Islamism in Kosovo

Albanians have always been intensely pro-American. Kosovars deeply appreciate the US-led NATO intervention in 1999, which put Kosovo on the path to independence. They are grateful to the US for coordinating Kosovo's recognition by the international community. Given the strong affinity between Albanians and the United States, the recent rise of Islamism in Kosovo is deeply troubling.

Approximately 95 percent of Kosovo's two million inhabitants are ethnic Albanians. Of the Albanians, 97 percent are Muslim and 3 percent are Catholic. Kosovo was always a secular state with a liberal Muslim majority.

However, Kosovo's secular character is changing.

"Adhan" -- the Muslim call to prayer -- echoes from loudspeakers atop a forest of minarets in Prishtina, the capitol. During the holy month of Ramadan, cafés are empty until Iftar dinner. There were about 200 mosques after the war in 1999; today there are 800. A new mosque is built every month.

Islam is especially prevalent in conservative rural regions. In towns such as Kaçanik, it is common to see women in veils and burqas, as well as men with untrimmed beards and short calf-length trousers, a trademark of Muslim fundamentalists.

The Muslim Society of Kosovo is well-financed by Turkey and the Gulf States, with an annual budget of 6 million euros. Imams pay stipends to parents, targeting single mothers, so their children adhere to Muslim traditions -- "ahadith."

Many Kosovars have joined the Islamic State in Syria. The Kosovo government acknowledges that 300 Kosovar men and dozens of women have gone to Syria. In fact, the number of volunteers may be much higher. A respected journalist estimates that more than 1,000 Kosovars have joined ISIS.

Kosovars typically celebrated nationalists like Adem Jasheri who fought against Serbian aggression in the 1990s. Today, the Internet has popularized holy warriors like Lavdrim Muhaxheri, an ethnic Albanian from Kosovo who is one of the top ten ISIS commanders in Syria. Muhaxheri used to work at Camp Bondsteel, the US military base in Kosovo, before being radicalized in Afghanistan. His YouTube posting includes a video of Muhaxheri beheading a prisoner.

Capitalizing on Kosovo's weak education system, religious charities from Arabic countries have established a strong presence in Kosovo, offering English and computer lessons - along with instruction in the Qur'an. Radicalization is a regional problem. The network of radicalized Albanians spans not only Kosovo, but Albania, and ethnic Albanian areas in Macedonia and Montenegro.

However, Kosovo provides the most recruits to ISIS as a percentage of the total population of any country. Kosovo youth can take the bus to visa-free Turkey, where they join the jihadi highway of foreign fighters going from Urfa to Raqqa.

Some parents have asked the police to confiscate the passports of their children to stop them from going to Syria, but interdiction has been ineffective. The Kosovo Government has taken some preventative steps, under pressure from Washington.

In late 2014, police closed 14 Arabic NGOs that were suspected of having close ties with radical Islamic groups. In March 2015, parliament outlawed participation in foreign conflicts. While Kosovo police arrested 78 people, including 11 imams, on suspicion of recruiting for Islamic State, detainees were soon released and no charges brought. Overall its efforts have been superficial and ineffective.

There are several reasons for the radicalization of Kosovars. The Government of Kosovo is partly to blame. Kosovo is known for its corrupt governance and dysfunctional politics. Criminality is widespread. Public officials cavort with gangsters, rather than acting as role models.

Kosovo is one of the poorest countries in Europe. Overall unemployment is about 40 percent. You are hardest hit by the stagnant economy. Young people spend hours languishing in coffee shops, with no jobs and little hope for the future.

Europe's discrimination against Albanians compounds the sense of isolation. There is still no visa liberalization for Kosovo passport holders traveling to the EU.

US policies also fuel support for ISIS. The Obama administration pushed Kosovo into signing a disadvantageous agreement with Serbia on April 19, 2013. The agreement has become the source of enormous controversy, even leading to violence in the parliament.

Turkey plays an insidious role, sponsoring the rampant construction of mosques and religious schools, which are breeding grounds for extremism. While expanding its influence, Turkey has gained financially. Kosovo's politicians have sold the Kosovo electricity company to LIMAK, a Turkish company, at a bargain price. The Pristina airport was also leased to LIMAK for a pittance.

Kosovo is in limbo. Religion offers a clear identity and a sense of belonging to Kosovars who feel abandoned by Western countries, and no prospect for the future.

Only 110 countries have recognized Kosovo's independence. Last month, Serbia successfully lobbied to prevent Kosovo from joining UNESCO.

Changing course is the ultimate responsibility of Kosovo's political leaders. Kosovo must initiate reforms and crackdown on corruption to gain greater global recognition, and inspire hope in the younger generation.

In the Balkans, nothing happens unless the US is leading. Washington must recognize the seriousness of extremism and shape a new approach by the international community. The Serbia-Kosovo agreement should be upgraded so that Kosovars derive more benefit. The EU should accelerate Kosovo's integration.

Ignoring Kosovo will accelerate the radicalization of Kosovars. If the US is serious about defeating ISIS, it simply cannot allow Kosovo to become a beachhead for Islamism in Europe.

(Note: A forthcoming article will further examine Turkey's influence).

Mr. Phillips is Director of the Program on Peace-building and Rights at Columbia University's Institute for the Study of Human Rights. He worked on Balkan issues as Senior Adviser to the State Department during the Clinton administration. He also served as a Senior Adviser and Foreign Affairs Experts during the Bush and Obama administrations. He is author of Liberating Kosovo: Coercive Diplomacy and US Intervention.