IRI Experts in The American Interest: Is Kosovo the Next Recruiting Ground for ISIS?

Terrorism on the Eastern Front

The American Interest 

By Paul McCarthy and Luke Waggoner 

As the fight against ISIS on the battlefields of Iraq and Syria wanes, the threat of home-grown ISIS-inspired terror shows no sign of abating. With terrorist attacks a regular occurrence in the heart of Europe, EU member states have struggled to build a common resolve to confront the threat. In Kosovo, there are increasing signs that the problem may be growing on Europe’s own doorstep, as a combustible mix of poor governance, economic stagnation, and lingering identity crises have created a unique vulnerability to recruitment by violent extremists.

After decades of interethnic tension and failure to achieve its national aspirations within the now-defunct Yugoslavia, Kosovo declared its independence from Serbia in February 2008. In the nine years since then, increasing frustration with Kosovo’s lack of democratic progress and the perceived inability of nascent government institutions to deliver on the promise of independence has led to a “crisis of confidence” among Kosovars. Kosovo ranked 95th out of 176 countries in  Transparency International’s Corruption Perception Index, which noted that the public does not think that the government is not doing enough to fight endemic corruption.

This dissatisfaction came to a head in the recent parliamentary elections, in which the anti-establishment “Self-Determination” (Vetevendosje) Party emerged with the largest number of seats—just shy of winning an outright majority. It was then shunned in the post-election period by all other party coalitions, leading to a protracted period of political uncertainty. A government excluding Vetevendosje was finally formed after much wrangling months after the election. The tensions at the highest levels of governance reflect endemic frustration throughout the country—and a further political crisis cannot be ruled out.

Adding to Kosovo’s instability is the dire situation of its youth. With 53 percent of its population under 25, Kosovo is the youngest country in Europe. Yet thanks to the combination of economic and political problems, unemployment among 15 to 24 year olds has reached a whopping 57 percent. The challenges of democratization—including the establishment of strong transparent democratic institutions, a competent bureaucracy, and a trusted, representative legislative body—have marginalized young people disproportionately, due to the fact that the current governing elite is largely devoid of young leaders. This situation has led some young Kosovars to turn to nondemocratic means for expressing their frustration.

Violent extremist organizations have capitalized on this dynamic, as seen in the relatively high levels of recruitment and radicalization by organizations like ISIS. According to new research the International Republican Institute (IRI), while Kosovars think that democracy as a system is best-placed to tackle violent extremism, their faith is Kosovar democracy is wanting.

The explosive combination of disaffected young people and ineffectual institutions is made worse in all ways by the country’s identity problems. Although the majority of Kosovars are Muslim, their Albanian ethnic and linguistic identity has always been stronger than their religious identity. This sense of national cohesion served the ethnic Albanians of Kosovo well in their struggle against Serbian oppression throughout the 20th century.

However, radical extremists are increasingly exploiting the Muslim identity of Albanians to rally them to the defense of their coreligionists in foreign battlefields.  Among the segments of the population susceptible to radicalism, Muslim identity appears to be superseding Albanian identity: The findings of an IRI focus group indicate that many of the Kosovars who left the country to become foreign fighters in Syria and Iraq were motivated by a desire to defend Islam against the Assad regime.

The resonance of this call to arms for the global Islamic community speaks strongly to the dual nature of Kosovar identity. As both ethnic Albanians and (primarily) Muslims, Kosovars can draw upon grievances which spring from both experiences. The exploitation of this dynamic by violent extremist organizations presents perhaps the biggest challenge to security in the region.

The shifting character of Islam in Kosovo’s new democracy contrasts sharply with the historic practice of a moderate form of Islam suffused with Sufi mysticism. Religious observance suffered under socialist (and officially atheist) Yugoslavia, and although mosque attendance has rebounded, the official Islamic Community of Kosovo (BIK) is weak and beset by accusations of corruption, leaving a gap in religious guidance and instruction.  Since the BIK lacks any cohesive organizational or ideological framework, it has left many young Kosovars who have not received formal religious instruction confused about how to interpret their religion, and unaware of the strong tradition of moderate Islam practiced in the Western Balkans.

Kosovars fear that both home-grown and foreign violent extremist organizations are exploiting this religious illiteracy to convince their recruits that violence is justified by Islam. According to our research, Kosovars believe that a lack of moderate religious leaders has facilitated Kosovo’s susceptibility to imported extremism, brought in by foreign and foreign-educated imams and international “charities.”

It’s clear that government institutions at the national and local levels must better coordinate their efforts to engage young Kosovars, give them a stake in the political system, and prevent radicalization through better local detection mechanisms. One way forward could be through the National Strategy for Countering Violent Extremism, which would establish municipal security councils to act as early warning systems and customize the national strategy to suit unique local contexts. However, these councils have yet to be activated, and the central government is currently not receiving the vital information from localities it needs to counter and inhibit radicalization throughout the country.

In addition to these more targeted solutions, the large-scale problems driving young people to violent extremism must also be addressed. Endemic corruption at all levels must be tackled, and Kosovo must prevent the spread of violent extremism through cleaner and more responsive governance to bolster its struggling democracy. It’s also vital for Kosovo to be included in the regional networks in the Western Balkans, which are bringing together government officials, members of parliament, experts, and journalists to develop common solutions to a transnational problem. Such steps are not only crucial to ensuring the country’s path toward Euro-Atlantic integration, they are key to ensuring that Kosovo does not become a haven for Islamist extremists determined to undermine both Kosovar and European democracy.

Paul McCarthy is the deputy director for Europe and Luke Waggoner is a senior governance specialist at the International Republican Institute.
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