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After Kosovo Emerged From War, Foreign Extremists Radicalized Youth


Earlier this year, we visited England, France and Germany to explore the tensions within these countries over their Muslim minorities. Many governments in Western Europe are especially concerned about radicalization - disillusioned young men and women going to join the self-proclaimed Islamic State. Now, on the other side of Europe, the tiny new nation of Kosovo also has a problem with radicalization. NPR's Ari Shapiro just returned from Kosovo, and he's on the line now to talk about his reporting. Hey there, Ari.


CORNISH: Now, unlike the countries I mentioned earlier, the majority of people in Kosovo identify as Muslims, right? But how big a role does religion actually play in public life there?

SHAPIRO: Well, before I left for Kosovo, I spoke with Akan Ismaili, who is Kosovo's ambassador to the United States, and he describes this as a country that is Muslim in name, but far less so in practice. Here's what he said.

AKAN ISMAILI: When the foreign journalists and foreign workers would come to Kosovo, you know, the media would start describing it as a kind of an Islam-light just by what they were seeing. By a couple of years later, they were describing it as an Islam-zero because you would not see it in a sense that it's there.

SHAPIRO: And Audie, I can tell you from first-hand experience that this is true. I was in Kosovo last week during Ramadan, and the cafes in the capital Pristina were full during the day. People were eating and drinking. And I asked restaurant owners if business had dipped at all because of people fasting for Ramadan. They said nope, not at all.

CORNISH: So if the country's so secular, how has radicalization come to be seen as a problem?

SHAPIRO: First, we don't entirely know the scale of the problem. The numbers seem to be in the hundreds rather than the thousands. But that's enough to raise a lot of concern in a country with a population under 2 million. Just now, you heard the ambassador talk about all the foreigners in the country. Well, what happened was when Kosovo emerged from war in the 1990s, a lot of international groups poured in to help rebuild. When I was in Pristina, I talked with a man named Ahmet Sadriu. He's a leader in Kosovo's Muslim community. And he told me that groups from Saudi Arabia came in to build schools and dormitories where people were essentially brainwashed. They were radicalized.

AHMET SADRIU: (Through interpreter) There were Islamic organizations which we didn't really approve of what they did. And we asked them to, like, sort of, like, respect the rules around here. But they said we are just here, and we have no problems.

SHAPIRO: He told me these Saudi groups targeted young people in Kosovo with fundamentalist theology. For some context here, youth unemployment is above 50 percent in the country. People in Kosovo are not allowed to travel to other parts of Europe without a visa, so a lot of young people feel trapped. And that makes them easy targets for indoctrination, as you can hear in this video.


SHAPIRO: A young man from Kosovo who went to join ISIS speaks directly to the people of the Balkans in this video.


UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Speaking Albanian).

SHAPIRO: "Black days are coming," he says. "You will fear to walk in the streets." I wanted to find this young man's family, so we drove far outside of the capital city, high up into the mountains. It was so remote, so poor, it was hard to fathom that this is 21st century Europe.

We've just arrived in this tiny village of Bukovik, and every building looks half ruined and crumbled. The road is rutted. It's made of dirt. There are a few chickens but no sign of people. The mosque is the only building that looks new.

UNIDENTIFIED CHILD: (Foreign language spoken).

SHAPIRO: Finally, we meet a 12-year-old girl. She knows the family of the ISIS fighter in the video, and she says, like so many others, they have abandoned this village. They've moved to the foot of the mountain to try to find jobs in the slightly larger town of Gjilan.

In Gjilan, too, mosque is the fanciest building in town. This place feels totally different from the capital, Pristina. Men here have long beards. The women wear headscarves. Eventually, we do find the father of the man in the ISIS YouTube video. In fact, we find a few families like his, people whose relatives have gone to Iraq and Syria. All of them refuse to speak with us. So I reached Deputy Foreign Minister Petrit Selimi. He's the government's man in charge of fighting radicalization, and he connects this problem to larger challenges that face any new country emerging from war.

PETRIT SELIMI: Transition's very tough. To become from zero to hero, it's not an easy process. A lot of people feel that a new country has born but they don't have the new opportunities in life.

CORNISH: And Ari, this is a different picture from what we found in Western Europe. What does the government in Kosovo see as a solution?

SHAPIRO: When I asked officials that question, they told me they can't do this on their own. They need Kosovo to become a member of some international organizations. Here's Deputy Foreign Minister Petrit Selimi.

SELIMI: We're not part of U.N. We're not part of Interpol. We're not part of UNESCO. We're not part of FIFA World Cup in soccer.

SHAPIRO: Well, that might be a good thing at this point, but go one (laughter).

SELIMI: Yeah, well, you know, we're not part of the Eurovision song contest, which, also, you may say is a good thing.

SHAPIRO: (Laughter).

SELIMI: But these are platforms of public cultures in which people become proud of their societies and their countries.

SHAPIRO: He argues that if this small new country becomes more of a part of the global community, then people from Kosovo won't have as much reason to look for belonging elsewhere in a group like ISIS.

CORNISH: That's NPR's Ari Shapiro. He's just returned from a reporting trip in the Balkans. Ari, thanks so much.

SHAPIRO: Good to talk to you, Audie. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Ari Shapiro has been one of the hosts of All Things Considered, NPR's award-winning afternoon newsmagazine, since 2015. During his first two years on the program, listenership to All Things Considered grew at an unprecedented rate, with more people tuning in during a typical quarter-hour than any other program on the radio.
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