one of Europe’s poorest countries with unemployment standing at over a third, but Faik Uksmajli, a well-off man who employed about 40 men making wooden stairs, says poor prospects had nothing to do with his family’s case.

He says he is in no doubt that his sons and daughter-in-law were radicalised by the village imam Nehat Hyseni and his wife.

The new village mosque stands in front of Uksmajli’s house and his former workshop next door, surrounded by narrow muddy streets. Hyseni, in his 30s, is at home around the corner.

Standing in his yard holding his little daughter, he refuses to talk at first but then vehemently denies the accusation.

“I met Faik’s youngest son. I don’t even remember his name. Only once -- he came to ask me for the rules of prayers since he claimed he planned to travel to Germany. Everything else his father says is lies,” he says. Nor had his wife even met Laura.

Hyseni, a Kosovar, has told officials he has nothing to do with the trio’s departure.

“The police came here and I also gave a statement to the Islamic Community of Kosovo,” he adds. The Community runs Kosovo’s mosques and appoints imams, who Hyseni says are being treated as scapegoats.

Asked whether he ever talked about the war in Syria during sermons at his mosque, he says: “No, never. I have other topics to discuss with my congregation.”

Uksmajli says that after his children contacted him to say they were with ISIS, he sold off his business to fund a trip to try and get them to come home.

He spent 30,000 euros – mostly on payments to middlemen - to enter ISIS territory, travelling via eastern Turkey to Mosul in northern Iraq and then following their trail to Aleppo in Syria, along a route where he saw burnt-out houses and corpses lying in the streets.

But he could not get permission for the final stage, to reach a militants’ camp where his family were supposed to be.

“ISIS didn’t let me near the war zone. I failed to find my children,” he says.

Back home he received bad news from Laura, with whom he is contact online. Arbnor had been killed by an air strike in Iraq, in which his other son Albert was badly wounded. But he says he is still trying to find a way to bring home at least Laura and his two grandsons, now two and four.

Seeking Utopia, seeking husband

Security experts in Kosovo say most Kosovan women who join ISIS do so to follow husbands who want to fight, as Laura did, but a few independent women go for their own reasons, considering they are on a sacred mission.

“Women in this group want to contribute actively to the conflict and they are deeply affected by the recruiting circles,” said Florin Qehaja of the Kosovo Centre of Security Studies.

Usama Hasan, a researcher at the Quilliam Foundation, a London-based anti-radicalisation thinktank, said some women were seeking utopia, and some a worthy husband.

“Some say the only real mean are IS fighters, and those men who stay in education or work in Western countries are cowards or materialist sell-outs,” he said.

Qamile Tahiri went to Syria with her husband but has since carved out her own role with ISIS.

Kosovo police provide photographs which they say show the 23-year-old, all in black, brandishing an automatic rifle on the Syria frontline.

Kosovo police provided this photograph which they said shows 23-year-old Qamile Tahiri from Mitrovica holding an automatic rifle on the Syrian frontline in 2015.

A security source who declined to be named said she runs a women’s camp for ISIS in Syria and is the main online recruiter of ethnic Albanian females.

“In the camp she runs there are dozens of women and girls from Kosovo, Albania and Macedonia,” the source said.

The mother of two is from near Mitrovica, a town in northern Kosovo divided along ethnic lines and which has seen its own share of violence between ethnic Albanians and Serbs.

Her Facebook posts include a picture of her armed beside her Kosovan husband Besim, who police say was apparently killed in combat. After his death she decided to stay on.

Her relatives in Shipol village declined to comment for this article. As did her childhood friends, saying they did not want to upset her father.

Revelations about young women joining ISIS or other radical groups in Syria shock many Kosovars. Most of their parents say they had no idea and are horrified.

Like their male counterparts, these women appear to have turned increasingly to religion in their formative years and security sources say they have been influenced through direct lectures and material posted online.

Clampdown

Alarmed, the authorities have started to clamp down on suspected sources of radicalisation which have spawned men like Lavdrim Muhaxheri, an Islamic State fighter high on the U.S. Department of State’s most-wanted list.

In March 2015 parliament for the first time outlawed participation in foreign conflicts, punishable up to 15 years in jail.In late 2014, police shut down 14 long-established Arabic non-governmental organisations on suspicion that they had close ties with radical Islamic groups in Kosovo.

In one of the biggest such operations in the Balkans, they also arrested 78 people, including 11 imams, on suspicion of recruiting Kosovars for Islamic State. All were later released but some are still under investigation.

 
 Qamile Tahiri from Mitrovica went to Syria with her husband but has since carved out her own role with ISIS (police photograph)

“Some imams have brought from Middle Eastern countries extremist and non-tolerant attitudes, influencing people who are vulnerable and convincing them to join terrorist groups”, said police spokesman Baki Kelani, referring to Kosovars who had gone to Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Qatar and other countries to study.

More moderate imams have also expressed their concerns.

“Speeches at mosques by some Saudi-educated imams have brainwashed men and women, and as a result we have hundreds of Kosovan members of Islamic State,” says Zuhdi Hajzeri, an imam from Peja in western Kosovo who says he has faced death threats for speaking out against radical Islamists.

Shqipe comes home

From Laura’s former home it is a 30 km (20 mile) drive east to Gjilan, where Shqipe Ajdini is one of the few women to have returned from Syria.

The 32-year-old does not want to meet but her father, Iljaz Ajdini, doesn’t mind sharing her story, although it clearly embarrasses and distresses him.

“We are thankful to the USA for what it has done for us. I don’t know what happened with this generation, with our children,” he says, chain-smoking in a café near his home.

She had started wearing a burqa. “I told her, if you are going to dress like that, I don’t even want to walk down the street with you,” he says, recalling how she had changed following her marriage a couple of years earlier to Sinan Muji, from a nearby village.

“They wanted to get a passport for their daughter and when we asked them why, they said they were going down to Montenegro to do some work. They didn’t call for a week, but then they phoned to say they were in Syria.”

That was in August 2014. She returned this June after her husband was killed fighting for ISIS.

Shqipe Ajdini, one of the few women to have returned to Kosovo from Syria. (police photographs)

“I am happy that my daughter is back, only because of my granddaughter. My daughter’s husband got what he deserved,” says the father of seven.

He was lucky she could return. Unlike many other new arrivals, she avoided handing her passport in to Islamic State officials.
Sinan Muji’s grieving mother, Azize Muji, lives nearby in the half-empty village of Bresalc.

“Religion changed them entirely”, she says, sits on the steps to her run-down house, telling a familiar story. “They didn’t care about anything; my son even stopped helping us around the house while his wife would stay in her room the entire day.”

“My husband and I never agreed with their actions. They decided to live in the cellar quite apart from us, until they left for Syria without telling us.”

Iljaz Ajdini, father of Shqipe Ajdini. Photo: Laura Hasani

Easy travel

It’s relatively cheap and easy for any Kosovar to get to the conflict zone.

Turkey, the first stop, is not far, flights or buses are cheap and travel is visa-free. From there, they can cross the porous southeastern border straight into front lines of Syria’s four-year-old war.

Airport police are now much more vigilant and recruits now prefer the land route over the eastern border with Macedonia at Hani i Elezit, police say.

A few girls and women have tried to get to Syria but failed.

Police stopped under-age Qendresa Zejnullahu and Altina Salihu, both born in 2000, as they were trying to walk into Macedonia in March, neither with identity documents. 

The families say they were lured away by someone online, but they still don’t know who. The girls would not say.

“My girl was fooled, we didn’t know where they had gone until police brought them home,” recalls Qendresa’s mother, Hasije Zejnullahu, sitting on a torn carpet in her unadorned home in Tërpezë, southeastern Kosovo.

“They never gave any signs that they were religious. It seems someone deceived them, they are just children,” says Salit Sahiti, headmaster of their small village school.

Nine months later, Qendresa Zejnullahu was dead, shot in the head. The family at first said it was suicide, but later her brother Leotrim said he had accidentally shot her with his father’s hunting rifle. 

Neighbours have similar problem

Neighbouring Albania and Macedonia have also faced similar radicalisation problems, as has Bosnia to the north, but Kosovo police say their country has the unfortunate distinction of providing the most recruits to ISIS by head of population.

Vehbi Bushati, of the Albanian police anti-terrorism squad, told BIRN that 29 women had gone to Syria and Iraq from his country of 2.8 million. Security experts say up to 150 Albanian citizens are involved in the Syrian conflict in all. Figures for Macedonia, which has an ethnic Albanian minority, were not readily available.

Whatever lures them to leave, their families back home just want to be reunited with their daughters, convinced that they were victims who were led astray.

Laura’s father Vehbi Hyseni was reluctant to talk in any detail, except to say: “I just want to bring back my daughter and my grandsons. I just want them back home.” 

 

This article was produced as part of the Alumni Initiative of Balkan Fellowship for Journalistic Excellence, supported by the ERSTE Foundationand Open Society Foundations, in cooperation with the Balkan Investigative Reporting Network