Kosovo, which declared independence from Serbia in 2008, is the most pro-American country in the world. From 2012-13, it was also the world’s biggest per capita source of foreign terrorist fighters (FTFs) in Syria. It would seem those two statements could not possibly both be true, but they are. This is the story of how the professional diplomats at the U.S. Embassy in Pristina, aided by experts from the United States, played a major role in helping the new country bring the FTF problem under control for our mutual benefit.
Between 2012 (when the Syrian civil war started) and 2016, more than 300 Kosovo citizens went to fight with al-Nusra or ISIS. U.N. Development Program analysts who interviewed FTFs identified two categories of reasons for this phenomenon: “push factors” and “pull factors.”
Among the push factors were Kosovo’s poverty, weak rule of law and porous borders, corruption, high unemployment (30%, 60% among youth) and especially its age distribution, with 50% of the population 25 or under.
The pull factors were more complicated:
After 1998-99 Kosovo war, “humanitarian” NGOs from the Middle East came to build mosques and provide aid, also importing Wahabi-style Islam, very different from Kosovo’s Hanafi Islamic tradition.
Some Kosovo imams trained in Middle Eastern religious schools came back with a more radical Islam.
ISIS recruiters proclaimed a religious duty for Kosovars to help Syrian Muslims threatened by Assad.
Radical imams operating outside the Kosovo Islamic Community recruited young men, often offering computer or English classes as bait.
The problem builds
The first Kosovar was killed in Syria in 2012. In 2013 ISIS began circulating Albanian-language propaganda videos on the internet. Kosovo’s population became increasingly concerned about their citizens’ involvement in Middle East violence, prompting the Kosovo Police to step up action against recruiters and radical imams, as well as to intercept people headed south. In 2014 a video showed a Kosovar FTF in Syria cutting off an Iraqi’s head for being a “spy.”
Kosovo’s citizens were shocked. This event clashed profoundly with their European self-image. The inexperienced Kosovo government asked Embassy Pristina for assistance. The Embassy, working with Washington experts, helped the government draft laws that criminalized fighting in someone else's war abroad; the Kosovo Assembly passed them in 2015.
The flow slows
In 2014, the flow of FTF to Syria slowed, prompted by the shock of the ISIS propaganda videos, intensified police enforcement, community engagement directed at the mothers of vulnerable young men, and ISIS’s declining star. The Embassy and the Kosovo Government were justifiably pleased that they had dealt successfully with a significant challenge.
Another problem emerges
Unfortunately, however, many of these FTFs would later decide to come back to Kosovo, potentially exposing this fragile new country, our embassy, and NATO peacekeepers to terrorist threats. Of the Kosovar FTFs who had gone to Syria, some died, some stayed, and others were disillusioned – a hundred or so would come home. Due to concern about what these men might do, the Kosovo government investigated, convicted, and imprisoned many returnees. However, with European-style short prison sentences, Kosovar FTFs would not remain in prison longer than a few years. In addition, their dispersion throughout the country’s prison system offered too many opportunities for them to radicalize other prisoners.
Once again, Embassy Pristina was called upon to provide advice. This situation was more complicated than the first problem because of pervasive corruption in the corrections service; we were very concerned that corrupt officials might divert any assistance to their own pockets. After internal debate, I decided that we had to tackle the issue; I would assume responsibility for any negative fallout stemming from corruption.
But we needed help. Professional diplomats know where their knowledge ends, and when to ring the bell for assistance. No one at the embassy knew how to run a prison, or how to deal with imprisoned FTFs.
So we called upon the State Department’s Bureau of International Narcotics and Law Enforcement (INL) to identify money and help. INL sent us a delegation of real experts with prison and FTF experience. The team spent days speaking with corrections officials, police, and even some FTFs; it prepared a plan to cope with the returning FTFs and improve the way they were dealt with in prison. Ultimately, we signed a deal with the Kosovo government to provide advice to the corrections service on this issue. I privately warned the government that I would publicly denounce by name any corrupt officials trying to take personal advantage of the deal.
Best of all, INL was able to recruit Mike, a retired American prison warden who had worked in other countries on the FTF issue. He would spend a week or two with us every couple of months for two years. Mike was instrumental in our successful strategy, because he could speak to corrections officials about how he had dealt with their challenges from his personal experience; even with the world’s best-prepared talking points, a Foreign Service Officer could not have that kind of impact.
Mike’s plan started with procedures and training, rather than money, which limited the corruption risk. He developed ways to deal with these violent offenders while they were still in prison; the most important step was to imprison the FTFs together and segregate them from the other offenders, to prevent them from “contaminating” the regular crooks. He created a team of corrections officials, local psychologists and social workers, and trained them to deal with this new-to-Kosovo challenge. Mike’s team began to engage with FTF offenders, attempting to persuade them to abandon their orientation and to prepare them to return to their communities. Mike also developed a system to notify the local police in an FTF’s home town about impending releases.
It took many months of work and lots of help from local officials, but the project was a big success; the INL team and Embassy Pristina had done a terrific job. By the time I left Kosovo in 2018, even though a few former FTF prisoners had been released, we had no cases of recidivism, domestic threats by a former FTF, or a return to the Middle East.
A few lessons
While dealing with the FTF issue was a particular and unusual problem, I think there are several more-general lessons that can be drawn from our experience that would be helpful to any U.S. embassy:
Once we decided there was a USG problem here – a potential threat to the Embassy – we could not fail to act.
We knew there was a risk of failure. I told Embassy team members I would personally accept that risk, allowing them to focus on the problem rather than worrying about what might happen to them if things went wrong.
We used both a carrot and a stick with the government, offering to help reform their prison system, while warning them that any monkey business would be rapidly and publicly denounced.
We did extensive planning with experts and hired people who knew what they were doing.
Embassy Pristina’s work on the Kosovo FTF problem exemplified the best of Foreign Service work: confronting an unexpected problem; finding the right tools and help to analyze it; and solving it.
Ambassador Greg Delawie served as U.S. Ambassador from 2015 to 2018. He is a retired Senior Foreign Service Officer and previously served as the Deputy Assistant Secretary for Verification, Planning, and European Security in the State Department Bureau of Arms Control, Verification and Compliance as well as Deputy Chief of Mission in Croatia and Berlin.