Ethnic Albanian Foreign Fighters in Iraq and Syria
April 30, 2015
Extensive research suggests that about 500 ethnic Albanians from the Western Balkans have traveled to Syria and Iraq since 2012, predominantly joining the Islamic State and Jabhat al-Nusrah (JN). For the most part these fighters are the product of a well-integrated regional network of extremist entities painstakingly expanded across the region over the past two decades. Recent counterterrorism operations in Albania and Kosovo have shed some light on the structure and inner workings of this network. These efforts by local law enforcement agencies have revealed that the web of extremist actors primarily comprises a new generation of local fundamentalist clerics trained in the Middle East and closely affiliated with a number of foreign-funded Islamic charities and cultural associations.
This article examines the presence of ethnic Albanian foreign fighters in Syria and Iraq and provides an analysis of their backgrounds, affiliations, and activities. The data reveal that the age groups most vulnerable to recruitment are different among the countries examined—Albania, Kosovo, and Macedonia—despite broad ethno-linguistic and cultural similarities. The study concludes that if they are to be effective, counter-narrative campaigns and government responses must take into account evolving trends of radicalization, and that they should be fine-tuned to target the age groups most vulnerable to being swept up into violent extremism.
The Western Balkans are home to the largest indigenous Muslim population in Europe and a long standing tradition of moderate Islam that dates back to the Ottoman conquest of the peninsula in the 15th century. There are important distinctions, however, among the different countries of the region. Islam lost significant ground in Albania during the communist era. Albania’s long-time dictator Enver Hoxha went so far as to declare his country to be the first atheist state in the world, and all religion was banned between 1967 and 1990. The fall of communism in the early 1990s, however, created significant volatility, both political and ideological.
The vacuum attracted pan-nationalist movements and Islamist revivalists across the Balkans, including some 20 Arab Islamic foundations, which established a strong presence in Albania. These foundations financed the building of hundreds of mosques and awarded educational scholarships to thousands of malleable young Muslim Albanians. Many of these young men who took up these opportunities returned home from their studies in Arab and Asian religious institutions with a strong sense of spiritual identity and an eagerness to promote a puritanical form of Islam. The impoverished Albanian government, thanks to combination of lax law enforcement oversight and a desperate need for foreign aid and investment, paid scant attention to some of the more dubious dealings by some of the charities until in June 1998. In that month, law enforcement agencies raided the offices of the Revival of Islamic Heritage Society and four sites linked to other charities, arresting four foreign terrorist operatives in their employ. The raids broke up a cell of the Egyptian Islamic Jihad terrorist organization and reportedly foiled a bomb attack on the U.S. Embassy in Tirana. Nevertheless, almost a quarter century of forced atheism had made Albanian society comparatively less susceptible to radical Islam.
In contrast, ethnic Albanians who lived in the territories of the former Yugoslavia as an ethnic and religious minority struggling for civil rights embraced Islam. It was not simply a dogma for them, but it was also part of a pragmatic strategy intended to secure ethnic and territorial preservation. Yugoslavia’s decade-long violent dissolution intensified ethno-religious cleavages, creating a more welcoming environment for a militant strain of Islam. As the 1998–1999 Kosovo war came to an end, and almost a decade after infiltrating Albania, dozens of foreign faith-based charities—particularly Saudi-funded groups—set up shop in Kosovo. Besides providing humanitarian aid and building schools and community centers, they also erected significant numbers of Wahhabi mosques and madrassas, the financing of which was opaque.
The Saudi Joint Relief Committee for Kosovo and Chechnya (SJRC), whose activities have been linked to al-Qa’ida operatives, reportedly built 98 primary and secondary schools in rural Kosovo after the war. The most promising students were enrolled in 30 Koranic schools sponsored by the Islamic Endowment Foundation, an SJRC entity. In a massive construction boom, more than 100 unlicensed mosques sprouted across Europe’s poorest country within ten years.  Kosovo covers just 4,212 square miles.
The development of an extensive religious infrastructure required a significant increase in the number of qualified clerics. Agencies and groups such as The World Assembly of Muslim Youth made available hundreds of scholarships to Middle Eastern Islamic education institutions. The returning graduates, often sporting the Salafis’ trademark long beard with the clean-shaven upper lip, created a steady supply of hard-line clerics for the growing network of mosques and madrassas across Kosovo. Tellingly, eight of the 11 Kosovo imams arrested between August and September 2014 on charges of preaching extremism and helping to recruit jihadists were relatively young and educated in the Middle East.
Genci (Abdurrahim) Balla, a 35-year-old imam educated in Saudi Arabia, is typical of those caught up in the operation. He was arrested in April 2014 in Albania on suspicion of leading a recruitment ring authorities believe to have sent dozens of fighters to Syria. These imams were closely affiliated with a chain of 14 Islamic charities and cultural associations whose leaders were also educated in the Middle East and which the authorities in Kosovo shut down recently because of their alleged ties to Islamist organizations such as the Muslim Brotherhood.
The Scale of the Problem
There were only a small number of ethnic Albanian individuals involved in jihadist activity prior to the Syrian conflict. The evidence now suggest that the number of ethnic Albanians who have gone to fight in Syria and Iraq as of early March 2015 is about 500. Among the data points that are publicly available, Kosovo’s Minister of Internal Affairs in a late February 2015 interview stated that the number of foreign fighters from Kosovo stands at “about 300.” The latest available estimates for Albanian citizens range from 90 to 148. By comparison, published estimates of Macedonian fighters—just 12—are very low, and other evidence seems to suggest a higher number may be more accurate. The similar number of reported casualties among jihadists from Albania (12) and ethnic Albanian jihadists from Macedonia (14) would indicate that the total number of ethnic Albanian fighters from Macedonia is about 100. This estimate is further supported by the reported death rate of around 10 percent among German, Belgian, Dutch, and Bosnian jihadists. Only one ethnic Albanian jihadist from Serbia has been reported dead so far.
The data also reveals that relative to its population of 1.8 million, Kosovo is arguably the largest source of European jihadists in Syria and Iraq. With a rate of over 16 fighters per 100,000 nationals, Kosovo’s recruitment rate is more than eight times that of France, Europe’s largest overall source of jihadists in Syria and Iraq. Kosovo’s per capita rate of recruitment exceeds by about 60 percent even that of a failed state like Libya.
There are several likely factors for this development. Geographic proximity, lack of visa restrictions, and low transportation costs make the trip to Syria logistically easy. Yet the confluence of particular sociopolitical, economic, and demographic factors may help explain Kosovo Albanians’ disproportionate rate of radicalization. With 44 percent of the population aged below 25, Kosovo has the youngest population in Europe. There is also a surplus of young men, with a ratio of 1.1 male(s) per female. This youth bulge makes the country more susceptible to radicalization and social unrest, especially when combined with rapid urbanization and poor economic conditions. In fact Kosovo has the lowest Human Development Index in Europe and the lowest per capita income in the Balkans. Also, as of 2013, Kosovo’s unemployment rate for the 15–24 age group was 56 percent. A number of studies demonstrate a significant association between high youth unemployment and the incidence of terrorism in Europe. Furthermore, according to United National Development Programme (UNDP), 62 percent of Kosovo’s adult population has low levels of education. Ignorance and lack of proper educational opportunities often make people more vulnerable to ideological indoctrination and radicalization. In Kosovo, this vulnerability is exacerbated by significant ethnic polarization and the recent traumatic ethno-sectarian conflict that had sharp religious undertones.
Who are the Ethnic Albanian Foreign Fighters?
The author researched, examined, and categorized publicly available data related to ethnic Albanian foreign fighters and their known associates published between November 2012 and early March 2015 by media outlets, released by regional governments, or posted on social media. The resulting dataset compiled for the purposes of this study contains information on 211 ethnic Albanian men who have either fought in Syria and/or Iraq at some point between 2012 and 2015 or have been arrested and are being investigated for recruiting fighters or attempting to join terrorist groups. This number does not include the dozens of women, children, and other family members who have accompanied them.
According to official sources, at least 13 Albanian nationals have traveled to Syria with their wives and 31 children. Another report claims that about 20 Kosovo Albanian families have “made hijrah” to live and fight in the region and that one of these families—composed of three brothers, two wives, and five children— traveled to Syria as late as September 2014. Bearing in mind the patriarchal family structure common among ethnic Albanians, particularly in Kosovo, it would be reasonable to assume that more than 100 ethnic Albanian relatives of jihadists have made the trip, some of whom may have received military training and eventually participated in armed operations.
Of the 211 men in the data set, at least 152 of these men from Albania (70), Kosovo (64), Macedonia (17), and Serbia (1) have fought in Syria and/or Iraq in the past three to four years. Of those 152 men, 49 were reportedly killed in action: 12 from Albania, 22 from Kosovo, 14 from Macedonia, and one from Serbia. The first local media report of an ethnic Albanian casualty came in early November 2012 regarding Naman Demolli, a 35-year-old Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA) veteran and a staunch activist for a radical Islamic movement turned political party in Kosovo. The presence of at least two groups of ethnic Albanians fighting in Syria was also recorded in November 2012.
The deadliest year was 2014 with at least 29 reported deaths. The deadliest month was September 2014 with ten reported deaths mostly the result of U.S.-led airstrikes targeting Islamic State strongholds. January 2014 was the second deadliest with five reported deaths, mainly linked to intensified clashes between the Islamic State and JN. Media reports on at least three, and possibly as many as six, Kosovo Albanian youths traveling to Syria in early January 2015 attest to the continued flow of fighters despite the punitive measures taken by local governments to curb the phenomenon.
At least ten of the fighters identified in the dataset belong to the ethnic Albanian diaspora in Western Europe and possibly had dual nationality, specifically five originating from Macedonia, and five originating from Kosovo. Their last reported residences were in Germany, Sweden, Norway, Austria, and Switzerland. Other fighters or would-be fighters arrested before they could travel to Syria or Iraq are known to have resided at some point in the United Kingdom, Belgium, Spain, Greece, Italy, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, and Egypt.
Two main clusters of fighters that stand out are those with previous military experience (14) and those with previous formal religious training (ten). At least 14 of the fighters from the dataset have previous guerilla warfare experience or formal military training. There were ten KLA and/or National Liberation Army veterans from the armed conflicts in Kosovo and Macedonia in late 1990s and the beginning of 2000s and four former Albanian Army Commandos in the data set. Media reports suggest they traveled to the conflict zone in groups and that the number of KLA veterans who have already fought in Syria may be even higher. One press article from mid-2013 quotes a KLA veteran as stating that he was planning to join the war in Syria “with about a dozen war comrades.”
Meanwhile, the pool of imams and madrassa students involved either directly or indirectly in this armed conflict increases from ten to 23 when including the 13 imams arrested in Kosovo and Albania for inspiring or recruiting jihadists. Albanian authorities reportedly possess strong evidence that a ring operated by two imams in the suburbs of Tirana is responsible for recruiting 70 fighters.
Not surprisingly, due to a tradition of close-knit families among ethnic Albanians, a third cluster of fighters is connected to each other mainly through kinship ties. There are at least eight cases in which a small group of fighters related to each other (e.g., brother or cousins) traveled to the Middle East, for a total of 20 known fighters. In five of these cases, the fighters originate from Kosovo. This is in line with a similar trend observed among fighters from other countries such as France and the United Kingdom.
What Age Groups are Most Susceptible to Recruitment for Violent Jihad?
Of the 152 ethnic Albanian foreign fighters identified by name or by pseudonym in the media, the data set contains demographic data for 88 fighters. Based on this information the ethnic Albanian fighters range in age from 17–70 and they are on average 30-years-old. The data suggests that the age group most susceptible to recruitment for violent jihad among ethnic Albanians is 21–25 years old.
While the individuals in this data set share similar ethnic and linguistic backgrounds and are clustered together on the battlefields of Syria and Iraq, they originate from three different socio-economic and political environments. Ethnic Albanians from Kosovo and Macedonia have more points of commonality due to their common Yugoslav past than they share with Albanian nationals. In order to detect potential variances between fighters, the data was segmented by country of origin: Albania (23), Kosovo (49), Macedonia (15), and Serbia (1). Though the sample sizes of fighters originating from each country are not equal, they represent comparable ratios relative to the number of estimated fighters per country, 16, 16, and 15 percent respectively.
The data segmentation reveals distinctly different patterns of recruitment among this pool of foreign fighters. While the age group most susceptible to recruitment is the same among ethnic Albanians from Kosovo and Macedonia (21–25) that changes by a decade in the case of Albania (31–35). This variance is largely reflected in the fighters’ average age by country of origin as follows: Albania 35.6, Kosovo 28, and Macedonia 25.8. These differences, which are somewhat explained by Kosovo’s younger median population age and other drivers of radicalization listed above, could also be influenced by the demographics of the most radical, charismatic, and successful recruiters in each country. In Kosovo this includes a 25-year-old Islamic State commander named Lavdrim Muhaxheri, who until recently ran an Islamic cultural association. His counterpart in Albania was, until his arrest, the 35-year-old Imam Genci Balla. Another potential causal factor worth exploring may be the fact that Kosovo society experienced the growth of Middle Eastern charities with extremist links well after Albania did—post-1999 in Kosovo compared to post-1990 in Albania.
The unprecedented proportion of ethnic Albanians being drawn to violent extremist organizations testifies that militant Islamist narratives have struck a chord. This preliminary study based on a detailed, yet partial footprint of the ethnic Albanian foreign fighters, identified two distinct age groups particularly susceptible to recruitment into violent extremism. While the typical foreign fighter from Albania is a male between 31 and 35 years old, the typical ethnic Albanian foreign fighter from Kosovo and Macedonia is a male between 21 and 25 years old. The data indicate that country-specific dynamics, despite all the many ethno-linguistic and cultural similarities among ethnic Albanians in the Balkans, may have had a more determining role in their path to radicalization.
A more granular understanding of the complex radicalization environment and recruitment patterns identified in this study would allow for a more informed counter-radicalization strategy and effective counter-narrative campaigns targeting the most susceptible age groups. Moreover, these counter-radicalization efforts would benefit from frequent monitoring and assessment of evolving radicalization patterns in the region. Ultimately, the long-term success of these efforts will be determined by the ability to adjust to and anticipate radicalization trends.
Adrian Shtuni is a Washington, D.C.-based foreign policy and security analyst with a regional focus on the Western Balkans and the Eastern Mediterranean. He holds a M.Sc. in Foreign Service with a concentration in International Relations and Security from Georgetown University, and consults for think tanks and academic institutions on issues of radicalization and violent extremism.
This estimate is based on data provided by multiple specialized reports tracking the flow of foreign fighters to Syria, hundreds of articles from regional media outlets reporting on this issue, and social media inquiries between November 2012 and early March 2015.
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