Once-tolerant Muslim society transformed into a font of extremism by radical clerics.
Every Friday, just yards from a statue of Bill Clinton with arm aloft in a cheery wave, hundreds of young bearded men make a show of kneeling to pray on the sidewalk outside an improvised mosque in a former furniture store.
The mosque is one of scores built here with Saudi government money and blamed for spreading Wahhabism – the conservative ideology dominant inSaudi Arabia – in the 17 years since a US-led intervention wrested tiny Kosovofrom Serbian oppression.
Since then – much of that time under the watch of U.S. officials – Saudi money and influence have transformed this once-tolerant Muslim society at the hem of Europe into a font of Islamic extremism and a pipeline for jihadis. Kosovo now finds itself, like the rest of Europe, fending off the threat of radical Islam. Over the last two years, police have identified 314 Kosovars – including two suicide bombers, 44 women and 28 children – who have gone abroad to join Islamic State, the highest number per capita in Europe.
They were radicalised and recruited, Kosovo investigators say, by a corps of extremist clerics and secretive associations funded by Saudi Arabia and other conservative Arab gulf states using an obscure, labyrinthine network of donations from charities, private individuals and government ministries.
“They promoted political Islam,” said Fatos Makolli, the director of Kosovo’s counter-terrorism police. “They spent a lot of money to promote it through different programmes mainly with young, vulnerable people, and they brought in a lot of Wahhabi and Salafi literature. They brought these people closer to radical political Islam, which resulted in their radicalisation.”
After two years of investigations, the police have charged 67 people, arrested 14 imams and shut down 19 Muslim organisations for acting against the constitution, inciting hatred and recruiting for terrorism. The most recent sentences, which included a 10-year prison term, were handed down on Friday.