PRISTINA/WASHINGTON - The number of fighters joining extremist groups in the Middle East from Kosovo, once the highest per capita in Europe, has come to a virtual halt, according to government officials, analysts, and ex-fighters.
The turnabout comes after a government crackdown in Kosovo on extremist recruiting, an increased education campaign to show the ills of radical groups, and a waning appeal of Islamic State militancy, experts say.
“Kosovo has done great work in getting local Muslim communities directly involved in efforts to educate their members against the dangers of radicalization,” said Sarah Bedenbaugh, a Balkan expert at the Atlantic Council, a Washington-based think tank.
Kosovo is the smallest country in the Balkan region with a Muslim-majority population. The country gained its independence in 2008 after a long-fought war with Serbia.
The landlocked nation has struggled with increasing radicalization of Muslim youth that increased after the start of the Syrian civil war in 2012. Roughly 93 percent of Kosovo's 1.7 million people are from Muslim family backgrounds. Young people in Kosovo were drawn to jihad as high youth unemployment and poor education left them wanting, analysts say.
According to Kosovar government statistics, 314 Kosovo citizens joined armed groups in Syria including extremist groups such as Islamic State, Fateh al-Sham Front (formerly al-Nusra Front), and Ahrar al-Sham. The government says it has no record of Kosovar foreign fighters leaving for the Middle East this year.
Roughly 75 fighters from Kosovo remain on the frontlines in Syria, Fatos Makolli, director of counterterrorism at the Kosovo police, told VOA’s Albanian service. At least 57 Kosovo citizens have died in Mideast conflicts, he said.
But few now are leaving for Syria and at least a third have returned, officials say. At least 110 Kosovar citizens who fought in Syria with different Islamist groups came home, according to authorities.
“The cause for which many Kosovars thought they were fighting for did not turn out to be as "ideal" as in the beginning of the conflict when many have joined,” said Shpend Kursani, an analyst at the Kosovar Center for Security Studies, a Pristina-based think tank.
Young Kosovars lured to IS by its radical Islamic values were later disappointed because “the so-called [IS] Caliphate did not live up to many 'idealists' expectations,” he said.
Some former fighters are now helping to deter others from travelling to Syria and joining radical groups.
Albert Berisha, who in 2013 fought with a rebel group in Syria’s Idlib province, recently help form a center for de-radicalization that hopes to raise awareness of the ills of extremist groups in the Middle East.
"Our first project is called Foreign Fighters Talk,” Berisha said.
Through this project, “We encourage foreign fighters to talk [about their] experiences in order to understand the reasons of their disillusionment and their return in Kosovo and to see how much they're ready to be reintegrated in the society and what are their needs,” he said.
But returning foreign fighters say they are finding reintegration difficult as many are facing prosecution under a law passed in 2015 that criminalizes fighting in foreign conflicts with prison terms up to 15 years for those convicted.
Berisha said he was sentenced to 42 months in prison. But like many former foreign fighters he has asked an appeals court to reconsider his case. Berisha said the government “should encourage their reintegration into the society” rather than punish former foreign fighters.
But government officials say their tough stance is working. Stiff sentences send a strong message that fighting with militants in Syria will not be tolerated, they say.
In a visit to Voice of America in March, Kosovo President Atifete Jahjaga says her country has increased its efforts to arrest citizens who fought with IS.
Kosovo is the "only country in the region, and even wider," with a very well-organized police operation that has conducted several arrests of foreign fighters in Kosovo who at one time had joined IS, she said.
“Kosovo will not be held hostage by a small group of violent religious extremists whose absolutist interpretation of Islam is overwhelmingly at odds with our secular tradition,” foreign minister Petrit Selimi wrote in a letter to the New York Times in May .
In a continuing crackdown, the government has recently detained more than 100 people, including several imams, who were attempting to recruit young Kosovars to fight with extremist groups in Syria.
“The government has worked hard to shut down illegal mosques and other meeting places for radical imams,” said analyst Bedenbaugh.