Countering Islamic Radicalization and Violent Extremism in Kosovo

This article considers the rise of Islamic radicalization and violent extremism in Kosovo. It proposes strategies for de-radicalization by Kosovo state structures, civil society, religious figures, as well as the international community.
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By David L. Phillips and Florian Qehaja

This article considers the rise of Islamic radicalization and violent extremism in Kosovo. It proposes strategies for de-radicalization by Kosovo state structures, civil society, religious figures, as well as the international community. The article draws from the "Report inquiring into the causes and consequences of Kosovo citizens' involvement as foreign fighters in Iraq and Syria (Kosovar Center for Security Studies, April 2015).


The Kosovo Government confirms 232 cases of Kosovars who have joined militant organizations in Syria and Iraq (as of January 2015). The actual figure may be considerably higher. Per capita, Kosovo has the highest number of jihadis of any country. About 60 Kosovars are known to have been killed in Syria or Iraq.

In the 1980-90s, Kosovars were motivated by a nationalist ideology. However, Islamism has been is on the rise since NATO's intervention in 1999. Radicalized Kosovars often adopt a "takfir" ideology, which distorts teachings of Islam and condones violence.

ISIS recruits usually come from poorer, rural families in Kosovo. Close to 40 percent of Kosovars who went to Syria and Iraq have criminal records in Kosovo.

As of August 2014, 80 Kosovars have been arrested upon return from ISIS controlled territories or for recruiting Kosovars to the ISIS cause. Of these, 60 percent were released. Some are under house arrest or monitored by the authorities. The rest are unrestricted in their activities. While the police response has recently improved, the lack of involvement by other state institutions contributes to radicalization.

The Islamic Community of Kosovo (BIK) is weak and ineffective. It fails to propagate religious knowledge and scholarship that could have a moderating effect. It also downplays the potential for violent extremism among youth, contributing to radicalization.

The Internet and social media are sources of radicalization. Kosovo has a high Internet penetration rate. 76.62 percent of Kosovars use the Internet. Of these, 53.66 percent are below age 30. Hate speech and reference to conservative Islam are widespread in social media.


Economic conditions contribute to radicalization. Kosovo is one of the poorest countries in Europe. Overall unemployment is about 40 percent. Youth are hardest hit by Kosovo's stagnant economy. They lack jobs and hope for the future.

Kosovo's weak education system and high-drop-out rate also contribute to radicalization. Per capita spending on education is dramatically lower than any other country in the region.

Takfir imams radicalize youth through their sermons. Both mosques and private facilities are used to disseminate radical ideology and for recruitment.

Disillusionment results from Kosovo's failure to gain greater global recognition as a member of the international community. To date, only 112 countries have recognized Kosovo as an independent state.

Youth are isolated. The EU's failure to enact visa liberalization for Kosovo compounds their sense of isolation.

Kosovo state structures are weak due to political instability, corruption, incompetence. Serbia's political obstructionism exacerbates frustrations. Many Kosovo youth disapprove of the agreement between Kosovo and Serbia (19 April 2013), and have engaged in emotional protests against the agreement and ruling elites.


Kosovo needs a holistic approach to counter violent extremism. The holistic approach encompasses (i) prevention, (ii) de-radicalization, and (iii) reintegration. Countering violent extremism requires measures addressing its root causes (e.g. jobs, education and community-based outreach). A range of stakeholders -- state institutions, civil society, imams, and international donors - can help remedy radicalization.

The following actions are proposed: Education

-Invest in the education sector to promote critical and analytic thinking. Critical and analytic thinking is a bulwark against extremism.-Improve the education system by emphasizing pedagogic and skills training. -Expand rigorous inspection of religious teaching at mosques.


-Emphasize a religious curriculum that highlights peace and social harmony teachings in the Qur'an and hadiths.-Encourage a role for imams so devotees do not fall prey to radicalization.-Monitor unacceptable incendiary language in sermons, and make imams accountable for what they say.-Take punitive actions against imams whose teachings incite extremism.-Prevent radical imams from gaining celebrity status that may lead to a cult following.


-Engage imams in a grass-roots dialogue with their congregants about Islam as a religion of peace. -Foster dialogue with civil society via religious charity organizations.-Organize workshops and other civil society forums on Islam.-Mobilize professors, teachers, community leaders, and credible imams as spokespersons.Grass-roots solutions

-Adopt a community based approach.-Emphasize local faces and local efforts for outreach and advocacy. -Instruct families not to alienate family members who become devoted to Islam.


-Create a Web-based platform addressing questions that youth have about Islam.-Produce short videos addressing key existential and philosophical questions about Islamic teachings.-Monitor and disable web sites that contribute to radicalization.

Security strategies

-Implement a screening process of those who return from ISIS controlled territories.-Distinguish rehabilitation activities from police work.-Make sure arrests do not create religious martyrs. -Monitor prison conditions to guard against the formation of a radicalized community in detention facilities. -Emphasize intelligence based policing. -Consider a role for imams in gathering information, which can be used by law enforcement.

Build national capacity

-Register BIK as a legal entity.-Centralize BIK's financing and enhance scrutiny of its accounts by central authorities. -Adopt a standardized curriculum for mosques, which is subject to BIK review and approval.-Expand BIK's role preventing individual financing for building mosques.

Internationalization-Monitor and regulate activities of the Turkish Development Agency (TIKA), in order to limit its financing of religious schools, mosque construction, and reconstruction of Ottoman structures.-Take a regional approach by involving stakeholders in Albania and Macedonia, who are also working to counter violent extremism.-Expand the exposure of Kosovars to European society and European values through EU visa liberalization.-Encourage greater involvement by the United States in Kosovo. Americans and Albanians have a strong kinship, which can help shape attitudes in Kosovo. -Avoid a conspicuous role for foreign donors, while welcoming their financing for rehabilitation and reintegration activities.

Prevention, de-radicalization, and reintegration require pro-active measures. U.S. Special Forces recently gained possession of ISIS registration forms, which include 22,000 names, information on places of origin, and language capability. This intelligence asset can be used to determine which ISIS members come from Kosovo and to develop a strategy for outreach to them, their families, and communities.

Mr. Phillips is Director of the Program on Peace-building and Rights at Columbia University's Institute for the Study of Human Rights. Mr. Qehaja is Executive Director of Kosovar Centre for Security Studies. He is currently at Columbia University as a Fulbright Visiting Scholar with Saltzman Institute of War and Peace Studies.

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