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A Rise In Radical Islam Draws A Reporter Back To Kosovo After 15 Years


And Vice President Joe Biden is visiting the Balkans today. He's visiting Serbia and Kosovo, which declared independence from Serbia in 2008 after a drawn-out war. Carlotta Gall of The New York Times reported from Kosovo during that war. And recently, she returned to the capital, Pristina, to write about how Kosovo has become such a fertile recruiting ground for ISIS.

CARLOTTA GALL: I came back, and I saw people dressed like Wahhabis, which is sort of a very strict Arabic sect that they have in Saudi Arabia - people with short pants, long beards, praying on the street in that very typical way we see in the Middle East.

GREENE: Well, Carlotta, just think about what you're seeing there. I mean, Wahhabism itself, as you say, it's a very strict form of Islam. There are people who practice Wahhabism who are not necessarily violent.

GALL: No, of course.

GREENE: But you saw these changes and saw something sort of ominous happening beneath the surface here.

GALL: Yes. I mean - and what was happening was that you got a lot of Saudi mosques built. And then you got Saudi-trained clerics coming back, Kosovars who'd gone to Saudi Arabia to train. And these new trainees were coming back and introducing something that was immediately in conflict with some of the older, moderate imams.

GREENE: Now, per capita over the last two years, Kosovo, more than anywhere else in Europe, has sent more people to join ISIS. I asked Carlotta Gall whether the United States has some explaining to do given the American presence in Kosovo.

GALL: This was all right under the noses of American peacekeepers and Americans who were clearly following some of this because we do know that some of the big Saudi charities, which then were linked to al-Qaida after 9/11, they were closed down in Kosovo.

GREENE: So the Americans knew there was a problem.

GALL: They knew. And they knew there was a problem. But, of course, you have to remember what was going on at this time. This was when the war in Iraq was starting. I think they took their eyes off it.

GREENE: Does the Saudi government have a legitimate argument to make that they have been blamed for too much, that they are not directly supporting the export of extremism, terrorism, that in many cases they are just trying to help spread Islam and do charity work and missionary work in countries around the world?

GALL: Well, that's certainly what they say, and I hear that. But what's interesting is a country like Kosovo has decided they have to close these charities down because, I think, they tried to get Saudi help in tracing what was bad money and what was well-intentioned money and, I think, got very little help. They said, even if we're closing down an orphanage that's doing good work, we cannot tolerate this because it's pushing a certain kind of Islam that is not our own and that is then leading people further into either incitement of hatred or into terrorism.

GREENE: And, I mean, you say you've covered so many stories like this and looked at radicalization around the world. Is there a lesson from Kosovo that might inform us on sort of a larger scale and in terms of ISIS recruitment or how ISIS can be defeated?

GALL: Yes. I think you have to look at the funding. And you have to look at, really, what is being taught. And listen to some of the moderates - you know, the moderates were warning of this - for years, in fact. But somehow, U.N. and the European Union police, who run the law enforcement and the peacekeepers all sort of carried on in Kosovo but just ignored it. So I find that incredible. And I find it very worrying because this is happening in every country.

GREENE: You say every country. I mean, every Muslim-dominated country or...

GALL: I've noticed it happens a lot in post-conflict countries because when the state is weak, these groups come in. And of course, like a lot of nonprofit charities, they're coming in to help and replace services that a war-torn country can't provide. But they're not monitored because everything's chaotic. And that's when they get a real grip on people.

GREENE: Carlotta, thank you so much. We appreciate you talking about your reporting.

GALL: Thank you for having me.

GREENE: Carlotta Gall is a reporter for The New York Times. She was speaking to us from Kabul, Afghanistan. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.