Few, but fanatics: The Kosovo women who join IS
Kosovo became one of Europe’s most pro-Western societies after the US helped it to break free of Serbia.
But, in a generational shift in this largely secular place, Islamic radicalisation is making inroads.
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And it’s not just young men who join Islamic State (IS).
Laura Hyseni was a typical Kosovo teenager. She used to hang out with girlfriends in cafes and bars, doing little to worry her comfortably-off and open-minded parents.
“She would call a cab to go for coffees with her friends in town. She would wear the same as her peers - sometimes short skirts, jeans. She was very modern,” says Faik Uksmajli, whose son, Arbnor, married Laura.
Tears fill Uksmajli’s eyes as he thinks back, sitting on a wooden chair on his balcony in Nerodime e Eperme, a poor village in the rural plain around Kosovo’s third-largest city, Feriza, and not far away from Kosovo’s biggest US army base, Camp Bondsteel.
He says Arbnor, his younger brother Albert, and Laura were equally liberal until something changed.
“In just a couple of months, the village imam and his wife brainwashed them,” he told BIRN.
They became strict Muslims and withdrew from former friends. Arbnor grew a beard and started wearing calf-length trousers - a trademark of some fundamentalists.
He also talked non-stop about Sham, a religious term for the Syria region.
Laura, in her early 20s and now a mother of two boys, began wearing a black burqa from head to foot. She stayed in her room and barely spoke to anyone.
“All of a sudden, she wouldn’t even shake hands with relatives,” Uksmajli says. “I couldn’t recognise my children. They talked about helping their brothers in Syria and said real Muslims were fully committed to the religion. But I was most concerned when they said Camp Bondsteel should be bombed.”
“I tried to explain to my children that the USA had helped Kosovo,” he adds. “But soon I realised it all … they were planning to go to Syria.”
Desperate to stop them, he went to the police station.
“I asked them [the police] dozens of times to confiscate their passports, but they did nothing. My children flew from Pristina to Turkey and then crossed the Syrian border.”
That was in August 2014. But things got worse the following year.
Laura is one of a small but growing number of young Kosovan women, some just in their teens, who’ve joined IS, the radical militant group in Iraq and Syria.
Some, like Laura, followed their husbands, whose ideology they often shared. Others have gone alone, or tried to. Very few have returned.
The trend is worrying Kosovo’s authorities.
Police say some 300 men and 36 women are known to have left the country of 1.8 million people to become “foreign fighters.” Along with Bosnia, it’s the highest per capita ratio in Europe.
Over 90 percent of Kosovans identify themselves as ethnic Albanian Muslims. But the older generation grew up in socialist Yugoslavia and few were devout. The new constitution is strictly secular.
There is deep pro-Western feeling after a US-led bombing campaign, in 1999, helped Kosovo to gain independence.
Kosovo is also home to the EU’s largest overseas security operation, Eulex, responsible for police and rule-of-law reform.
But all the while, Islamic groups have been gaining influence. Since the war, religious charities from Arabic countries have established a strong presence. They offer English language and IT lessons, alongside Quaranic instruction. Many young men have taken up scholarships to train as imams in Saudi Arabia or Egypt.
Women in veils or burqas and men in calf-length trousers and untrimmed Islamic beards are becoming an increasingly common sight.
Imam denies accusation
Kosovo is also one of Europe’s poorest countries, with more than 60 percent of 15 to 24-year olds out of work.
But poor prospects had nothing to do with Laura and Arbnor’s case, Uksmajli says.
Uksmajli himself was moderately well-off. He used to have a business, which made wooden stairs, that employed about 40 people. He has no doubt that his family was radicalised by the village imam, Nehat Hyseni.
The new village mosque is in front of Uksmajli’s house and former workshop, amid narrow, muddy streets.
Hyseni, a man in his 30s, is at home around the corner.
Standing in his yard holding his small daughter, the imam at first refuses to talk, but then vehemently denies Uksmajli’s accusation.
“I met Faik’s youngest son, I don’t even remember his name, only once - he came to ask me for the rules of prayers since he claimed he planned to travel to Germany. Everything else his father says is lies,” he says.
He adds that imams are being used as scapegoats.
Hyseni, a Kosovan, also told the authorities he had nothing to do with the young people’s departure. “The police came here, and I also gave a statement to the Islamic Community of Kosovo,” he says, referring to the body which runs Kosovo’s mosques and appoints imams.
Asked if he ever talked about the war in Syria in sermons at his mosque, he says: “No, never. I have other topics to discuss with my congregation.”
Uksmajli’s children contacted him after they reached IS.
He sold his business to fund a trip to try to bring them home. He says he spent €30,000, mostly on payments to middlemen, to enter IS territory.
He went to eastern Turkey, then to Mosul in northern Iraq. He went on to Aleppo in Syria, seeing burnt-out houses and corpses lying in the streets.
But he couldn’t get permission for the final step - to reach the militant camp where his children were said to be.
“IS didn’t let me near the war zone. I failed to find my children,” he says.
When he got home, Laura, with whom he has stayed in touch online, told him his son, Arbnor, had been killed in an air strike in Iraq. His other son, Albert, was badly wounded.
Uksmajli says he’s still trying to find a way to bring back, at least, Laura and his grandsons, who are now two and four years old.
Security experts in Kosovo say most Kosovan women who joined IS, like Laura, followed their husbands.
Some went independently in the belief they’re on a sacred mission.
“Women in this group want to contribute actively to the conflict and they are deeply affected by the recruiting circles,” Florin Qehaja, from the Kosovo Centre of Security Studies in Pristina, told BIRN.
Usama Hasan, a researcher at the Quilliam Foundation, a London-based anti-radicalisation think tank, said some also go to find husbands.
“Some say the only real men are IS fighters, and those men who stay in education or work in Western countries are cowards or materialist sell-outs,” he said.
Qamile Tahiri, for one, went to Syria with her husband but later carved out her own IS role.
A security source, who declined to be named, said Tahiri is in charge of a women’s camp for IS in Syria and is now the main online recruiter of ethnic Albanian women.
“In the camp she runs, there are dozens of women and girls from Kosovo, Albania, and Macedonia,” the source said.
The mother of two is from near Mitrovica, in northern Kosovo, a divided town which has seen its own share of violence between ethnic Albanians and Serbs.
Her Facebook posts include a picture of herself, armed with an AK47 rifle, beside her Kosovan husband Besim. Police say he appears to have been killed in combat, but she stayed on.
Her relatives, in the village of Shipol, declined to comment for this article. Her childhood friends also declined, saying they didn’t want to upset her father.
Revelations about young women joining IS or other radical groups in Syria shock many Kosovans. Most foreign fighters’ parents say they had no idea and are horrified.
Like their male counterparts, the IS women appear to have embraced religion in their formative years, and, security sources say, were later influenced by face-to-face preaching and by online content.
The authorities have begun to clamp down on suspected sources of radicalisation, which also helped create men like Lavdrim Muhaxheri, a Kosovan IS fighter who is among the top people on the US wanted list.
In March 2015, Kosovo first outlawed participation in foreign conflicts, making it punishable by up to 15 years in prison.
In late 2014, police shut down 14 long-established Arabic NGOs on suspicion they had close ties with radical groups in Kosovo.
In one of the biggest such operations in the Balkans, they also arrested 78 people, including 11 imams, on suspicion of recruiting Kosovans for IS. All were later released, but some are still under investigation.
“Some imams have brought from Middle Eastern countries extremist and intolerant attitudes, influencing people who are vulnerable and convincing them to join terrorist groups,” said police spokesman Baki Kelani, referring to Kosovans who had gone to Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Qatar, and other countries to study.
Moderate imams have also voiced concern.
“Speeches at mosques by some Saudi-educated imams have brainwashed men and women, and as a result we have hundreds of Kosovan members of Islamic State,” says Zuhdi Hajzeri, an imam from Peja, in western Kosovo, who says he has faced death threats for speaking out against radicals.
It’s just a 30-km drive from Laura’s former residence to Gijlan, the home of Shqipe Ajdini, one of the few women to have returned from Syria.
The 32-year old declined to speak. But her father, Iljaz Ajdini, told her story, despite his visible distress.
“We are thankful to the USA for what it has done for us. I don’t know what happened with this generation, with our children,” he says, while chain smoking in a cafe near his home.
He says Shqipe began wearing a burqa a few years after she married Sinan Muji, from a nearby village.
“I told her, if you are going to dress like that, I don’t even want to walk down the street with you,” he recalls.
“They wanted to get a passport for their daughter and when we asked them why, they said they were going down to Montenegro to do some work. They didn’t call for a week, but then they phoned to say they were in Syria.”
That was also in August 2014. She returned in June 2015 after her husband died in combat.
“I'm happy that my daughter is back, only because of my granddaughter. My daughter’s husband got what he deserved,” Shqipe’s father says.
He was lucky she could return. Unlike many new arrivals, Shqipe avoided giving her passport to IS enforcers.
Her late husband’s grieving mother, Azize Muji, lives nearby in the half-empty village of Bresalc.
“Religion changed them entirely”, she says, while sitting on the steps of her run-down house.
“They didn’t care about anything. My son even stopped helping us around the house, while his wife would stay in her room the entire day. My husband and I never agreed with their actions. They decided to live in the cellar quite apart from us, until they left for Syria without telling us.”
It’s relatively cheap and easy for Kosovans to get to the conflict zone.
Turkey, the first stop, isn’t far. Flights or buses are cheap and travel is visa-free. From there, they can cross Turkey’s leaky south-east border straight onto the frontline.
Airport security is more vigilant than before, so some recruits prefer the land route over Kosovo’s eastern border with Macedonia, at Hani i Elezit, police say.
A few girls and women who tried to get to Syria failed.
Police stopped under-age Qendresa Zejnullahu and Altina Salihu, both born in 2000, as they tried to walk into Macedonia in March 2015, neither of them with identity documents.
Their families say they were lured by online contacts. But the girls refused to say who.
“My girl was fooled. We didn’t know where they had gone until police brought them home,” recalls Qendresa’s mother, Hasije Zejnullahu, sitting on a torn carpet in her unadorned home in Terpeze, in south-east Kosovo.
“They never gave any signs that they were religious. It seems someone deceived them - they’re just children,” says Salit Sahiti, the headmaster of their village school.
Nine months after she got home, Qendresa Zejnullahu died from a gunshot to her head.
The family first said she shot herself. Her brother, Leotrim, later said he shot her by accident with his father’s hunting rifle.
Neighbouring Albania, Bosnia, and Macedonia face similar problems.
But Kosovo police say their country, and Bosnia, have the sad distinction of providing the most IS recruits by head of population.
Vehbi Bushati, who runs the anti-terrorism squad in the Albanian police force, told BIRN that 29 women had gone to Syria and Iraq from his country of 2.8 million people. Security experts say up to 150 Albanian citizens are involved in the Syrian conflict.
Figures for Macedonia, which has an ethnic Albanian minority, weren’t available.
Whatever motivates the women to go, their families want them back and say they’re victims who were led astray.
“I just want to bring back my daughter and my grandsons. I just want them back home,” Laura’s father, Vehbi Hyseni, told BIRN, in his only statement.
This article was produced as part of the Balkan Fellowship for Journalistic Excellence Alumni Initiative, supported by the ERSTE Foundation and Open Society Foundations, in cooperation with the Balkan Investigative Reporting Network (BIRN).