Returnee Foreign Fighters from Syria and Iraq: The Kosovan Experience.

AuthorBytyqi, Kujtim

As of mid-2019, there are still around 2,000 alleged foreign fighters and close to 14,000 foreign women and children being held in overcrowded detention camps in Syria. (1) Naturally, there is widespread concern that these individuals may present a significant threat to national security. Consequently, many countries--most notably those in Western Europe--have been reluctant to bring their citizens home and appear to be delaying the repatriation process as long as possible. In contrast to this, others, including Russia, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, Turkey, and Kosovo, have taken a more proactive approach in facilitating the return of large numbers of mostly women and children. (2)

Drawing upon the first author's position on the Kosovo Security Council Secretariat, which grants him unfettered access to government officials and returned foreign fighters and their families alike, this article seeks to shed light on the Kosovan experience dealing with returnees from Syria and Iraq. The article begins with a brief overview of Kosovar foreign fighter activities, followed by an examination of those who returned home between 2013 and 2018, and those who were repatriated in April of this year. In the final section, the discussion focuses on challenges and lessons learned from trying to manage the risk associated with these individuals.

The Foreign Fighters

Between 2012 and 2015 a total of 355 Kosovars--consisting of 256 men, 52 women, and 47 children--are believed to have traveled to Syria and Iraq. (a) (See Table 1.) This is one of the highest per capita rates of 'foreign fighter' outflows (b) anywhere in the world. Forty-five percent of these individuals left Kosovo before the Islamic State declared its caliphate in June 2014. To begin with, they joined the Free Syrian Army, Jabhat al-Nusra, Ahrar al-Sham, or Kataib al-Muhajirin and were largely focused on the overthrow of Assad. (3) However, the majority of those who stayed subsequently transitioned to the Islamic State. Those who traveled after the declaration of the caliphate (which, along with an increasing amount of jihadi propaganda, was translated into Albanian) mostly joined the Islamic State directly.

By far, the most prominent Kosovar to join the fight in Syria was Lavdrim Muhaxheri, who is previously said to have worked at NATO bases in Kosovo and Afghanistan before radicalizing and traveling to the warzone in 2012. (5) Muhaxheri first stepped into the spotlight in October 2013 after appearing in an Islamic State recruitment video posted on YouTube in which he called on Albanian Muslims to join the fight against Assad and other "infidels." (6) He went on to appear in grisly execution videos and became the leader of a group of Albanian Islamic State fighters, while maintaining a fairly prolific presence on social media. (7) Together with another high-profile Islamic State leader from Kosovo named Ridvan Haqifi, Muhaxheri played an important role in promoting the Islamic State in the Balkans and facilitating travel to Syria. (8)

Not content with encouraging others to follow in their footsteps, Muhaxheri and Haqifi turned their attention to inciting attacks at home. In June 2015, Haqifi appeared in an Islamic State video in which he warned that "black days" were coming to Kosovo. "You will be frightened and terrified in your dreams as you sleep," he declared. "We will kill you with the permission of Allah. We will come with explosive belts." (9) The following year, police arrested 19 individuals on suspicion of planning attacks against targets in Kosovo, as well as a soccer match between Albania and Israel that was scheduled to take place in the city of Shkoder, northwest Albania, in November 2016. It soon transpired that the group, which was in possession of more than 2.5 kilograms of explosives, was being jointly coordinated from afar by Muhaxheri and Haqifi. (10) Both men are now believed to be dead, (11) but thanks to their seniority and prominence both as instigators and facilitators they surely left an indelible mark on the foreign fighter phenomenon in Kosovo. In particular, by going beyond merely issuing threats to actually orchestrating a major attack plot, they helped transform it from a movement that initially was very much externally focused to one that also presented a significant threat at home.

The Returnees (2013-2018)

By 2018, 132 Kosovars who went to Syria (37% of the total) had returned home, consisting of 120 men, six women, and six children. The majority of this cohort made their way back from Syria prior to 2015, with only a handful returning in 2016 and 2018, respectively (thus marking the end of the first wave of returnees). (c) Although authorities in Kosovo have chosen not to prosecute women or children, most of the adult males (71% of those who returned by 2018) have been charged, convicted, and imprisoned on terrorism-related offenses (more on this later). (d)

Returnees have displayed a range of different attitudes toward authorities, along with varying levels of continued commitment to jihadi groups and ideological concepts (including acceptable use of violence against 'enemies' of Islam, and the relative importance attached to establishing a 'true' Islamic State). Many appear to be genuinely disillusioned and repentant, particularly those who returned home during the early stages of the conflict in Syria and Iraq. Albert Berisha, for example, went to Syria in October 2013. There, he came into contact with Jabhat al-Nusra and the Islamic State before joining with Ahrar al-Sham but quickly became disillusioned by widespread in-fighting within the Syrian opposition and returned home after just nine days. Although convicted in Kosovo for membership in a terrorist organization, he insists this was never his intention and together with another Kosovar returnee named Liridon Kabashi, he established the Institute for Integration, Security and Deradicalization (INSID), an NGO dedicated to the rehabilitation and reintegration of former foreign fighters. (12) However, regardless of their views on groups like the Islamic State, few returnees appear to accept that their actions should be punishable under law. As one returnee remarked, "I went there [to Syria] for purely humanitarian reasons. I wanted to help people and contribute with my warfare experience. That's not a crime." (13) Similarly, many believe that being imprisoned is an added hindrance to their (future) reintegration. (14) Accordingly, there is considerable resentment of the government of Kosovo.

More concerning still are those who continue to adhere to violent, extremist ideologies and have adopted an overtly hostile stance toward prison authorities and the state. 'Abu Albani,' who first traveled to Syria in 2013 while still in his early twenties, refused to cooperate with the deradicalization program in prison, and appeared to strengthen his commitment to the Islamic State, despite having become disillusioned with them while in Syria. When interviewed several months after his release, he remained deeply resentful of the government of Kosovo (even though it helped him to get a job) and was also openly supportive of terrorism and violence as a means to achieve a "true" Islamic...

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