Over the last two years, as Syria’s civil war has metastasized into a multi-sided fratricidal nightmare, the role of foreign fighters has grown increasingly troubling. Throughout the history of what Westerners loosely term Al-Qa’ida, foreigners who “join the caravan” and seek war (and often martyrdom) in jihads far from their homes have formed a consistent theme, and selling point, among Salafi extremists. In Afghanistan in the 1980s, as in Bosnia and Chechnya in the 1990s, and in every subsequent major jihad, foreigners have played a role more important than their mere numbers would suggest.
Syria since 2011 has emerged as the greatest of all jihad contests for foreign fighters. Given its proximity to Europe, large numbers of Westerners have gone to fight in Syria, via Turkish “ratlines,” raising concerns among European security services about what these violent young men might do when they return home. Significant numbers of angry young mujahidin from Europe have joined the fight in Syria, on a scale never before seen in counterterrorism circles, leading to something approaching panic among Western intelligence agencies.
The Balkans have offered hundreds of volunteers for Syria, mainly from Bosnia and the Albanian lands. Recent reports have indicated that some 150 Albanians from Kosovo have gone to fight in Syria. This is particularly worrisome as, until recently, that overwhelmingly Muslim former Serbian province that was liberated by NATO in 1999 from Belgrade’s rule has been widely hailed as an oasis of moderation where extremism allegedly could find no purchase.
As ever, the truth is more complicated, and in recent years, as Kosovo has become mired in all-too-predictable crime, corruption, and poverty, Salafi preachers and rabble-rousers have done their usual work, and now Kosovo, too, has its share of fanatics bent on murder and mayhem. Many of them have decamped for Syria, and some are now returning home to bring the jihad to Europe.
This became clear last week when Kosovo authorities arrested six men on terrorism charges. Four of the six men were picked up by undercover police in the capital, Prishtina, when they sought to purchase illegal weapons, and two of them are veterans of the Syrian jihad. A seventh man remains on the loose, pursued by police. The seven men, identified as Genc Selimi, Nuredin Sylejmani, Valon Shala, Adrian Mehmeti, Musli Hyseni, Bekim Mulalli, and Fidan Demolli, are suspected by prosecutors of “preparing a terrorist act against the safety and constitutional order” in Kosovo.
According to Kosovo media, Genc Selimi, known in extremist circles as Abu Hafs al-Albani, is the ringleader and a veteran of the Syrian war, who had been monitored by Kosovo security officials since his recent return from the jihad against the Assad regime. The police were watching Selimi and his conspirators develop their terrorist plans in a secret operation the authorities termed HURRICANE. As the police reported after Selimi’s arrest, “The operation was conducted through the implementation of covert investigative measures and resulted in the arrest of six suspects,” two from Prishtina and four from the nearby town of Gjilan.
The amount of weaponry and gear brought in by Operation HURRICANE was impressive, including a sniper rifle, one carbine, one semi-automatic rifle, two handguns, a modified handgun, some 1,200 AK-47 rounds, 1,900 Euros, three cars (two BMWs and a Mercedes), plus C4 explosives. How the suspects paid for this equipment is not yet clear, though Kosovo authorities have explained some of them were affiliated with Jabhat al-Nusra in Syria, and were plotting terrorism in Kosovo on someone’s dime. Two of the men are also wanted in connection with the recent beating of two U.S. citizens in Prishtina, both female Mormon (LDS) missionaries, on 3 November; it seems that the assault on the American women partly triggered the wider police action against the jihadist network.
This is hardly Kosovo’s first involvement with jihadist terrorism that has effected the United States. Four of the six terrorists behind the 2007 Fort Dix plot were Albanians from Kosovo or neighboring Macedonia, while the Kosovar Albanian Sami Osmakac was arrested in early 2012 for plotting bombings in the Tampa area, and Arid Uka, the murderer of two U.S. Air Force personnel at Frankfurt airport in 2011, hailed from Kosovo too.
On the positive side, it should be noted that Kosovo’s police and security forces seem to have done a commendable job of keeping would-be jihadists under surveillance and arresting them before anything truly awful happened. Additionally, Islamic authorities in Kosovo have responded to the arrests by condemning terrorism and urging local young men now fighting in Syria to come home at once and abandon extremism.
Although Kosovo authorities have been forced to acknowledge that extremism and terrorism are problems in the country, following years of low-balling and simply denying the problem, it seems that Prishtina’s official line that “Extremist groups in Kosovo do not act in such an organized way and, as such, they pose a low risk of terrorist attacks,” may be unduly optimistic in light of last week’s arrests.
Of the some 150 young men from Kosovo who are reported to have joined the Syrian jihad, to date only three have been identified as killed in action, which means that large numbers will be returning home before long to continue their jihad in Europe. Once that happens, the terrorism threat in Southeastern Europe will not remain low for long.