PRISTINA — In front of socialist era high-rise blocks, Bill Clinton waves to the Kosovars. Kosovo Albanians built the statue in the capital, Pristina, in gratitude for the bombing of then Yugoslavia by NATO in 1999, which a few years later led to independence.

U.S. and Albanian flags flutter alongside each other on the rooftops. In no other Muslim country in the world is the United States as popular as here in Kosovo. On the square in front of the statue, young women stand around in their skirts and head scarves.

This is one facet of the young state. The other is only a few meters away in a back-alley mosque. In front of the building are two men with long beards who react angrily to our camera: "Put it away immediately or there will be trouble!" A third bearded man comes by and mollifies them. "Don't be rude to the guests," he says, leading us into the mosque.

The three Salafists begin praying with many other men congregated in the mosque. Some say they come here because it is near. When asked, they say they were unaware that the building once housed the headquarters of the Saudi Joint Relief Committee, which experts say served as a front for Saudi aid organizations that brought a particularly radical form of Islam into the country.

Kosovo was transformed into a Salafist stronghold in Europe within a few short years.

The worshipers also deny knowing that one of the committee's leaders, Wa’el Hamsa Julaidan, was not only a co-founder of al-Qaeda but also a confidante of Osama Bin Laden.

The spread of Salafism originated in Bosnia-Herzegovina in the 1990s, when thousands of jihadists fought alongside Bosnian Muslims during the war. Many received Bosnian passports as tokens of gratitude after the war ended in 1996. Saudi Arabia invested millions of dollars in the country, which prompted the spread of Salafist teachings in the Balkans. The Salafists gained a foothold in Kosovo in 1999, after the NATO bombed the rest of then Yugoslavia.

clinton_kosovo_pristina

Bill Clinton statue in Pristina — Photo: Lazy Susan 23

Saudi Arabia has been exporting its extreme interpretation of Islam, Wahhabism, ever since the founding of the Muslim World League in 1962. The royal family, the state and rich private individuals have been financing the spread of this variant of Islam, which is nearly identical to Salafism. With Saudi Arabia’s money, previously secular Kosovo was transformed into a Salafist stronghold in Europe within a few short years.

Even if Saudi Arabia is officially fighting the so-called Islamic State, or ISIS, the monarchy and the terrorist group often agree on the fundamental interpretation of Islam. Which is why, according to experts, Saudi Arabia's money also laid the foundations for the Balkan-based militias.

Kosovo has the highest per capita density of ISIS fighters in Europe. There are 316 confirmed cases of Kosovars who joined Jihadi groups in Syria or Iraq, out of a total of 1.8 million Kosovars. At the moment, there are still 75 Kosovar jihadists in Iraq and Syria, along with 40 women and 29 children who joined them. According to the security services, 57 Kosovar men died fighting for ISIS.

For a long time, the Kosovar government did not want to acknowledge the dangers posed by the Saudi Arabian associations. They were happy to receive funds, and with corruption in Kosovo rife, much of the money lined the pockets of civil servants. At the same time, the United States and Europe also invested billions in the young democracy.

Only in 2004 were some Saudi groups banned, after U.S. authorities had established their ties to al-Qaeda. One of these was the al-Haramain Foundation. But the radical Islamist group did not leave Kosovo and continued working under a different name: As the Salafist organization al-Waqf-al-Islami, they built more than 20 mosques in the Balkan state.

In the streets of Pristina — Photo: Valerie Plesch/DPA/ZUMA

But Salafism and ISIS recruiters are not only to be found in small back alley mosques. Imam Shefqet Krasniqi is currently being prosecuted for allegedly calling in his sermons and on social media to join the jihad in Syria and Iraq. Krasniqi is not unknown in Kosovo: He was the imam of the country’s largest mosque and a lecturer at the Islamic Studies faculty in Pristina, one of the country's top religious educational institutions. He is also a close confidante of the grand mufti of Kosovo.

Salafist teachings are spreading less in Pristina than in villages and small towns in regions forgotten by the international community and the Kosovar government.

Researchers attribute the spread of radical Islam in rural regions to youth unemployment of up to 60% and to extreme poverty. People barely trust the state, and the extremists address their material and religious needs. Also, the fact that Kosovo Albanians in the former Yugoslavia tended to be more religious helped radical Islam to spread. Their ignorance about Islam made them more vulnerable to indoctrination.

The wave of radicalization can only be stopped within Kosovo's Muslim communities.

Some 115 ISIS fighters have now returned to Kosovo and a total of 300 Islamic potential offenders are on the authorities' watch lists. The threat they pose extends beyond Kosovo's borders, but the security services of the Balkan states have had a hard time coordinating their investigations. Still, so far they have miraculously been able to prevent large terrorist attacks.

Kosovo has responded to the current situation with new laws: Those who return now face up to 15 years in prison, and recruiting jihadists is punishable with up to five years in prison. Since Kosovo joined the international alliance against ISIS in 2014, the offices of 10 foundations and associations, including the Al-Waqf al-Islam Mosque, have been closed for alleged connections to terrorism or anti-constitutional activity. But the strict security measures have only led the Salafists to move their activities underground.

Visar Duriqi, an imam and journalist, believes the wave of radicalization can only be stopped within Kosovo's Muslim communities. In his opinion, the state, society and the international community, on which Kosovo depends, should support moderate imams. They should also tackle the many problems plaguing the region, such as extreme poverty, corruption, unemployment, a lack of justice and democratic inequality.

But with the Saudi groups now banned, the flow of money into the country has become even more opaque. It is impossible to verify whether money is still entering Kosovo and who receives it. But at this point, it looks like radical Islam can continue spreading even without it.


See more from World Affairs here