Analysis 24 Mar 16

‘Offer Kosovar Fighters “Jihadi Rehab” to Combat Extremism’

More than 50 Kosovars face jail if convicted of offences linked to fighting in Syria and Iraq, but experts warn simply locking up returnees will do little to tackle violent extremism.

Ervin Qafmolla
Kosovo anti-terror police at a checkpoint near Pristina amid hightented security measures in December 2015. Photo BIRN

Little was known about Kosovo’s jihadi fighters until the summer of 2014, when the security services suddenly arrested dozens of suspected terrorists, including several imams. Since then, more than 100 locations across the country have been raided.

Few were aware of how many ethnic Albanian Kosovars were believed to be fighting with Islamic State, ISIS or Al Qaeda-affiliate Al Nusra in Syria and Iraq. The government announced last November that an estimated 300 Kosovars were fighting with jihadi groups or living in ISIS-controlled territory.

The same month, Prime Minister Isa Mustafa and security officials announced a ‘state of alert’ on grounds Kosovo faced “real risks associated with terrorism”. They declined to provide further details on the severity of the threat but confirmed it was directly related to Islamic extremism.

Fighter numbers

More than 300 Kosovars have travelled to Syria and Iraq, according to the interior ministry.

The prime minister announced in February that around 70 Kosovars are believed to be currently fighting for ISIS or Al Nusra in Syria and Iraq.

Kosovo police sources previously told BIRN that 36 women are known to have left the country to live in ISIS-controlled territory.

According to the latest estimates from the Kosovar Centre for Security Studies, KCSS, around 60 Kosovars are believed to have been killed in the conflicts.

While the government has not made public the number of returnees, the KCSS estimates 130 fighters have so far returned home.

Kosovars reported as having left for Syria and/or Iraq by year: *

2012:  68

2013:  123

2014: 19

There are no figures available for 2015 but Shpend Kursani, KCSS associate researcher, estimates 16 Kosovars joined ISIS during the first quarter of that year.

* Source: The Kosovar Centre for Security Studies (March 2016)


Three months later, Mustafa told attendees at a security conference in Pristina the number of Kosovar fighters in Syria and Iraq had “decreased to fewer than 70”.

The government has not made public how many Kosovars have returned to the country after fighting with jihadi groups in the Middle East, but the Kosovar Centre for Security Studies, KCSS, estimates around 130 suspected former fighters have returned home.

More than 50 of those accused of committing offences related to fighting in Syria and Iraq are now facing trial and most have been charged with joining and participating in terrorist groups or inciting and assisting others to do so.

Kosovo adopted law reforms in March 2015 that made, in most cases, fighting in foreign conflicts a criminal offence punishable with up to 15 years in prison. As most of the suspects currently on trial are accused of having fought in Syria and Iraq in 2013 or 2014, they cannot be tried under the new legislation. Instead, they have been charged under older anti-terrorism laws.

Despite a sharp decline in the number of Kosovars leaving for Syria and Iraq - thought to be the result of the new laws and greater awareness of ISIS’s activities - it appears some are still trying to do so.

Two men and a woman, all in their 20s, were stopped by Turkish authorities late last year at the border with Syria and returned to Kosovo. They have since been charged with “participation in terrorist organisations”. All three deny the charges.

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