Albania and Kosovo: a 'new front' for jihadists

Tirana (AFP) - Three years ago, Albert and Yassin left their homes in Kosovo and Albania to wage jihad in Syria. Now they're back, swelling the ranks of jihadists in a region the Islamic State has called a "new front" in Europe.

Yassin, 30, who now works as a halal butcher in a downtrodden suburb of Albania's capital Tirana, refused to give his real name out of fear of repercussions.

Wounded in Syria's battered northern city of Aleppo in 2014, the father-of-three told AFP he left "to help the Syrian people" and hopes Allah will recognise his sacrifice, even if he did not die a martyr.

Albert Berisha, a 29-year-old political science graduate, says he took an "emotional decision" to leave for the Middle East "after seeing on TV and social media what was happening in Syria."

Berisha has not escaped the attention of the authorities however: Last month, he was sentenced to three and a half years behind bars.

Authorities say around 300 Kosovans and up to 120 Albanians have left to wage jihad in Syria -- placing them among the most affected per capita by the jihadist phenomenon.

Around 30 combatants have returned to Albania and 120 to Kosovo, according to government estimates.

Albanian religious affairs analyst Ermir Gjinishi warned that "if we do not integrate them back into society, if we marginalise them, former combatants returning to the country could ... be provoked into extreme actions."

An Islamic State propaganda video last year entitled "Honor is in Jihad: a message to the people of the Balkans" described the region as a "new front" for jihad in Europe.

"Black days are coming to you," a Kosovan fighter warns the governments of Kosovo, Albania, and Macedonia.

"You will be terrorised."

- 'Internet brainwashing' -

Muslims in Kosovo and Albania have historically been liberal but on the streets of Pristina, women in full veils and bearded men with trousers cropped at the ankles hint at a latent radicalisation.

Ilir Kulla, former head of Albania's "State Committee of Cults", said would-be jihadist recruiters find their job made easier by "the economic situation, a (low) level of education and Internet brainwashing."

According to World Bank figures, the average monthly wage in Kosovo is a measly $330 (290 euros), slightly higher in Albania at $370.

And while money is not the main driving force behind the departures for Syria, an Albanian police officer said a fighter in an IS unit would earn more than double that and $2,000 as a commander.

Visar Duriqi, a Kosovo-based expert in religion, noted: "Kosovo was economically devastated in the war and its economic recovery is still slow, which is creating many social problems."

The authorities in the region are fighting back and claiming some success.

"No Kosovan has joined a terrorist group in the past six months," said president Hashim Thaci, who told AFP in February he had himself received death threats from Islamic State.

Albania's deputy interior minister Elona Gjebrea said "no Albanian had left the country" for Syria since 2014.

In both places, authorities have clamped down on returning jihadists and those who recruit them, with an increasing number of arrests and trials.

On Tuesday, Albania jailed nine men for up to 18 years for financing and recruiting fighters -- the first trial of its kind.

As the verdicts were handed down, the defendents shouted "Allahu Akbar (God is greatest). Traitors. Our time will come. You will be punished."

- 'Demagogues, charlatans, manipulators' -

The prime minister of Albania, Edi Rama, has introduced religious education in schools to fight against ignorance and what he called "demagogues, charlatans and manipulators."

One of those people Rama is targeting is Almir Daci, an Iman who ran a network responsible for sending 70 people -- including women and children -- to Syria.

The 34-year-old helped to transform Leshnice, Remenj and Zagorcan -- villages near the Macedonian border where churches stand side-by-side with mosques -- into a hotbed of jihadist recruitment.

Daci, alias Abu Bakr al-Albani, worked as the Iman in a neighbouring village of Pogradec, and was one of the Islamic State group's main recruiters in Albania.

His relatives received news from Syria that he had died last month but, as is often the case, there was no way of independently confirming this.

Hurma Alinji, 59, a neighbour of the Daci family, accuses Daci of being responsible for the death of her son, who died in Syria in 2014 aged 28.

"I blame Daci. He's the only one responsible. He pushed my son Ervis to leave," she said.

Ervis worked in Greece but his family noticed radical changes in his behaviour after he began frequenting Daci's mosque.

Before he would happily watch his father swill raki but suddenly "refused to eat the meat" bought from the village and "cut the bottoms off his new trousers."

One evening in February 2013, he said his "brothers needed help."

And left to die in Syria, like around 70 Albanians and Kosovans.