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Wednesday, Oct 1, 2014

World

Kosovo struggles to curb Islamist recruits

Reuters | Wednesday, Oct 1, 2014

KACANIK Kosovo - Born in Germany, Blerim Heta moved to his parents' native Kosovo as a 10-year-old boy in the wake of a NATO air war in 1999 to save the territory's ethnic Albanians from Serbian repression.

They settled in Urosevac, where US soldiers - greeted as heroes for leading the intervention - were building a military base, a guarantor of protection for the aspiring statelet and a source of jobs for Albanians trying to rebuild their lives.

After finishing school, Heta spent 18 months at Camp Bondsteel, tending to the sports fields where American soldiers would let off steam.

"He never had a bad word for the Americans," said his mother, Minire.

"And who would have a bad word for them? They saved our lives," she said, trying to make sense of how her son killed himself in Iraq, detonating a bomb in March on behalf of Islamist insurgents sworn to fight the West. Dozens of Iraqis were killed.

Heta's act shocked ordinary Kosovars, who are mainly Muslim but overwhelmingly secular and fiercely pro-American. Yet he was not alone.

Six years after independence, Kosovo is scrambling to stem the flow of Muslims to Syria and Iraq, where around 200 Kosovars are believed to have joined thousands of foreign fighters in swelling the ranks of Islamic State. Some 20 are reported to have been killed in the past year.

Families at home are struggling to reconcile the deep sense of indebtedness most of Kosovo's 1.8 million people feel towards the United States for supporting their fight to break free from Serbia, with an undercurrent of anti-Western, Islamist fundamentalism that is tapping frustrations over poverty and corruption.

In the past two months, police in Kosovo have launched two major operations targeting fighters and those accused of inspiring or recruiting them. Forty-three were arrested in August, followed by 14 imams in September on charges including "terrorism" and incitement.

STARS AND STRIPES

Muslims in parts of mainly Orthodox Christian Serbia, and in Bosnia, have also joined Islamic State. Several thousand more have made the journey from Western Europe, including the masked Briton believed to have beheaded two American freelance journalists and a Briton in Syria over the past two months.

The flow has stirred fears of young Muslim men, drawn to war by a sense of purpose and belonging, returning radicalized, possibly determined to attack targets in their home countries.

But the phenomenon is particularly sensitive in Kosovo, where memories of the US role in ending a wave of ethnic cleansing by Serbian forces in the late 1990s are still fresh.

Washington and other Western powers poured billions of dollars into rebuilding Kosovo and fostering democracy, and were among the first to recognize its 2008 declaration of independence over the fierce objections of Serbia and Russia.

The Stars and Stripes flies from hotels and petrol stations and is a regular feature on public holidays; the capital, Pristina, hosts a statue of Bill Clinton, who was president during the war, at an intersection on Bill Clinton Boulevard.

"We owe our lives to them," said 53-year-old Elmi Buqa, a resident of Sojeva village close to Bondsteel. "They liberated us, helped us. There is nothing nobler than someone saving your life."

Queuing in the morning fog at the entrance to Bondsteel, a Kosovar contractor said: "When I see a US soldier, knowing what they did for me and my family, I feel ashamed at what my compatriots are doing in Iraq and Syria."

The man, who declined to give his name, said he had worked at the base for 14 years, and that his son was employed with US troops in Afghanistan.

Thousands of Kosovars have moved on from Bondsteel to work with US contractors on bases in Iraq and Afghanistan over the past decade, earning the kind of money they can only dream of in Kosovo and fuelling a building boom in villages and towns around Urosevac, known to Albanians as Ferizaj.

They included Lavdrim Muhaxheri from the town of Kacanik, 20 km (12 miles) from the Heta family home. Having spent two years working on a US base in Iraq, Muhaxheri became notorious in Kosovo in July, when a video posted on the Internet showed him beheading a young man in Iraq accused by Islamic State of spying for the Iraqi government.

Selling vegetables on a sidewalk in Kacanik, his uncle, Shaban, was at a loss to explain how the man, now designated a foreign 'terrorist' fighter by the US State Department, had come to join Islamic State.

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