Islamist infiltration of the Albanian-speaking areas in the Balkans began even before the U.S.-led Kosovo intervention of 1999. (The offensive by radical Islam continues in Kosovo has previously been chronicled here, here, here, and here, with attacks focused on moderate Muslim clerics.) The upsurge of armed struggle for Kosovo independence in 1998 was accompanied by the unexpected emergence of Saudi-financed radicalism in the Albanian-majority zone of western Macedonia. The syndrome is too widespread to be coincidental. Wherever local Muslim-majority communities resist post-Communist abuses – including Kosovo and Macedonia – Islamist radicals show up (beards, short pants, and all), allegedly in emulation of the Prophet Muhammad. The religious extremists assault moderate Muslims and Christians, dividing the forces of national freedom.
The worst example has been that of Chechnya, where Saudi agents diverted a legitimate movement for autonomy within the Russian Federation in a jihadist direction, associating the cause of the Caucasian Muslims with al Qaeda. Chechens have not consistently demanded complete separation. The same pattern is visible among another people who mainly ask for equal rights rather than secession: The Turkic-speaking Uighurs on Chinese territory. Numerous Kosovar and Macedonian Albanians are convinced that Wahhabi agitators are encouraged by Serbia, which seeks to lop off the north of Kosovo and annex it, or create a pseudo-republic. That should sound a familiar note: Such a land-grab would be comparable to those carried out by the fading Soviet rulers in “Transnistria,” a mini-state carved out of Moldova, as well as by the late Slobodan Milosevic in Bosnia-Herzegovina, and by Vladimir Putin in Georgia (the so called nation-states of Abkhazia and South Ossetia).
The latest ambush of a moderate Kosovar Muslim cleric occurred on January 21. Hamit Kamberi, imam at a mosque in Mitrovica, in northern Kosovo, had just finished leading prayers, and his congregation had departed. He was abruptly shoved into the mosque and beaten. “I heard some people closing the door and then they attacked me physically,” he told the Kosovo daily Express, which has taken the lead in exposing local Islamist radicals. “I know who these people are and I know their families, too.” One asked to speak with him, and he was then jumped by four more. “I need medical attention, including the services of a neurologist. I have internal and external injuries, in my brain, head and neck,” he added.
One member of the gang of thugs sported a long Wahhabi beard, while the rest, according to the imam, wore the distinctive short trousers adopted by the fundamentalists. He emphasized that he had never had personal disagreements with the group. But they had been agitating for weeks for his replacement as mosque leader, based on their adherence to the doctrines of the official Saudi sect and the imam’s insistence that Albanians preferred to follow the traditional Islam they first learned from the Ottomans more than half a millennium ago.
The day after the incident, four men, named Vesat Imeri, Burim Ademi, Faruk Osmani and Isa Ibrahimi, presented themselves at a Kosovo police station and, although they claimed to be innocent of involvement in the Kamberi affair, were arrested. Jetish Berisha, chairman of the Islamic Community of Mitrovica, warned that aggression against moderate Kosovar Muslim leaders is continuing and becoming more brutal. All these conflicts, Berisha said, “Come from the same element, with the same ideology… Some people think that they can take over our religious institutions through violence. Those ideologies are not based on normal Islam and are inappropriate for us as Kosovar Albanian Muslims.”
In addition, the national Islamic religious officials in Kosovo, who have previously been lax in responding to Wahhabi incursions, issued a strong statement. “The leadership of the Kosovo Islamic Community considers the attack on the imam as a blow against the institutions of the Islamic Community, as a violation of our institutions and an offense against their duties… The Kosovo Muslim leadership is committed to order, calm, and the rule of law, as opposed to anarchy and banditry,” the top clerics said.
Described by Express as “the strongest ever issued by the Kosovo Islamic leaders,” the declaration may have been necessary given the location of the latest Wahhabi foray. Mitrovica is divided by the Ibar river, with Serbs occupying the territory north of its waters. Serb diehards routinely discharge firearms and throw grenades into Albanian homes in the north. Still, Albanian-American journalist Ruben Avxhiu, who publishes a biweekly in New York, Illyria, told me, “Serbia remains an outsider and therefore a containable enemy. It is the enemy within that can harm you the most and in many irreparable ways.”
The Kosovo newspaper Express has a web comment section that often provides the most trenchant insights into the problems faced by the Kosovars. After the latest extremist intrusion, ordinary Kosovars expressed themselves in a manner that did not disappoint. Imam Kamberi’s mosque attendees wrote in, noting that the imam was a dedicated man who gave generously of his time. He lives north of the informal partition line in Mitrovica and admitted his fear of the Serbs, but, according to his coreligionists, had undergone physical abuse from Albanians in the southern area of the municipality. The contribution of Kamberi’s congregants ended with a phrase heard elsewhere in the Balkans when the Wahhabis come on the scene: “The radicals are hypocrites, and wolves in sheep’s clothing.”
Others were even more articulate about their disgust. A resident of Mitrovica named Gazi posted a comment reading, “Shame on those who divide our people! Foreign religion, foreign traditions appear among us like knives. We know very well how they got here. Our people has its own much more precious traditions that we should work together to preserve.” One Visari, living in Prishtina, the Kosovo capital, wrote, “Where is the government and police of Kosovo? Why are they allowing Islamic radicalism to emerge among the Albanian people? Arrest every one of them, because we want to be part of Europe.”
Kosovo may be described as under Europe, but not within it. The European Union, which governs Kosovo, should protect the republic against radical Islam as well as Serbian intrigue. But Europe looks askance at the Kosovars, a decade after the war that brought about their liberation. In the latest evidence of Brussels-based disdain, citizens of Serbia, Montenegro, and Macedonia were, in December 2009, offered the right of visa-free travel to the EU. Since Serbia still claims sovereignty over Kosovo, Albanians from the republic may apply for, and receive, Serbian passports. Many Kosovars have begun to do so, accepting Serbian nationality as a price they must pay to get to the West. But Kosovar Albanians who consent to carry Serbian identity documents undermine Kosovo’s independent status, opening the way to its reabsorption by Serbia. Such an outcome would be disastrous not only for the Kosovars, but for the prestige of the U.S., and would significantly encourage Russian designs in the Balkans.
Macedonia, Kosovo’s southern neighbor, has also had to recognize its Wahhabi problem. A major daily in that country, Vecer (Evening) has reported that the three most prominent and historic mosques in the capital, Skopje, have been taken over by Wahhabi clerics. The paper disclosed that Wahhabis are active throughout Skopje. As previously noted, such foreign penetration has been visible in Macedonia since 1998, and while the Kosovar Albanians have resisted such infiltration, Macedonian leaders have allowed it to grow.
The sharpest comment yet on radical Islam in the Balkans was offered to the readers of Express by a man who signed himself Drini, from the Kosovo town of Lipjan: “Yesterday: Fools – Today: Violent – Tomorrow: Terrorists.” Across the globe, where Islamist fanatics search for weak spots to commit their crimes, these cautionary words should be read and remembered.