How the Saudis turned Kosovo into fertile ground for ISIS

Young and vulnerable radicalised by Arab-sponsored clerics and charities offering to help rebuild war-torn land

PRISTINA (Kosovo) • Every Friday, just metres from a statue of Bill Clinton with arm aloft in a cheery wave, hundreds of young bearded men make a show of kneeling to pray on the sidewalk outside an improvised mosque in a former furniture store.

The mosque is one of scores built here with Saudi funds and blamed for spreading Wahhabism, the conservative ideology dominant in Saudi Arabia, in the 17 years since a United States-led intervention wrested Kosovo from Serbian oppression. Since then - much of that time under the watch of US officials - Saudi money and influence have transformed this once-tolerant Muslim society at the hem of Europe into a fount of Islamic extremism.

Kosovo now finds itself, like the rest of Europe, fending off the threat of radical Islam. In the past two years, police have identified 314 Kosovars - including two suicide bombers, 44 women and 28 children - who have gone abroad to join the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS). That is the highest number per capita in Europe. They were radicalised and recruited, investigators said, by extremist clerics and secretive associations funded by Saudi Arabia and other conservative Arab Gulf states using an obscure network of donations from charities, private individuals and government ministries.

"They promoted political Islam," said Mr Fatos Makolli, the director of Kosovo's counter-terrorism police. "They spent a lot of money to promote it through different programmes, mainly with young, vulnerable people, and they brought in a lot of Wahhabi and Salafi literature. They brought these people closer to radical political Islam, which resulted in their radicalisation."

After two years of investigations, the police charged 67 people, arrested 14 imams and shut down 19 Muslim organisations for acting against the Constitution, inciting hatred and recruiting for terrorism.

It is a stunning turnabout for a land of 1.8 million people that not long ago was among the world's most pro-US Muslim societies. Americans were welcomed as liberators after leading months of Nato bombing in 1999 that spawned an independent Kosovo.

Illegal weapons seized by the authorities being cut up into pieces before being destroyed at a foundry. Firearms are easy to obtain in Kosovo, where violence and extremism have been on the rise, often fuelled by Arab-linked networks and organisations
Illegal weapons seized by the authorities being cut up into pieces before being destroyed at a foundry. Firearms are easy to obtain in Kosovo, where violence and extremism have been on the rise, often fuelled by Arab-linked networks and organisations. PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

After the war, United Nations officials administered the territory and US forces helped keep the peace. The Saudis arrived, too, bringing millions of euros in aid to a poor and war-ravaged land. But where the Americans saw a chance to create a new democracy, the Saudis saw a new land to spread Wahhabism. "There is no evidence any organisation gave money directly to people to go to Syria," Mr Makolli said. "The issue is they supported thinkers who promote violence and jihad in the name of protecting Islam."

Kosovo now has more than 800 mosques - 240 built since the war and blamed for helping indoctrinate a new generation in Wahhabism. They are part of what moderate imams and officials here call a deliberate, long-term strategy by Saudi Arabia to reshape Islam in its image around the world.

DIFFERENT INTENTIONS

They came in the name of aid. But they came with a background of different intentions, and that's where the Islamic religion started splitting here. 

IMAM ENVER REXHEPI, a moderate cleric in Gjilan, on Arab charities that funded religion courses and rebuilding efforts.

Saudi diplomatic cables released by WikiLeaks last year reveal a system of funding for mosques, Islamic centres and Saudi-trained clerics that spans Asia, Africa and Europe. In New Delhi alone, 140 Muslim preachers are listed as being on the Saudi consulate's payroll.

In Kosovo, families are grappling with the aftermath of years of proselytising by Saudi-trained preachers. Some daughters refuse to talk to or shake hands with male relatives. Some sons have gone off to jihad. Religious vigilantes have threatened or committed violence against academics, journalists and politicians.

The Balkans have yet to heal from the ethnic wars of the 1990s. But they are now infected with a new intolerance, said moderate imams and officials in the region.

How Kosovo and the very nature of its society were fundamentally recast is a story of Saudi Arabia's decades-long global drive to spread its hard-line version of Islam - heavily funded and systematically applied, including with threats by followers.

THE MISSIONARIES ARRIVE

After the war ended in 1999, imam Idriz Bilalli of the central mosque in Podujevo welcomed any help that he was able to get.

Podujevo, home to about 90,000 people in north-eastern Kosovo, was a reasonably prosperous town with high schools and small businesses in an area hugged by farmland and forests. It was known for its strong Muslim tradition even in a land where people long wore their religion lightly.

After decades of Communist rule when Kosovo was part of Yugoslavia, men and women mingled freely, schools were co-educational, and girls rarely wore the veil. Still, Serbian paramilitary forces burnt down 218 mosques as part of their war against Kosovo's ethnic Albanians, who are 95 per cent Muslim. Imam Bilalli needed help to rebuild.

When two imams in their 30s, Fadil Musliu and Fadil Sogojeva, who were studying for master's degrees in Saudi Arabia, showed up after the war with money to organise summer religion courses, imam Bilalli agreed to help. They were among some 200 Kosovars who took advantage of scholarships after the war to study Islam in Saudi Arabia. Many, like them, came back with missionary zeal.

Soon, under imam Musliu's tutelage, pupils started adopting a rigid manner of prayer, foreign to the moderate traditions of this part of Europe. Imam Bilalli recognised the influence and grew concerned.

"This is Wahhabism coming into our society," said imam Bilalli, 52, in a recent interview.

From their bases, the Saudi-trained imams propagated Wahhabism's tenets: the supremacy of syariah law as well as ideas of violent jihad and takfirism, which authorises the killing of Muslims considered heretics for not following its interpretation of Islam.

The Saudi-sponsored charities often paid salaries and overhead costs, and financed courses in religion as well as English and computer classes, said moderate imams and investigators.

But there were conditions attached. Families received monthly stipends on condition that they attended sermons in the mosque, and women and girls wore the veil, said human rights activists.

"People were so needy, there was no one who did not join," recalled Ms Ajnishahe Halimi, a politician who campaigned to have a radical Albanian imam expelled after families complained of abuse.

THREATS INTENSIFY

Within a few years of the war's end, the older generation of traditional clerics began to encounter aggression from young Wahhabis.

Paradoxically, some of the most serious tensions built up in Gjilan, an eastern town of 90,000, where up to 7,000 US troops were stationed as part of UN-run peacekeeping forces at Camp Bondsteel.

"They came in the name of aid," one moderate imam in Gjilan, Enver Rexhepi, said of the Arab charities. "But they came with a background of different intentions, and that's where the Islamic religion started splitting here."

One day in 2004, he recalled, he was threatened by one of the most aggressive young Wahhabis, Zekirja Qazimi, a former madrasah student then in his early 20s. Inside his mosque, imam Rexhepi had long displayed an Albanian flag. Emblazoned with a double-headed eagle, it was a popular symbol of Kosovo's liberation struggle.

But strict Muslim fundamentalists consider the depiction of any living being as idolatrous. Qazimi tore the flag down. Imam Rexhepi put it back.

"It will not go long like this," Qazimi told him angrily, according to imam Rexhepi.

Within days, imam Rexhepi was abducted and savagely beaten by masked men in woods above Gjilan. He later accused Qazimi of having been behind the attack, but police investigations went nowhere.

In 2014, after two young Kosovars blew themselves up in suicide bombings in Iraq and Turkey, investigators began an extensive probe into the sources of radicalism. Qazimi was arrested after he hid in the same woods. He was sentenced to 10 years in prison after he faced charges of inciting hatred and recruiting for a terrorist organisation.

Before Qazimi was arrested, his influence was profound, under what investigators now say was the sway of Egyptian-based extremists and the patronage of Saudi and other Arab Gulf sponsors.

By the mid-2000s, Saudi money and Saudi-trained clerics were already exerting influence over the Islamic Community of Kosovo (ICK). Its leadership quietly condoned the drift towards conservatism, said its critics.

Qazimi was appointed first to a village mosque, then to El-Kuddus mosque on the edge of Gjilan. Few could counter him, not even Mustafa Bajrami, his former teacher, who was elected head of the Islamic Community of Gjilan in 2012.

EXTREMISM SPREADS

Over time, the Saudi-trained imams expanded their work. By 2004, imam Musliu, one of the master's degree students from Podujevo who studied in Saudi Arabia, had graduated and become imam of a mosque in the capital, Pristina.

In Podujevo, he set up a local charitable organisation called Devotshmeria, or Devotion, which taught religion classes and offered social programmes for women, orphans and the poor. It was funded by Al Waqf al Islami, a Saudi organisation that was among the 19 eventually closed by investigators. Imam Musliu put a cousin, Jetmir Rrahmani, in charge.

"Then I knew something was starting that would not bring any good," said imam Bilalli, the moderate cleric who had started out teaching with him. In 2004, they had a core of 20 Wahhabis.

"That was only the beginning," imam Bilalli said. "They started multiplying."

He began a vigorous campaign against the spread of unauthorised mosques and Wahhabi teaching. In 2008, he was elected head of the Islamic Community of Podujevo and started religion classes for women, to try to undercut Devotshmeria.

As he sought to curb the extremists, he received death threats, including a note left in the mosque's alms box. An anonymous telephone caller vowed to make him and his family disappear, he said. "Anyone who opposes them, they see as an enemy," he said.

He appealed to the ICK leadership. But by then it was heavily influenced by Arab Gulf sponsors, he said, and he received little support.

When he formed a union of fellow moderates, the ICK removed him from his post. His successor, Bekim Jashari, equally concerned by the Saudi influence, nevertheless kept up the fight.

"I spent 10 years in Arab countries and specialised in sectarianism within Islam," imam Jashari said. "It's very important to stop Arab sectarianism from being introduced to Kosovo."

He had a couple of brief successes. He blocked the Saudi-trained imam Sogojeva from opening a new mosque, and he stopped a payment of €20,000 (about S$30,000) that was intended for the mosque from the Saudi charity Al Waqf al Islami.

He also began a website, Speak Now, to counter Wahhabi teaching. But he remains so concerned about Wahhabi preachers that he never lets his 19-year-old son attend prayers alone.

The radical imams Musliu and Sogojeva still preach in Pristina, where for prayers they draw crowds of young men who glare at foreign reporters. Imam Sogojeva dresses in a traditional robe and banded cleric's hat, but his newly built mosque is an incongruous modern multi-storey building. He admonished his congregation with a rapid-fire list of dos and don'ts at a recent sermon.

Neither imam seems to lack funds.

In an interview, imam Musliu insisted that he was financed by local donations, but confirmed that he had received Saudi funding for his early religion courses.

The instruction, he said, was not out of line with Kosovo's traditions. The increase in religiosity among young people was natural after Kosovo gained its freedom, he said.

"Those who are not believers and do not read enough, they feel a bit shocked," he said. "But we coordinated with other imams, and everything was in line with Islam."

A TILT TOWARDS TERRORISM

The influence of the radical clerics reached its apex with the war in Syria, as they extolled the virtues of jihad, and used speeches and radio and television talk shows to urge young people to go there.

Qazimi, who was given the 10-year jail term, even organised a summer camp for young followers.

"It is obligatory for every Muslim to participate in jihad," he told them in one videotaped talk. "The Prophet Muhammad says that if someone has a chance to take part in jihad and doesn't, he will die with great sins."

"The blood of infidels is the best drink for us Muslims," he said in another recording.

Among his recruits, said investigators, were three former civilian employees of US contracting firms at Camp Bondsteel, where American troops are stationed. They included Lavdrim Muhaxheri, an ISIS leader who was filmed executing a man in Syria with a rocket-propelled grenade.

After the suicide bombings, the authorities opened a broad investigation and found that the Saudi charity Al Waqf al Islami had been supporting associations set up by preachers like Qazimi in almost every regional town.

Al Waqf al Islami was established in the Balkans in 1989. Most of its financing came from Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Kuwait and Bahrain, Kosovo investigators said in recent interviews. Unexplained gaps in its ledgers deepened suspicions that it was surreptitiously funding clerics who were radicalising young people, the investigators said.

Investigators from Kosovo's Financial Intelligence Unit found that Al Waqf al Islami, which had an office in central Pristina and a staff of 12, ran through €10 million from 2000 to 2012. Yet, they found little paperwork to explain much of the spending. More than €1 million went to mosque building. But 1½ times that amount was disbursed in unspecified cash withdrawals, which might have also gone to enriching its staff, the investigators said. Only 7 per cent of the budget was shown to have gone to caring for orphans - the charity's stated mission.

By the summer of 2014, the Kosovo police had shut down Al Waqf al Islami, along with 12 other Islamic charities, and had arrested 40 people.

UNHEEDED WARNINGS

Why the Kosovar authorities - and US and UN overseers - did not act sooner to forestall the spread of extremism is a question being intensely debated.

As early as 2004, then premier Bajram Rexhepi tried to introduce a law to ban extremist sects. However, he said in a recent interview at his home in northern Kosovo, European officials told him it would violate freedom of religion.

"It was not in their interest; they did not want to irritate some Islamic countries," Mr Rexhepi said. "They simply did not do anything."

Not everyone was unaware of the dangers, however.

At a meeting in 2003, Mr Richard Holbrooke, once the US special envoy to the Balkans, warned Kosovar leaders not to work with the Saudi Joint Relief Committee for Kosovo, an umbrella group of Saudi charities. Its name still appears on many of the mosques built since the war, along with that of the former Saudi interior minister, Prince Naif bin Abdul-Aziz.

A year later, it was among several Saudi organisations shut down in Kosovo when it came under suspicion as a front for Al-Qaeda. Another was Al-Haramain, which in 2004 was designated by the US Treasury Department as having links to terrorism.

Yet, even as some organisations were shut down, others kept working. Staff and equipment from Al-Haramain were shifted to Al Waqf al Islami, said moderate imams familiar with their activities.

In recent years, Saudi Arabia appears to have reduced its aid to Kosovo. Figures from the Central Bank of Kosovo show grants from Saudi Arabia averaging €100,000 a year for the past five years.

It is now money from Kuwait, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates - the amounts average approximately €1 million each a year - that propagates the same hard-line version of Islam. The payments come from foundations or individuals, or sometimes from the Ministry of Zakat (almsgiving) of the various governments, Kosovo's investigators said.

Today, the ICK has been so influenced by the largesse of Arab donors that it has seeded prominent positions with radical clerics, its critics said.

ICK spokesman Ahmet Sadriu said the group held to Kosovo's traditionally tolerant version of Islam. But calls are growing to overhaul an organisation now seen as having been corrupted by outside forces and money.

Kosovo's Internal Affairs Minister, Mr Skender Hyseni, said he had recently reprimanded some of the senior religious officials.

"I told them they were doing a great disservice to their country," he said in an interview. "Kosovo is by definition, by Constitution, a secular society. There has always been historically an unspoken interreligious tolerance among Albanians here, and we want to make sure that we keep it that way."

FAMILIES DIVIDED

For some in Kosovo, it might already be too late.

Families have been torn apart. Some of Kosovo's best and brightest have been caught up in the lure of jihad.

One of its top political science graduates, Albert Berisha, said he left in 2013 to help the Syrian people in the uprising against the government of President Bashar Assad. He abandoned his attempt after only two weeks - and he said he never joined ISIS - but he has been sentenced to 3½ years in prison, pending appeal.

Mr Ismet Sakiqi, an official in the prime minister's office and a veteran of the liberation struggle, was shaken when his 22-year-old son, Visar, a law student, was arrested while going through Turkey to Syria. Mr Sakiqi now visits his son in the same Kosovo prison where he was detained under Serbian rule.

And in Busavate hamlet, in the wooded hills of eastern Kosovo, widower Shemsi Maliqi struggles to explain how his family has been divided. One of his sons, Alejhim, 27, has taken his family to join ISIS in Syria. Alejhim's uncle, Mr Fehmi Maliqi, like the rest of the family, is dismayed. "It's a catastrophe," he said.

NEW YORK TIMES

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on August 01, 2016, with the headline 'How the Saudis turned Kosovo into fertile ground for ISIS'. Print Edition | Subscribe