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 in Saudi Arabia — in the 17 years
since an American-led intervention wrested tiny Kosovo from Serbian
Since then — much of that time under the watch of
American 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 jihadists.
Kosovo now finds itself, like the rest of Europe,
fending off the threat of radical Islam. Over the last two years,
the police have identified 314 Kosovars — including two suicide
bombers, 44 women and 28 children — who have gone abroad to join the
Islamic State, the highest number per capita in Europe.
They were radicalized 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 counterterrorism police. “They
spent a lot of money to promote it through different programs 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 radicalization.”
After two years of investigations, the police have
charged 67 people, arrested 14 imams and shut down 19 Muslim
organizations 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.
It is a stunning turnabout for a land of 1.8
million people that not long ago was among the most pro-American
Muslim societies in the world. Americans were welcomed as liberators
after leading months of NATO bombing in 1999 that spawned an
After the war, United Nations officials
administered the territory and American forces helped keep the
peace. The Saudis arrived, too, bringing millions of euros in aid to
a poor and war-ravaged land.
But where the Americans saw a chance to create a
new democracy, the Saudis saw a new land to spread Wahhabism.
“There is no evidence that any organization gave
money directly to people to go to Syria,” Mr. Makolli said. “The
issue is they supported thinkers who promote violence and jihad in
the name of protecting Islam.”
Kosovo now has over 800 mosques, 240 of them built
since the war and blamed for helping indoctrinate a new generation
in Wahhabism. They are part of what moderate imams and officials
here describe as a deliberate, long-term strategy by Saudi Arabia to
reshape Islam in its image, not only in Kosovo but around the world.
Saudi diplomatic cables released by WikiLeaks in
2015 reveal a system of funding for mosques, Islamic centers and
Saudi-trained clerics that spans Asia, Africa and Europe. In New
Delhi alone, 140 Muslim preachers are listed as on the Saudi
All around Kosovo, families are grappling with the
aftermath of years of proselytizing by Saudi-trained preachers. Some
daughters refuse to shake hands with or talk to male relatives. Some
sons have gone off to jihad. Religious vigilantes have threatened —
or committed — violence against academics, journalists and
The Balkans, Europe’s historical fault line, have
yet to heal from the ethnic wars of the 1990s. But they are now
infected with a new intolerance, moderate imams and officials in the
How Kosovo and the very nature of its society was
fundamentally recast is a story of a decades-long global ambition by
Saudi Arabia to spread its hard-line version of Islam — heavily
funded and systematically applied, including with threats and
intimidation by followers.
The Missionaries Arrive
After the war ended in 1999, Idriz Bilalli, the
imam of the central mosque in Podujevo, welcomed any help he could
Podujevo, home to about 90,000 people in northeast
Kosovo, was a reasonably prosperous town with high schools and small
businesses in an area hugged by farmland and forests. It was known
for its strong Muslim tradition even in a land where people long
wore their religion lightly.
After decades of Communist rule when Kosovo was
part of Yugoslavia, men and women mingle freely, schools are
coeducational, and girls rarely wear the veil. Still, Serbian
paramilitary forces burned down 218 mosques as part of their war
against Kosovo’s ethnic Albanians, who are 95 percent Muslim. Mr.
Bilalli needed help to rebuild.
When two imams in their 30s, Fadil Musliu and
Fadil Sogojeva, who were studying for master’s degrees in Saudi
Arabia, showed up after the war with money to organize summer
religion courses, Mr. Bilalli agreed to help.
The imams were just two of some 200 Kosovars who
took advantage of scholarships after the war to study Islam in Saudi
Arabia. Many, like them, returned with missionary zeal.
Soon, under Mr. Musliu’s tutelage, pupils started
adopting a rigid manner of prayer, foreign to the moderate Islamic
traditions of this part of Europe. Mr. Bilalli recognized the
influence, and he grew concerned.
“This is Wahhabism coming into our society,” Mr.
Bilalli, 52, said in a recent interview.
Mr. Bilalli trained at the University of Medina in
Saudi Arabia in the late 1980s, and as a student he had been warned
by a Kosovar professor to guard against the cultural differences of
Wahhabism. He understood there was a campaign of proselytizing,
pushed by the Saudis.
“The first thing the Wahhabis do is to take
members of our congregation, who understand Islam in the traditional
Kosovo way that we had for generations, and try to draw them away
from this understanding,” he said. “Once they get them away from the
traditional congregation, then they start bombarding them with
radical thoughts and ideas.”
“The main goal of their activity is to create
conflict between people,” he said. “This first creates division, and
then hatred, and then it can come to what happened in Arab
countries, where war starts because of these conflicting ideas.”
From the outset, the newly arriving clerics sought
to overtake the Islamic Community of Kosovo, an organization that
for generations has been the custodian of the tolerant form of Islam
that was practiced in the region, townspeople and officials say.
Muslims in Kosovo, which was a part of the Ottoman
Empire for 500 years, follow the Hanafi school of Islam,
traditionally a liberal version that is accepting of other
But all around the country, a new breed of radical
preachers was setting up in neighborhood mosques, often newly built
with Saudi money.
In some cases, centuries-old buildings were
bulldozed, including a historic library in Gjakova and several
400-year-old mosques, as well as shrines, graveyards and Dervish
monasteries, all considered idolatrous in Wahhabi teaching.
From their bases, the Saudi-trained imams
propagated Wahhabism’s tenets: the supremacy of Sharia law as well
as ideas of violent jihad and takfirism, which authorizes the
killing of Muslims considered heretics for not following its
interpretation of Islam.
The Saudi-sponsored charities often paid salaries
and overhead costs, and financed courses in religion, as well as
English and computer classes, moderate imams and investigators
But the charitable assistance often had conditions
attached. Families were given monthly stipends on the condition that
they attended sermons in the mosque and that women and girls wore
the veil, human rights activists said.
“People were so needy, there was no one who did
not join,” recalled Ajnishahe Halimi, a politician who campaigned to
have a radical Albanian imam expelled after families complained of
Within a few years of the war’s end, the older
generation of traditional clerics began to encounter aggression from
Paradoxically, some of the most serious tensions
built in Gjilan, an eastern Kosovo town of about 90,000, where up to
7,000 American troops were stationed as part of Kosovo’s United
Nations-run peacekeeping force at Camp Bondsteel.
“They came in the name of aid,” one moderate imam
in Gjilan, Enver Rexhepi, said of the Arab charities. “But they came
with a background of different intentions, and that’s where the
Islamic religion started splitting here.”
One day in 2004, he recalled, he was threatened by
one of the most aggressive young Wahhabis, Zekirja Qazimi, a former
madrasa student then in his early 20s.
Inside his mosque, Mr. Rexhepi had long displayed
an Albanian flag. Emblazoned with a double-headed eagle, it was a
popular symbol of Kosovo’s liberation struggle.
But strict Muslim fundamentalists consider the
depiction of any living being as idolatrous. Mr. Qazimi tore the
flag down. Mr. Rexhepi put it back.
“It will not go long like this,” Mr. Qazimi told
him angrily, Mr. Rexhepi recounted.
Within days, Mr. Rexhepi was abducted and savagely
beaten by masked men in woods above Gjilan. He later accused Mr.
Qazimi of having been behind the attack, but police investigations
Ten years later, in 2014, after two young Kosovars
blew themselves up in suicide bombings in Iraq and Turkey,
investigators began an extensive investigation into the sources of
radicalism. Mr. Qazimi was arrested hiding in the same woods. On
Friday, a court sentenced him to 10 years in prison after he faced
charges of inciting hatred and recruiting for a terrorist
Before Mr. Qazimi was arrested, his influence was
profound, under what investigators now say was the sway of
Egyptian-based extremists and the patronage of Saudi and other gulf
By the mid-2000s, Saudi money and Saudi-trained
clerics were already exerting influence over the Islamic Community
of Kosovo. The leadership quietly condoned the drift toward
conservatism, critics of the organization say.
Mr. Qazimi was appointed first to a village
mosque, and then to El-Kuddus mosque on the edge of Gjilan. Few
could counter him, not even Mustafa Bajrami, his former teacher, who
was elected head of the Islamic Community of Gjilan in 2012.
Mr. Bajrami comes from a prominent religious
family — his father was the first chief mufti of Yugoslavia during
the Communist period. He holds a doctorate in Islamic studies. Yet
he remembers pupils began rebelling against him whenever he spoke
He soon realized that the students were being
taught beliefs that differed from the traditional moderate
curriculum by several radical imams in lectures after hours. He
banned the use of mosques after official prayer times.
Hostility only grew. He would notice a dismissive
gesture in the congregation during his sermons, or someone would
curse his wife, or mutter “apostate” or “infidel” as he passed.
In the village, Mr. Qazimi’s influence eventually
became so disruptive that residents demanded his removal after he
forbade girls and boys to shake hands. But in Gjilan he continued to
draw dozens of young people to his after-hours classes.
“They were moving 100 percent according to lessons
they were taking from Zekirja Qazimi,” Mr. Bajrami said in an
interview. “One hundred percent, in an ideological way.”
Over time, the Saudi-trained imams expanded their
By 2004, Mr. Musliu, one of the master’s degree
students from Podujevo who studied in Saudi Arabia, had graduated
and was imam of a mosque in the capital, Pristina.
In Podujevo, he set up a local charitable
organization called Devotshmeria, or Devotion, which taught religion
classes and offered social programs for women, orphans and the poor.
It was funded by Al Waqf al Islami, a Saudi organization that was
one of the 19 eventually closed by investigators.
Mr. Musliu put a cousin, Jetmir Rrahmani, in
“Then I knew something was starting that would not
bring any good,” said Mr. Bilalli, the moderate cleric who had
started out teaching with him. In 2004, they had a core of 20
“That was only the beginning,” Mr. Bilalli said.
“They started multiplying.”
Mr. Bilalli began a vigorous campaign against the
spread of unauthorized mosques and Wahhabi teaching. In 2008, he was
elected head of the Islamic Community of Podujevo and instituted
religion classes for women, in an effort to undercut Devotshmeria.
As he sought to curb the extremists, Mr. Bilalli
received death threats, including a note left in the mosque’s alms
box. An anonymous telephone caller vowed to make him and his family
disappear, he said.
“Anyone who opposes them, they see as an enemy,”
Mr. Bilalli said.
He appealed to the leadership of the Islamic
Community of Kosovo. But by then it was heavily influenced by Arab
gulf sponsors, he said, and he received little support.
When Mr. Bilalli formed a union of fellow
moderates, the Islamic Community of Kosovo removed him from his
post. His successor, Bekim Jashari, equally concerned by the Saudi
influence, nevertheless kept up the fight.
“I spent 10 years in Arab countries and
specialized in sectarianism within Islam,” Mr. Jashari said. “It’s
very important to stop Arab sectarianism from being introduced to
Mr. Jashari had a couple of brief successes. He
blocked the Saudi-trained imam Mr. Sogojeva from opening a new
mosque, and stopped a payment of 20,000 euros, about $22,400,
intended for it from the Saudi charity Al Waqf al Islami.
He also began a website, Speak Now, to counter
Wahhabi teaching. But he remains so concerned about Wahhabi
preachers that he never lets his 19-year-old son attend prayers on
The radical imams Mr. Musliu and Mr. Sogojeva
still preach in Pristina, where for prayers they draw crowds of
young men who glare at foreign reporters.
Mr. Sogojeva dresses in a traditional robe and
banded cleric’s hat, but his newly built mosque is an incongruous
modern multistory building. He admonished his congregation with a
rapid-fire list of dos and don’ts in a recent Friday sermon.
Neither imam seems to lack funds.
In an interview, Mr. Musliu insisted that he was
financed by local donations, but confirmed that he had received
Saudi funding for his early religion courses.
The instruction, he said, is not out of line with
Kosovo’s traditions. The increase in religiosity among young people
was natural after Kosovo gained its freedom, he said.
“Those who are not believers and do not read
enough, they feel a bit shocked,” he said. “But we coordinated with
other imams, and everything was in line with Islam.”
A Tilt Toward Terrorism
The influence of the radical clerics reached its
apex with the war in Syria, as they extolled the virtues of jihad
and used speeches and radio and television talks shows to urge young
people to go there.
Mr. Qazimi, who was given the 10-year prison
sentence, even organized a summer camp for his young followers.
“It is obligated for every Muslim to participate
in jihad,” he told them in one videotaped talk. “The Prophet
Muhammad says that if someone has a chance to take part in jihad and
doesn’t, he will die with great sins.”
“The blood of infidels is the best drink for us
Muslims,” he said in another recording.
Among his recruits, investigators say, were three
former civilian employees of American contracting companies at Camp
Bondsteel, where American troops are stationed. They included
Lavdrim Muhaxheri, an Islamic State leader who was filmed executing
a man in Syria with a rocket-propelled grenade.
After the suicide bombings, the authorities opened
a broad investigation and found that the Saudi charity Al Waqf al
Islami had been supporting associations set up by preachers like Mr.
Qazimi in almost every regional town.
Al Waqf al Islami was established in the Balkans
in 1989. Most of its financing came from Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Kuwait
and Bahrain, Kosovo investigators said in recent interviews.
Unexplained gaps in its ledgers deepened suspicions that the group
was surreptitiously funding clerics who were radicalizing young
people, they said.
Investigators from Kosovo’s Financial Intelligence
Unit found that Al Waqf al Islami, which had an office in central
Pristina and a staff of 12, ran through €10 million from 2000
through 2012. Yet they found little paperwork to explain much of the
More than €1 million went to mosque building. But
one and a half times that amount was disbursed in unspecified cash
withdrawals, which may have also gone to enriching its staff, the
Only 7 percent of the budget was shown to have
gone to caring for orphans, the charity’s stated mission.
By the summer of 2014, the Kosovo police shut down
Al Waqf al Islami, along with 12 other Islamic charities, and
arrested 40 people.
The charity’s head offices, in Saudi Arabia and
the Netherlands, have since changed their name to Al Waqf,
apparently separating themselves from the Balkans operation.
Asked about the accusations in a telephone
interview, Nasr el Damanhoury, the director of Al Waqf in the
Netherlands, said he had no direct knowledge of his group’s
operations in Kosovo or the Balkans.
The charity has ceased all work outside the
Netherlands since he took over in 2013, he said. His predecessor had
returned to Morocco and could not be reached, and Saudi board
members would not comment, he said.
“Our organization has never supported extremism,”
Mr. Damanhoury said. “I have known it since 1989. I joined them
three years ago. They have always been a mild group.”
Why the Kosovar authorities — and American and
United Nations overseers — did not act sooner to forestall the
spread of extremism is a question being intensely debated.
As early as 2004, the prime minister at the time,
Bajram Rexhepi, tried to introduce a law to ban extremist sects.
But, he said in a recent interview at his home in northern Kosovo,
European officials told him that it would violate freedom of
“It was not in their interest, they did not want
to irritate some Islamic countries,” Mr. Rexhepi said. “They simply
did not do anything.”
Not everyone was unaware of the dangers, however.
At a meeting in 2003, Richard C. Holbrooke, once
the United States special envoy to the Balkans, warned Kosovar
leaders not to work with the Saudi Joint Relief Committee for
Kosovo, an umbrella organization of Saudi charities whose name still
appears on many of the mosques built since the war, along with that
of the former Saudi interior minister, Prince Naif bin Abdul-Aziz.
A year later, it was among several Saudi
organizations that were shut down in Kosovo when it came under
suspicion as a front for Al Qaeda. Another was Al-Haramain, which in
2004 was designated by the United States Treasury Department as
having links to terrorism.
Yet even as some organizations were shut down,
others kept working. Staff and equipment from Al-Haramain shifted to
Al Waqf al Islami, moderate imams familiar with their activities
In recent years, Saudi Arabia appears to have
reduced its aid to Kosovo. Kosovo Central Bank figures show grants
from Saudi Arabia averaging €100,000 a year for the past five years.
It is now money from Kuwait, Qatar and the United
Arab Emirates — which each average approximately €1 million a year —
that propagates the same hard-line version of Islam. The payments
come from foundations or individuals, or sometimes from the Ministry
of Zakat (Almsgiving) from the various governments, Kosovo’s
But payments are often diverted through a second
country to obscure their origin and destination, they said. One
transfer of nearly €500,000 from a Saudi individual was frozen in
2014 since it was intended for a Kosovo teenager, according to the
investigators and a State Department report.
Al Qaeda and other terrorist organizations were
still raising millions from “deep-pocket donors and charitable
organizations” based in the gulf, the Treasury under secretary for
terrorism and financial intelligence, David S. Cohen, said in a
speech in 2014 at the Center for a New American Security.
While Saudi Arabia has made progress in stamping
out funding for Al Qaeda, sympathetic donors in the kingdom were
still funding other terrorist groups, he said.
Today the Islamic Community of Kosovo has been so
influenced by the largess of Arab donors that it has seeded
prominent positions with radical clerics, its critics say.
Ahmet Sadriu, a spokesman for Islamic Community of
Kosovo, said the group held to Kosovo’s traditionally tolerant
version of Islam. But calls are growing to overhaul an organization
now seen as having been corrupted by outside forces and money.
Kosovo’s interior minister, Skender Hyseni, said
he had recently reprimanded some of the senior religious officials.
“I told them they were doing a great disservice to
their country,” he said in an interview. “Kosovo is by definition,
by Constitution, a secular society. There has always been
historically an unspoken interreligious tolerance among Albanians
here, and we want to make sure that we keep it that way.”
For some in Kosovo, it may already be too late.
Families have been torn apart. Some of Kosovo’s
best and brightest have been caught up in the lure of jihad.
One of Kosovo’s top political science graduates,
Albert Berisha, said he left in 2013 to help the Syrian people in
the uprising against the government of President Bashar al-Assad. He
abandoned his attempt after only two weeks — and he says he never
joined the Islamic State — but has been sentenced to three and a
half years in prison, pending appeal.
Ismet Sakiqi, an official in the prime minister’s
office and a veteran of the liberation struggle, was shaken to find
his 22-year-old son, Visar, a law student, arrested on his way
through Turkey to Syria with his fiancée. He now visits his son in
the same Kosovo prison where he was detained under Serbian rule.
And in the hamlet of Busavate, in the wooded hills
of eastern Kosovo, a widower, Shemsi Maliqi, struggles to explain
how his family has been divided. One of his sons, Alejhim, 27, has
taken his family to join the Islamic State in Syria.
It remains unclear how Alejhim became radicalized.
He followed his grandfather, training as an imam in Gjilan, and
served in the village mosque for six years. Then, two years ago, he
asked his father to help him travel to Egypt to study.
Mr. Maliqi still clings to the hope that his son
is studying in Egypt rather than fighting in Syria. But Kosovo’s
counterterrorism police recently put out an international arrest
warrant for Alejhim.
“Better that he comes back dead than alive,” Mr.
Maliqi, a poor farmer, said. “I sent him to school, not to war. I
sold my cow for him.”
Alejhim had married a woman from the nearby
village of Vrbice who was so conservative that she was veiled up to
her eyes and refused to shake hands with her brother-in-law.
The wife’s mother angrily refused to be
interviewed. Her daughter did what was expected and followed her
husband to Syria, she said.
Secretly, Alejhim drew three others — his sister;
his best friend, who married his sister; and his wife’s sister — to
follow him to Syria, too. The others have since returned, but remain
radical and estranged from the family.
Alejhim’s uncle, Fehmi Maliqi, like the rest of
the family, is dismayed. “It’s a catastrophe,” he said.