Countering Violent Extremism and the Islamic State in Kosovo

It’s only a matter of time until the movement spearheaded by the Islamic State decides to target Kosovo and countries across the western Balkans. How the authorities react is likely to determine their level of resistance to violent extremism in the future. 

This spring, I did a project on countering violent extremism for an international agency that wanted to support the Kosovo government’s working group on that issue. One of my main conclusions was that while most of the attention was focused on stopping people from going to join the Islamic State (IS) in Syria, Kosovo should also plan for domestic terrorism. So I was dismayed, but not surprised, to hear that five men had been arrested on suspicion of trying to poison Pristina’s water supply on 12 July.

It’s not yet clear what the men were trying to do, just that police caught them with weapons and IS propaganda near the manmade lake that provides most of Pristina’s water. Perhaps coincidentally, a Bosnian jihadi featured in a recent IS video urged Muslims to poison the unbelievers’ food and water.

Kosovo has never experienced a serious case of domestic terrorism. There have been minor violent incidents – Albanians trying to intimidate elderly Serbs into selling their land on the cheap, or Serbs trying to keep Kosovo institutions away – with few fatalities, and always motivated by nationalism. Contrast this with Bosnia and Herzegovina, where radical Islamists have attacked police stations and the United States embassy.

Albanians are not inherently immune to the call of violent Islamism. Every year or so, authorities in the U.S. and Europe arrest one or more men from Albania, Kosovo or Macedonia for terrorism – plotting to shoot up U.S. army bases, murdering American servicemen at Frankfurt airport, or killing gendarmes in Turkey. More than three hundred have heeded the call to fight in Iraq and Syria. Until now, however, a mix of factors – Kosovo’s strong family networks and a robust international security presence led by NATO chief among them – have dissuaded any attempt to bring terror home.

Kosovo’s police are by all accounts a well trained, professional force. They take the threat of domestic terrorism seriously. But no police can prevent every attack, and it is now plain that the movement spearheaded by Islamic State has decided to target the western Balkans too. It is only a matter of time before an attack succeeds.

The IS goal is to win over the loyalty of Balkan Muslims. To do that, they have to drive a wedge between them and the secular West. This is hard, especially in Kosovo: people are immensely grateful for NATO’s intervention in 1999, saving them from Serbian ethnic cleansing, and for western support for independence from Serbia in 2008. How do you turn Muslims against the West? By turning the West, and Kosovo’s pro-western government, against Muslims.

To understand the threat of Islamist violence and how to counter it, it’s important to realise the pool of potential recruits is large, but it’s very hard to convince someone to become a terrorist. For many people, there’s little difference between a radical Muslim and a terrorist. This is false. In a country like Kosovo, tens if not hundreds of thousands of people hold beliefs that many would consider extreme: they want to live under the Sharia, they believe apostates should be executed, and they support, in theory, violence against civilians in defence of Islam. In other countries, millions of people consider Osama bin Laden a martyr and the men of IS heroes. Yet only a tiny fraction of these people ever thinks seriously about doing violence, and even fewer actually do it. The challenge for terrorist recruiters isn’t convincing people they’re right on esoteric points of faith; it’s getting people to cut their ties to society and agree to become killers.

That’s the logic of trying to poison the Pristina water supply. The goal of an action like that isn’t primarily to kill people, who are as likely to be observant Muslims as godless atheists. It’s to create revulsion among the secular majority, to make them see all serious Muslims with suspicion as potential terrorists, and to push the state to crack down indiscriminately on all kinds of unconventional Muslims. If that happens, IS will have the proof it needs to convince many Kosovo’s Muslims that the state is their enemy – another key message of that video. The idea isn’t so much poisoning the water supply as drying up the reservoir of good will between secular and fundamentalist Kosovars.

There are lots of other possible targets. Patriotic symbols like memorials to Kosovo Liberation Army heroes could be targeted, as could mainstream mosques, police and armed forces sites. U.S. embassies are a perennial favourite, though they are now heavily fortified that terrorists might seek alternative American targets. The idea will be to pick a victim that will shock and offend the majority.

But for this strategy to work, the authorities have to play along, by over-reacting to terrorist threats and actions. That is the central weakness of violent extremism: it cannot win unless the government, backed by public opinion, does its part. For Kosovo and the western Balkans, countering violent extremism needs to focus as much on building up resilient societies that can take terrorist attacks in stride, as it does on prevention.


Cover photo credit: Sava Janjic/Twitter

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Marko Prelec

Marko Prelec is Executive Director of Balkans Policy Research Group and was the last director of International Crisis Group's Balkans Project, from 2009 to 2013. He trained as a historian of Southeastern Europe at Harvard, holds a Ph.D. from Yale University and has taught at the United States Naval Academy. From 1999 to 2005 he was Research Officer at the International Criminal Tribunal for former Yugoslavia, and from 2005 to 2008 he was chief of the Research and Analysis Section in the Office of the Prosecutor of Bosnia and Herzegovina.