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news 16 Nov 17

Kosovo Braces for Security Challenge of Returning Fighters

A draft strategy developed by the government says fighters coming back from the Middle East, as Islamic State collapses, pose the next major challenge to the country's security.

Die Morina
Unidentified militiaman on guard in a Syrian town. Photo: ISIS propaganda material

The Kosovo government’s new National Strategy against Terrorism and Action Plan 2018-2022 says fighters returning from conflict zones in the Middle East, as the so-called Islamic State, ISIS, collapses, are the next challenge in the country’s battle against the threat of terrorism.

“As has been seen in many examples in Europe, radicalised individuals can commit acts of extreme violence against both the population and institutions in their own country, and therefore the risk that Kosovo might be targeted for such a terrorist attack cannot be excluded,” the document, made public on Friday, says.

Interior Minister Flamur Sefaj told BIRN that the focus should be also on the supporters of violent radical Islamists, as well as on returning fighters themselves.

“It is very important how we act in that case, obtaining information from them, locating them and keeping them under control because they can come up with the idea that paradise is waiting for each of us,” Sefaj said.

“But what is even more important to know is how much support these people have among the population, because as for foreign fighters themselves, if you know roughly how many of them they are, you can control them, but what is problematic is how many people support their ideas.”

Among the potential threats facing the country, according to the strategy, are “attacks by members of terrorist organisations, by foreign terrorist fighters, by dormant cells or by sympathisers and supporters who may be inspired to commit violent acts”.

It also warns of “indoctrination with extremist ideology – indoctrination and recruitment of youth, mainly using propaganda, for the purposes of terrorist organisations”.

Terrorists posing as ordinary migrants can also create security problems, it says.

“Considering the geographical position of the Western Balkan countries, in addition to the return of foreign fighters originating from these countries, another concern is the possibility that foreign terrorist fighters from other countries also exploit the Western Balkan countries, intermingling with potential refugees, to travel toward EU countries,” it cautions.

The draft strategy is based on four pillars or strategic objectives that dovetail with the EU’s counter-terrorism strategy: prevention, protection, pursuit and response.

The director of the Security Policy Research Centre, a think tank, Burim Ramadani, told BIRN that the strategy needs to be improved, however, particularly to clarify that it is a strategy against terrorism and not a strategy for the prevention of violent extremism and radicalism.

“Institutions should make this difference because all the issues that have to do with indoctrination, spreading ideology and propaganda, whether offline or online, should be addressed through the strategy for the prevention of violent extremism. Whereas when these kinds of motives have already had their effect, it is about fighting terrorism and preventing terrorist acts,” Ramadani told BIRN.

Responding to Ramadani’s argument, Minister Sefaj said both problems were interlinked and the strategy addressed “violent extremism which then leads to radicalisation and terrorism”.

He conceded that the country needed two strategies, one about fighting terrorism and another about countering extremism. “But all these strategies melt into one; the strategy of national security,” Sefaj said.

Ramadani, who sent his own comments to the authorities about the draft document on Monday, added that Kosovo’s institutions should also clarify the level of risk assessment, focusing on former foreign fighters.

Sefaj, however, insisted that such evaluations have been done already. “We have some empirical research and will rely on it. We have done this research together with non-governmental organisations, such as the UNDP [UN Development Project] and [the US Justice Department’s] ICITAP [International Criminal Investigative Training Assistance Program], and on the 22nd [of November] we will have a briefing, so people know what results have emerged,” he said.

The media adviser to Prime Minister Ramush Haradinaj, Halil Matoshi, told BIRN that the government was open to public consultation on the draft strategy before approving it.

“Anyone from the level of institutions, civil society, experts or other mechanisms is free to give their contribution to advance the content of this draft strategy before it is approved,” Matoshi said.

He added that “it should be approved by the government in the first days of January 2018”.

A New York Times article published in 2016 said that Kosovo had been turned within a short period of time from a mainly moderately Muslim country into "fertile ground for ISIS" – Islamic State – partly by Saudi money funding Wahhabist schools and mosques.

"Kosovo now finds itself, like the rest of Europe, fending off the threat of radical Islam" it wrote.

"Over the last two years, the police have identified 314 Kosovars — including two suicide bombers, 44 women and 28 children — who have gone abroad to join the Islamic State, the highest number per capita in Europe."

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