Kosovo's Government Cracks Down On Extremist Recruiting
STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
Here's a case study of how radical Islam takes root in an unlikely place. The place is Kosovo. That's the tiny Balkan nation that won its independence from Serbia 17 years ago with help from the United States. Now Kosovo has one of Europe's highest per capita rates of citizens leaving to join ISIS. What's happening? Well, NPR's Sylvia Poggioli has been asking in the capital, Pristina. She's on the line.
SYLVIA POGGIOLI, BYLINE: Hi, Steve.
INSKEEP: Having visited Kosovo many times over the years, you know that it was a very secular place. What's changed?
POGGIOLI: Well, you know, Kosovo is usually described as a moderate, majority-Muslim nation, but most people here paid lip service to religion. Arbana Xharra - she's an investigative journalist with Zeri who's reported on radicalization of Kosovo youth - says Islamic extremists from the Middle East took advantage of the transition period here, when Kosovo did not yet have solid state institutions.
ARBANA XHARRA: So what happened after the war - a lot of money came also from the Arab countries offering free English and computer courses. These young men - they didn't decide to go over the night to Syria. They were grown up on this new ideology from Saudi Arabia.
POGGIOLI: So preachers from Saudi Arabia and gulf states set up charity associations here that paid for many young Kosovars' religious training in the Middle East.
INSKEEP: What was the government doing during all this?
POGGIOLI: Well, you know, for several years after the 1999 war, Kosovo was mostly a ward of the U.N. and European Union. So the internationals also pretty much ignored this growing influence of radical Islam. When videos started appearing on social media in 2012 showing young Kosovars fighting alongside ISIS and carrying out beheadings and executions, the new Kosovo authorities cracked down. A tough law was passed punishing fighting in a foreign conflict. Some two dozen Middle Eastern charity associations were shut down. And several radical imams who urged young people to go fight in Syria were put in jail.
INSKEEP: OK. So they've been acting in recent years. But how many people have gone from Kosovo to fight for ISIS?
POGGIOLI: Well, the director of the Kosovo counterterrorism police, Fatos Makolli, told me a total of 316 Kosovars went to fight for the Islamic State out of a population of 1.8 million. The government says not one Kosovar has been reported to have left for the conflict area since September last year. But when I told Makolli I was given the names of five young men who left just this past September, he acknowledged that police also have that information. So they've had a lot of successes here but, clearly, not full control of the situation. A lot of analysts say that they believe the drop in departures is due also to ISIS' territorial losses on the ground.
INSKEEP: OK. So when ISIS looks less attractive, the flow goes down a little bit. But what else can authorities do, Sylvia?
POGGIOLI: Well, that's the most perplexing question in this very proudly secular country. Here's Arbana Xharra.
XHARRA: We should not mix religion with the state because there are some groups came here saying, like, you know, the Muslim children should organize camps with Christian children. We do not make these differences.
POGGIOLI: The security agencies here are doing a good job in surveillance and prevention of potential foreign fighters. But many people now worry about the influence the many young Kosovars could have when they return from religious studies in the gulf states. There's a lot of fear here that they could undermine the social fabric of this secular country.
INSKEEP: Long process. That's NPR's Sylvia Poggioli in the capital of Kosovo.
Thanks very much.
POGGIOLI: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.