I interviewed Vlora Çitaku, the Kosovo Ambassador to the US about the NYTimes story published 21 May that portrayed Kosovo as "fertile ground for ISIS." The article asserted that Gulf monies from Saudi, Kuwaiti, Emirati and Qataris have transformed Kosovo from a previously tolerant, secular nation to an intolerant, Wahabi dominated country.
"The NYtimes story is accurate but it only tells half the truth and two years late." Ambassador Çitaku said in a one-on-one interview with yours truly.
"I, personally, was one of the first officials who spoke publically about the radicalization problem in Kosovo as early as 2009. In 2014 my government recognized the radicalization problem and took drastic legislative and operational measures to address it. Consequently, less than 10 people joined ISIS in 2015 and zero in 2016." Yet, ISIS is still a problem in Kosovo as it is for much of the rest of the world, the Ambassador added.
Kosovo has instituted a number of legislative and operational procedures to combat violent extremism. The Parliament passed in 2014 a Law On The Prevention of Money Laundering and Terrorist Financing. And in 2015 the Law on Prohibition of Joining the Armed Conflicts Outside State Territory was adopted. The latter makes it a crime to "organize, recruit, lead or train persons or group of persons with the aim of joining or participating in a foreign army or police in any form of armed conflicts outside Kosovo." Such offense is punishable by 5 to 15 years in prison. Furthermore, in 2015, Kosovo approved a Strategy on Prevention of Violent Extremism and Radicalization Leading to Terrorism. The strategy stipulates that "Kosovo will undertake all necessary actions to provide necessary resources for successful implantation of the Strategy and Action Plan."
Ambassador Citaku, formerly Kosovo Consul General in New York City, does not shy away from acknowledging that Gulf money advocating Wahabi brand of Islam permeated Kosovo in the recent past, but rejects the notion that Gulf governments per se were responsible for such activity. The Ambassador's rejection is in line with what some officials in Washington also believe. The Administration has been adamant that the Saudi government does not fund radicalization activities and that it is private Saudi individuals who do so. In the words of a senior U.S. government official who did not want to be identified "there is no evidence that Saudi government funds such activities. It is private charities and individuals." He emphasized that media and political circles should be careful to make this distinction. He continued that "I looked at the [classified] 30 pages of 9/11 commission report and there is nothing in the last page that shows the Saudi government funded 9/11 attackers." The distinction that Washington makes is unconvincing, considering that Saudi Arabia is, by far, not an oasis of democracy.
Informed observers believe that Kosovo is part of the collateral damage from the political controversy regarding Saudi government's alleged links to Islamic terrorism and 9/11. Certainly, one could argue that the NYTimes article is more about Saudi Arabia than Kosovo. The former is perceived in many quarters to be a primary financier of Islamic terrorism and responsible for spreading Wahabisim (a radical and intolerant form of Islam) across the globe. The article used Kosovo as another example that highlights Saudi's role in paving the fertile way to terrorism by propagating a singular and intolerant form of Islam.
"We are Muslims," Ambassador Citaku stated, "but we remain secular and although we have good relations with Arab Gulf countries, our vision is focused on joining the EU, NATO and staying closely aligned with the US. We have recently opened a Consular office in Des Moines, IA in January 2016 to support civilian and defense engagements with the US."
Major General Tim Orr, Adjutant General of the Iowa National Guard, which has a National Guard State Partnership Program (SPP) in security cooperation with Kosovo since 2011, agrees. "Kosovo understands that its future lies in being part of European and international institutions," he noted before adding that, "Kosovo is the most pro American country I have been in and they continue to support the US as a friend and ally. We are honored to have them as our security partner." Iowa National Guard's SPP with Kosovo, conducted through U.S. European Command, is focused on enhancing military professionalism and interoperability between their respective forces. It also has the capacity to support disaster response and crisis management exchanges and to encourage educational, medical, economic and people to people contacts. Orr believes that "SPP has become an important vehicle to advance key U.S. interests in Kosovo."
Ambassador Citaku concluded that "Kosovo has cracked down on private donations coming from the Gulf. 19 NGOs with suspicious funding have been shutdown. Pristina only accepts identified funding from Gulf governments such as the UAE's 20 million Euros pledge to build a pediatrician hospital in Kosovo. And, while Kosovo is grateful for the Emirati charitable gesture, we are primarily looking West not East. Our President just joined an LGBT parade with the British and American Ambassadors in Pristina earlier this month, for God sake. That should tell you something!"
Reasonable people could disagree with the Ambassador but should nevertheless give Kosovo credit for owning their problem.