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Lingering Security Concerns in Kosovo, as Imam Attacked by Radical Islamists

January 13, 2009

By Christopher Deliso

Despite several recent reports suggesting that radical Islam in Kosovo no longer represents a significant security threat, the beating of a prominent Albanian imam by Drenica-area Wahhabi Muslims indicates that the challenge within the Muslim community – the real target of the foreign-funded extremists – persists. The disproportional yet unexplained influence of these extremists in the fledgling state’s judicial and law enforcement institutions, cited by Islamic Community officials themselves, represents a challenge for the EU’s nascent law-and-order mission, EULEX.

The Latest Incident

On 12 January, Radio-Television Kosova (RTK) reported that Mullah Osman Musliu, chairman of the Islamic Community in Drenas in central Kosovo had been attacked and beaten by nine Wahhabi extremists. These men were arrested, though four were soon released. The other five remain in police custody.

The imam was reportedly a major funder of the former Kosovo Liberation Army that fought Yugoslav security forces throughout the late 1990s. The area involved, and indeed the whole Drenica region, was a hotbed for ethnic Albanian nationalism during the war. Indeed, considering that extremist impulses anywhere can be redirected according to the goal at hand, it is not surprising that the major foreign Muslim donors and lending institutions sought to strengthen their position here from the beginning.

According to a transcript, the incident occurred when Musliu visited a mosque in the village of Zabel in order to elect a new local imam. Across the Balkans, religious-based violence has often centered on issue of candidates for such positions, with the Wahhabis often disagreeing, violently so, with the candidate supported by the mainstream Islamic community. Along with ideology, control over Islamic Community funds and properties is often the main reason for dispute.

The attack on Musliu represented the second time in recent months in which Islamic Community members were attacked by extremists, who take their inspiration, and funding, from the austere Wahhabi sect of Islam, official state religion of Saudi Arabia. This and other Muslim states were leading donors to post-war Kosovo, building hundreds of mosques in the process, though their contributions are said to have dried up considerably due to much of the population’s disinterest in Islamic activities. Following Kosovo’s independence declaration in February of 2008, the reticence of many Muslim states to recognize this status led to widespread speculation that an element of revenge was justly playing out.

Calling the attack against him “an attack against the institution,” Musliu added: “this was not an accident. This was well-organized. Everyone involved in that attack passed at least by two mosques to come and pray in the mosque I was in,” according to the RTK transcript. Identifying his attackers as known extremists from the villages of Gllobar, Krajsmirovc, Nekoc, Preteshtica, and Llapushnik, the imam summed it up thus: “all the bearded-men of Drenica were involved in this attack.” Also condemning the attack was Kosovo’s Islamic Community representative, Resul Rexhepi.

A Question of Internal Influence?

A very interesting detail that emerged from this event was Musliu’s comment that authorities should react- “if they are not scared, because there is no security for our judges and police,” reported RTK. Rexhepi echoed this concern by stating that he wanted “to believe in the justice of our authorities.”

Considering that the number of radical Islamists among Kosovo’s Albanian population is relatively small, and that their appeal has been successfully repelled by secular consumerism and increasingly, Catholic conversion, the question of intimidation and other hostile tactics being exerted on judiciary and law enforcement officials in Kosovo becomes more acute. If the forces of radical Islam are indeed weak, then what could possibly inspire fear among such officials?

In the author’s past interviews with numerous American and European security professionals in Kosovo, the issue of intimidation of local authorities and the locals in general has been cited. Most significant, however, was a report that mid- to upper-level judicial appointments in certain regions of Kosovo, as well as other civil sector positions, were being given to fundamentalist sympathizers. If such practices are continuing, the European Union may encounter friction in the operations of its new judicial oversight security body, EULEX.

The 1,900-strong law-and-order component of the EU civilian mission replacing the long-running UN mission in Kosovo, EULEX will provide foreign judges to hear cases together with local judges, ideally, enhancing the latter’s professionalism and local validity, while taking some of the pressure off of them in controversial cases.

According to a senior representative, EULEX also contains a 35-person counterterrorism unit, of which two or three will be Americans. (A few American judges are also slated to be in the mix there, though EULEX primarily draws on nationals of EU countries, plus Croatia, Turkey, Switzerland and Norway).

A more concentrated and capable security unit will indeed be a welcome improvement on the UNMIK’s often shoddy efforts. Nevertheless, the disorganized and competitive nature of intelligence-gathering between in Kosovo will remain, with important countries continuing to run their own operations from ever-larger and more sophisticated diplomatic headquarters, and NATO forces continuing to operate their own.

Owing to its all-pervasive former role, UNMIK was frequently scapegoated by locals of different ethnicities in Kosovo. However, the EU claims that its own new venture will be a ‘technical’ mission only, thus giving local authorities more responsibilities and control. This also means that pressure on law enforcement and the judiciary from ‘pressure groups’ such as Islamic radicals and organized crime syndicates will increasingly target local institutions, rather than foreign ones, though this pressure may well be exerted subtly, and in ways invisible to the casual outside observer.

To keep abreast of the situation, the EULEX will thus depend largely on the relative capabilities and testimony of its own on-site local judicial (and other) advisors. Their objectivity and the character of local pressures they endure will play important roles in the quality and quantity of information they receive. As with all other issues, that of fundamentalist Islam will be influenced by this test.

Foreign Support Continues

On December 30, 2008, Croatia’s Javno reported that a Kosovo Helsinki Committee study recently came to the “shocking revelation” that local Wahhabi leaders have been receiving “millions of euros” from Austria and other European countries, and that these funds are being used to pay Kosovo Muslims around 200 euros monthly to adopt the mores of Wahhabism. Of course, this is neither shocking, nor much of a revelation, considering that it has been standard procedure for foreign Islamic funders ever since NATO dislodged Yugoslav governance of the province in 1999.

The central role of Austria as a hub for Wahhabism in Europe dates back to the Bosnian conflict in the early 1990s, when it was the base for the Third World Relief Agency (TWRA), a major al Qaeda funding conduit for the Bosnian mujahedin. During the war, it laundered approximately $2.5 billion for the Bosnian Muslim government of President Alija Izetbegovic.

The agency had been opened in Vienna in February 1987, by a Sudanese doctor and jihad apologist, Fatih al-Hasanayn. As former NSA analyst John R. Schindler wrote in his engrossing study Unholy Terror, “no person can claim greater responsibility for the achievements of the Bosnian jihad [than al-Hasanayn], who handled the Muslim money that was the lifeblood of Sarajevo’s war effort.” Calling the Austrian capital a “spy’s paradise,” Schindler notes that the state police there “had a well-deserved reputation as a security service that looked the other way, particularly if the questionable activities were aimed outside Austria.”

After the Bosnian war, and especially after September 11, 2001, much effort was made by Western governments to dislodge radical Islamic networks and agencies such as the TWRA in Europe’s capitals. However, the foundations such groups established have survived in immigrant communities centered around radical mosques in places like Vienna and Graz, as well as cities in Germany and northern Italy, as Balkanalysis.com has reported.

Although much reduced in financial strength and overall reach, these groups continue to operate in some capacity and tend to be the ones with most links to the Balkans, chiefly through the Bosnian, Albanian and small Macedonian Muslim diaspora communities. Two intelligence documents from Western European security services, recently reviewed by Balkanalysis.com, harmonize with open-source information indicating the continued importance of Austria as the main intermediary for disseminating funds and propaganda from foreign Wahhabi sponsors to the Balkans.

Fluid Alliances?

In the Croatian article, one Kosovar imam in particular is cited as responsible for the growth of radical Islam- Shefqet Krasniqi, “the only [imam] who can attract more than ten thousand believers to his prayers.” The article provides an image of this Albanian preacher at one of his gatherings). Krasniqi denies being a radical, and accuses Kosovar leaders of having ‘strayed from their faith.’

As Balkanalysis.com reported in October 2008, the Vatican’s increasing (if subtle) attempts to convert as many Albanians as possible ‘back’ to Catholicism are bound to inspire fierce opposition from the most committed among Kosovo’s Islamists. Thus, even if the total number of the latter is relatively few, their future reactions may become more extreme as Catholic efforts become more aggressive.

Nevertheless, Catholicism as a social mobility option has its rivals. And, for Kosovars, it seems almost as if a bidding war for their loyalties is on. In the Croatian report, Besqim Hisari, head of the Kosovo Helsinki Committee is quoted as saying that ‘you can only imagine how easy it is to get people to be recruited. The Wahhabists perfidiously exploited the difficult situation in Kosovo. And once they get the taste of the money, all these people will, without doubt, identify themselves with Wahhabism.’

This frank admission of pecuniary motive contrasts with depictions of Kosovars given in articles such as a recent Wall Street Journal op-ed touting Kosovo as a “model of tolerance.” According to pieces such as this one, the Kosovars are not dangerous Muslims, because they are hardly Muslim at all, and undyingly pro-American (plus, in a creative new addition to the national brand, they are apparently great admirers of Israel as well).

Nevertheless, as is the case elsewhere in the Balkans, the people of Kosovo are motivated primarily by perceived self-interest. Were America to change its foreign policy on Kosovo, such a change could not fail to register in various ways among large segments of the population.

There are instructive examples. Take Germany, which has gone to great lengths to earn its highly positive perception amongst Kosovo Albanians. Nevertheless, the arrest of three alleged BND officials at a bombing site in Pristina in November 2008 spread suspicion and doubts amidst a rumor-prone populace. The event quickly died down, but if misused by the (politically controlled) local media, could have resulted in demonstrations or worse. (The power of sensationalist media to marshal street mobs was vividly attested during the March 2004 riots, which targeted Serbs across the province).

Of course, change we can believe in is not to be expected from the incoming Obama administration, as the United States has made great political, military and financial investment in keeping Kosovars on its side. Both parties realize this, and have adapted their behavior and ambitions accordingly.

Analysts sometimes forget, even willingly so, that the primary reason for this lavish American attention is not altruism, but rather a security concern: that is, to prevent Kosovo from going down a different path. The attested continuing activity of Islamic extremists in the province represents just one of the potential paths that outside powers are still trying to usher the Kosovars down.

For present policy-making concerns, the Islamists’ relative chance of success is not particularly important. What is important to note is that they do remain a security threat which represents an unneeded distraction for Western nation-building processes, one which will have to be handled by Kosovo’s new EU security mission over the months ahead. The EU’s capability to understand, assess and eliminate this threat, one which was inexcusably allowed to happen by the previous UN administration, will have great ramifications for future Balkan security.

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