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Drivers of Radicalization and Violent Extremism in Kosovo: Women’s Roles in Supporting, Preventing & Fighting Violent Extremism

Anne Speckhard, Ph.D.

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Executive Summary

Since the start of the Syrian conflict in 2011, estimates are that upwards of 38,000 foreign fighters have joined Sunni militant groups, such as ISIS and al-Qaeda, in Iraq and Syria. As of mid-October 2016, the Balkan country of Kosovo had 316 confirmed cases of individuals who have traveled since 2012 to Syria and Iraq, with some joining ISIS. In fact, Kosovo has the unique distinction of having the highest per capita number of citizens of any country in wider Europe who left for Syria and Iraq since 2011. Forty-four women and 29 children from Kosovo are also believed to have traveled to the conflict zones in Iraq and Syria.

While many other radicalizing factors and vulnerabilities exist in Kosovo, the long-term psychological legacy of the Kosovo war in the late 90s remains the most salient radicalizing factor in recent years. The findings in this report also serves to raise further awareness of women’s roles in both propagating and countering violent extremism in Kosovo. Despite being portrayed as traditional wives obedient to their husbands and without much personal agency on their movement into joining a terrorist group in Iraq and Syria, this research revealed instances of women willing to defy cultural norms and embrace the adventurous path to extremism and violence, including spiritual and materialistic rewards promised in Syria and Iraq.

This report is divided into three sections. The first section consists of an examination of drivers or radicalization, including radicalization leading to violent extremism, in Kosovo. The second section introduces a discussion on Kosovar women’s specific vulnerabilities and roles in violent extremism. The last sections offer specific policy recommendations.


This report explores the drivers of radicalization, including radicalization leading to violence, in Kosovo. It also addresses the roles of women in supporting, joining, intervening in, and preventing violent extremism in Kosovo. The research is based on a desk review of research and interviews conducted with a range of subjects, including extremists and their family members, most conducted during October 2016, and previous research on the topic. During two decades of researching hundreds of terrorists, the first author found the usual and necessary components to make a terrorist include: a group, its ideology, social support, and individual vulnerabilities and motivations which break out depending on whether one lives in a conflict zone our outside of one.[1] In the case of Kosovo, the primary groups operating and radicalizing Kosovars into violent extremism are militant jihadi groups operating in Syria. The fact that many Kosovars directly experienced the armed inter-ethnic conflict of the late 90s—ceased as a result of a foreign humanitarian military intervention, and in some cases foreign fighters who came to assist their Muslims “brothers”—many Kosovars felt a duty and strong responsibility to assist their Sunni Muslim “brothers and sisters” against Assad’s atrocities as the Syrian uprising moved into violent conflict. In this regard, arguably, Kosovo has the unique distinction of being overrepresented in per capita numbers for the foreign fighters who have gone from its soil to fight in Syria and Iraq. While many other radicalizing factors and vulnerabilities exist in Kosovo, the Syrian conflict and groups calling for foreign fighters to assist them remain the most salient radicalizing factor in recent years.

Estimates are that since the start of the Syrian conflict in 2011, upwards of 38,000 foreign fighters have joined Sunni militant groups, such as ISIS and al-Qaeda, in Iraq and Syria.[2] Roughly 5,000 have joined from Western Europe, of which roughly 3,700 have originated from France, Germany, Belgium, and U.K. It is estimated that 875 have originated from the Balkans, of which almost 800 are reported to have come from the western Balkan countries of Kosovo, Albania, Bosnia, and Macedonia.[3]

On a per capita basis, specifically per million of its citizens, these four Western Balkan countries have a higher representation of foreign fighters compared to the four Western European countries with the highest per capita foreign fighters. As of mid-October 2016, Kosovo had 316 confirmed cases of individuals who have traveled since 2012 to Syria and Iraq, with many joining ISIS. Kosovo has the unique distinction of having the highest per capita number of citizens of any country in wider Europe who left for Syria and Iraq since 2011.[4] Forty-four women and 29 children are believed to have traveled to the conflict area as well.

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The issue of foreign fighters and their involvement in the Syrian and the Iraq conflict, including the rising fears that returnees from the Syrian and the Iraq conflict may plot attacks in their home countries, has created concerns at the highest levels of the Balkan political order and has prompted important changes in legal reforms and legislation. In this regard, Kosovo has adopted the Law on the Prohibition of Joining Armed Conflicts Outside State Territory, which criminalizes recruitment and participation in foreign conflicts, as well as introduced strategic documents and civil society programs to address the issue of radicalization and extremism in the country. Equally important, international bodies, such as UNDP, have undertaken varying roles in assessing the conditions leading to radicalization, including informing the country’s important national strategies on prevention of violent extremism.

The aforementioned reflect Kosovo’s and the international community’s resolve and simultaneous and complementary efforts to prevent the spread of violent extremism in the country. Despite strong and effective responses on the part of the Kosovo government and the international community to halt support for violent extremism and travel to Syria and Iraq, the current situation remains both dangerous and volatile. Foreign fighters in Syria and Iraq are expected to return home, and some who are not originally from the Balkans may even choose to migrate to the Balkans if they find that they can slip in and live under the radar of government and security services. Security officials and law enforcement shared that those who are known to the police would be arrested upon their return and subsequently convicted and imprisoned if deemed a threat to society. However, they also pointed out that there are others who may have already falsely declared themselves killed in Syria and Iraq, or who will do so, and then surreptitiously return to live secretly in Kosovo without identity documents. Likewise, extremist ideologies and groups supporting these ideologies continue to thrive in Kosovo, despite the likely defeat of ISIS in Iraq and Syria, alongside socio-economic factors that create vulnerabilities to these ideologies, making for continued radicalization a reality even if terrorist groups such as ISIS and al-Nusra fail to continue to succeed in their activities in Syria and Iraq.[7]

Indeed, the migration back to Kosovo of extremists may increase the short and long-term dangers to Kosovo if prevention, intervention, and remediation efforts are not planned now and carried out well in the coming months and years. This requires gaining a thorough understanding of the actors involved, their pathways into extremist violence, and taking effective steps to block such trajectories, specifically by stopping ideological preaching in support of violent extremism, discrediting terrorist ideologies, preventing face-to-face and the Internet-based recruitment and financing, and, most importantly, addressing the underlying factors that create both vulnerabilities and motivations for individuals to want to join such groups as well as support them on an ideological and operational level. For those already on the terrorist trajectory, effective steps must be taken to reverse them and prevent such individuals from seeding themselves both in prisons and outside of them—spreading the danger to Kosovar society. This requires thorough knowledge, monitoring, and good rehabilitation programs for those already deeply involved. There will also be those who cannot be rehabilitated, which will require suitable prison practices to keep such individuals isolated from other prisoners vulnerable to being recruited.

While there is a broad, national-level discussion on violent extremism in the country, there is a limited discussion on the role of women as supporters, facilitators, and direct participants in violent extremism. More specifically, there is limited policy or programmatic discussion on the role of women in preventing violent extremism, rehabilitating former extremists, or how they can be included in the country’s national counter-terrorism initiatives and strategies.

This report is divided into three sections. The first section consists of an examination of the drivers or radicalization, including radicalization leading to violent extremism, in Kosovo. The second section introduces a discussion on the role of women as supporters, facilitators, and direct participant in violent extremism in Kosovo. Women in Kosovo play important roles in violent extremist groups, such as ISIS and al-Nusra, and display a great deal of personal agency both in fighting against violent extremism and in taking part in such groups when they find them attractive. The last sections offer specific policy recommendations.

Defining Violent Extremism

This section will briefly cover constructs such as radicalization and violent extremism. To fully understand policy implications of the intended research, the readers must become familiar with the constructs that form its foundation. The terms such as radicalism, radicalization, and violent extremism remain poorly defined and understood. While some authors equate radicalization with terrorism, radicalization is often a precondition to terrorism,[8] while others point out that it is not always the first step toward terrorism or violence. [9] In either case, radicalization represents a “process by which individuals are introduced to an overtly ideological message and belief system that encourages movement from moderate mainstream beliefs towards extreme views.” [10] Radicals are the ones who challenge status quo, though not necessarily through violent means and can also be positive forces in society. While the term radicalization is often equated with the term extremism, there are significant differences between the two. There is a distinction between “open-minded (radicals) and close-minded extremists.” [11] Many government agencies in the West tend to make a distinction between “violent” and “non-violent” extremism, the latter often referred to as “cognitive” form of radicalization,[12]with the former being a form of radicalization that endorses violent solutions to political problems, including at times terrorism.

According to the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), the term violent extremism is defined as “encouraging, condoning, justifying, or supporting the commission of a violent act to achieve political, ideological, religious, social, or economic goals.”[13] The term violent extremism is often intertwined with the term terrorism, meaning it is used synonymously with the term terrorism, and there is a lack of a precise definition of violent extremism and its relationship with terrorism. However, the UN Security Council Resolution S/RES/2178/2014, stresses the “link between violent extremism and terrorism”[14] and the need to prevent “violent extremism, which can be conducive to terrorism.” [15] While there are literally hundreds of competing definitions of terrorism, for the purpose of this report we are opting for a simple definition: political violence carried out by non-state actors and aimed at civilians for the purposes of influencing or achieving political, ideological, religious, social, or economic goals.


This report relies on field research undertaken in Kosovo between October 17th and October 26th, 2016.[16] An exploratory and qualitative research design was utilized to understand drivers of radicalization, including radicalization leading to violence, in Kosovo. The goal also was to research gender dimensions of drivers of radicalization to violent extremism as well as assess the extent to which Kosovar women’s roles are recognized and utilized for radicalization and violent extremism prevention purposes. The authors first engaged in a review of policies, strategies, and programs on countering violent extremism in the country. The focus primarily remained on understanding the extent to which current policies and programs integrated gender perspectives as well as the roles women play in violent extremist organizations. Such approach, alongside consultations with the UN Women’s Office in Pristina and the Regional Director in Istanbul, led to identifying key participants who became subjects of the research. Interviews served as the primary data collection method, along with the collection of existing and in-draft policy reports. Semi-structured and open-ended interview questions were employed to allow research participants to identify and elaborate on problem areas, explain who could be trusted for solutions, and identify key gaps and opportunities for effective interventions and solutions.

Interviews were conducted with government officials, law enforcement, members of international organizations, members of non-governmental organizations, community leaders, journalists, prosecutors, teachers, and Islamic leaders. Interviews were also conducted with extremists themselves and their family members (collected June through October 2016). Although interviews served as a primary data collection method, the authors also relied on secondary sources and secondary data analysis, including key economic, employment, social, and health factors that might have played a role. Likewise, available credible reports on the phenomena generated by government, international organizations, and NGOs were collected. The entirety was then analyzed to understand better the roles of women in violent extremism, their vulnerabilities and motivations for joining such groups, and the potential to involve them in prevention and intervention efforts from the side of government, nongovernmental, and community interventions.

The following groups of respondents were interviewed:

  • State police and security representatives
  • State civilian representatives
  • Representatives of national and international organizations, including with representatives of non-governmental organizations with knowledge and experience in issues related to violent extremism in Kosovo (OSCE, UNDP, EULEX)
  • S. Embassy representatives
  • Islamic leaders/teachers, particularly women
  • High-school teachers/School principals
  • Academic and Islamic experts
  • Community groups
  • Select UN agencies
  • Prosecutors
  • Journalists
  • Former extremists (those in prison and currently awaiting trial) and their family members (including of those deceased in Iraq and Syria). [17]

The authors worked primarily in Pristina, although they also traveled to Gjakova, Ferizaj, Prizren and other cities and regions to gain primary data from actual extremists and their family members. The authors also traveled to Ferizaj to secure a prearranged judicial permission to interview prisoners who had participated in the Syrian and the Iraq conflict. Having already entered the prisons for interviews of ISIS defectors in June 2016, the authors gained permission by a judge in Ferizaj and prison authorities to return to the High Security prison (since June 2016) to interview six additional returnees from Syria (all male); however, interviews were not allowed due to a temporary ban on prisoner visitation issued by the respective Ministry in charge of the Kosovo Correctional Service. The news came as unfortunate considering the June 2016 prison interviews with a high-profile prisoner yielded a wealth of knowledge and information on factors influencing an individual’s decision to join and disengage from terrorist groups in Iraq and Syria, including about female involvement in extremist groups, their motivations, and actual experiences of women leaving from Kosovo to join groups like ISIS in Syria and Iraq.

The authors were able to speak to two families about their family members (both sons) who had gone to Syria and about female roles in their travel to Syria that relate to prevention and spread of extremism in Kosovo. Efforts were made to have a balanced secondary (i.e. government, NGO, international organizations, etc.) and primary data sources (i.e. actual extremists and their family members) represented in these interviews, though the inability to gain access to prison at the last minute made it difficult to suddenly recruit new primary sources. Of the four women returned from Syria, Kosovo Police representatives shared that two would not speak to researchers while the one the authors of this report hoped to contact through her husband was on too short notice given we were not able to talk to him first in prison to gain his endorsement. The fourth we were unable to learn about.

The recent primary interviews carried out in June 2016 by the first author compensated greatly for this deficit, however. Some Internet content referencing such actors posted in their own words (e.g. on their social media accounts) was also collected after returning from Kosovo to enhance primary data collection. Data collection methods also consisted building upon a two-decades career of interviewing and studying extremists and terrorists around the globe and a thorough knowledge of existing literature and data on extremists and terrorist groups such as al-Nusra and ISIS. Likewise, given that the first author spent the last year interviewing ISIS defectors globally, she was quite knowledgeable about their methods of recruitment, indoctrination, networks of funding, and travel, and was able to interview explicitly on these topics with all subjects who were able to divulge information of this type. Guiding questions for the field research were sent to the UN Women’s Office both in Prishtina and in Istanbul to help with the mission preparation.

Key Findings: Trajectories into Violent Extremism and Terrorism in Kosovo

As mentioned previously, four factors are usually necessary to create a violent extremist/terrorist: a group, its ideology, social support, and individual vulnerabilities. In the case of Kosovo, groups like ISIS have been relying on a massive Internet-based propaganda campaign and face-to-face recruitment networks in the Balkans to bring the conflict zone to those outside of it. As the primary vehicles of recruitment, they have been used to seduce many Kosovars into travel to Syria, urging them to extend support to their Sunni brothers and sisters under attack from Assad—and in some cases as a form of hijrah (migration to Islamic lands) to help build the Islamic Caliphate and to take part in jihad (holy warfare). In Kosovo, the groups recruiting for travel to Syria have changed from the initial years to the present, as have the motivations of those traveling, with groups like ISIS that arose mid-conflict having found a fertile recruiting ground. The ISIS ideology and social support that is provided mainly via the Internet have found resonance in Kosovo primarily in the individual vulnerabilities and motivations that include:

  1. Strong posttraumatic and “fictive kin” identifications with Sunni Muslims being under attack as Kosovars also recently suffered the same.
  2. Humanitarian concerns and altruistic motivations.
  3. High unemployment.
  4. Material benefits of joining.
  5. The desire for personal significance.
  6. Call for jihad and End Times apocalyptic thinking.
  7. Wish to build and live inside an Islamic “Caliphate” and under Shariah law
  8. The desire and need to keep familial ties intact when one member of the family is convinced to go to Syria, etc.

While extremists in Kosovo include both men and women, the largest manifestation of them is from among the pool of those who have traveled to Syria and are predominantly male. There are also extremists operating on the ground and who are determined to attack locally, as evidenced by recent arrests of 19 individuals from Kosovo, Albania, and Macedonia suspected of planning multiple and simultaneous attacks in Kosovo and Albania, including against the Israeli national soccer team during the Albania-Israel soccer match in Albania.[18] With ISIS likely losing its ability to hold significant territory in Syria and Iraq, coupled with increasing evidence that ISIS is no longer calling for travel to these territories but instead calling for attacks at home alongside the return of ideologically and weapons trained foreign fighters, the levels of extremism in Kosovo may become more of a local problem versus one of foreign fighter recruitment.

Strictly speaking in the context of the role of Kosovar women in violent extremism, government officials stressed women as having little personal agency or knowledge on their movement into joining a terrorist group in Iraq and Syria. However, the research revealed the cases of women who were fully conscious of the kind of groups they were joining when they traveled to Syria and Iraq, with some even becoming ISIS recruiters. These women seem to defy cultural norms and embrace the adventurous path to violent extremism, including the materialistic and spiritual benefits promised in Syria and Iraq. There were also those who enthusiastically supported their husbands in joining, wanted to move their families to live under traditional Islam and who wholeheartedly believed in the dream of the utopian ISIS “Caliphate” and wanted to play a role in building it. Their engagement may be an expression of empowerment via a terrorist group that offered salaries to both men and women and free housing, of frustrated aspirations, desire for a positive identity, purpose, dignity and a conscious rejection of what the post-Soviet/post-Yugoslav state and society has offered them. There are young women-sometimes married with children – who fall for ISIS’s skillfully-presented romantic narrative and often seek to pursue a jihadi love. They may also be attracted to the notions of moral certainty, purity, and the unity of people irrespective of ethnicity, social equality, and justice that ISIS claims in its online sites and through face-to-face recruitment networks.

Radicalization and Foreign Fighter Data

The Kosovo Police Anti-Terrorist Directorate estimated there are 316 cases of individuals who have traveled since 2012 to Syria and Iraq, with many joining ISIS. Forty-four (44) of these are believed to be women, 29 children, and 38 with dual citizenship. It is estimated that approximately 75 male foreign fighters accompanied by 40 women and 29 kids (total 144) are still active. Fifty-seven (57) are estimated to have died; most likely while trying to escape. Government sources have also reported that it remains unclear whether those deceased had committed suicide or died in the battlefield.[19] Depending on the estimates, one hundred and seventeen (117) to one hundred twenty (120) have already returned, with only four (4) women among them. Between 2013 and July 2016, upwards of 292 individuals suspected of either engaging in terrorism-related activities or for promoting religiously-driven radicalization were kept under close police surveillance. Moreover, since 2013, there were up to 237 terrorism-related criminal investigations initiated/charges brought against individuals involving participation in terrorist groups, financing, recruiting, etc. As a result, 119 have been arrested (See Table Two for further breakdown).[20] Forty-four women and 29 children are believed to have traveled to the conflict area as well.

As we know of some cases that were never reported to the government, this may not represent all. Kosovo police emphasized that not all went to fight for extremist groups; some went to live what they believed to be an Islamic life under the “Caliphate.” Likewise, some had children born there and raised with no knowledge of their home country language or culture.

Table Two: Data on Foreign Fighters/Involvement in Iraq and Syria

Total participating since the beginning of conflict 316[21]
Currently living in conflict zones 144
Women 44
Children currently present in conflict zones 29
Intercepted before leaving 40
Dual citizenship holders 38
Declared dead 57
Currently engaged in fighting 75
Number of returnees 117-120
Number of criminal investigations initiated/criminal charges brought 199-237
Number of arrested 102-119
Number of indicted 70-92
Number of sentenced 34-40

Source: Kosovo Police, Prishtina Insight, and Radio Free Europe (2016).[22]

Demographic data on Kosovo Balkan foreign fighters are either lacking or are incomplete. Some may also be hidden from authorities by covering their travel to Syria as work migration or other travel, or simply having gone unnoticed by authorities and unreported by their families and community members who may fear the repercussions for them should they return to Kosovo. From the available statistics, it stands that a majority of those for whom data exist are aged between 18-27. However, government sources have also reported a decrease in the average age of those “indoctrinated” into violent extremism.[23] Interviews with police and prosecutors revealed that a majority of them (approximately 60 %) come from average or above-average economic background whereas the rest come from poor backgrounds. That said, the sample size is relatively small and reflects data for approximately half of the total who have participated in the Syrian and the Iraq conflict. [24] Relying on the same data pool and for whom data is already available, anywhere from 80-85 % of them had finished high school, 10 % college-level education, and the rest had only finished elementary education.

Most of them had only finished high school. Some are married with kids. Approximately 60 of them came from two major cities in Kosovo, Prizren and Prishtina, respectively. While all municipalities were affected by the phenomenon of foreign fighters, the municipalities of Viti, Gjilan, Kacanik, Mitrovica, and Hani i Elezit have higher recruitment rate (on a per capita basis), even though they account for anywhere from 16-18 percent of the country’s total population.[25] Some suggest that proximity of Kacanik to the border with Macedonia, for instance, have created vulnerabilities for recruitment “due to hardline preachers [in Macedonia] who remain unchecked.”[26] Some blame such trends on the lack of job prospects and opportunities, including high unemployment rates.[27] Some also suggested recruitment efforts of extremist networks in the capital of Macedonia, which also happens to be close to municipalities of southern Kosovo (i.e. Kacanik and Viti).[28]

Nearly all of the 44 women who went to Syria and Iraq are usually described as being in their 20s, married at a young age, having embraced new conservative forms of Islam recently, and having experienced some traumatic event.[29] There was at least one single woman who left to join what she believed to be a “utopian” state, expecting to marry there. The rates of return for Kosovar women are only 9% (4/44) versus 41% (113/272) for men. Only one returned with her husband, the other three were widowed in the conflict zones, and one of them has apparently been charged but not imprisoned.[30] Even though it is likely that most women from Kosovo in ISIS provided only support functions as wives to combatants, Kosovo law enforcement also described an outlier to this stereotype: the case of Qamile Tahiri, a 23-year-old woman from Mitrovica who joined her husband in the “Islamic State” and is believed to run a women’s camp for ISIS in Syria—housing women from Kosovo, Albania, and Macedonia. She also serves as an online recruiter of ethnic Albanian women.

Discussion and Analysis

Changing Motivational and Ideological Sets

The involvement of foreign fighters from Kosovo in the Syrian and the Iraq conflict occurred at different times and involved changing motivational sets and ideological influences, as well as morphing groups calling them to the conflict. The first major wave of Kosovo foreign fighters traveling to the conflict zone occurred around mid-2012, where a number of individuals traveled to Syria primarily to join disparate rebel regiments that later coalesced into the Free Syrian Army (FSA)

Humanitarian and Altruistic Motivations alongside Strong Posttraumatic Identifications with Victims of Interethnic and Sectarian Conflicts

For the first wave of foreign fighters to Syria, humanitarian reasons were the most commonly cited reasons for joining the conflict. The long-term psychological legacy of war and genocide from the Kosovo war of 1999 still casts a long shadow in Kosovo, creating serious vulnerabilities to terrorist recruitment. The background of having experienced the Kosovo war, either through hearing about it from relatives or directly experiencing war traumas in childhood (e.g. seeing or hearing about Serb soldiers’ atrocities), and remembering that it was a foreign humanitarian intervention that saved Kosovars caused many in the first and later waves to deeply identify with what they referred to as their “Sunni brothers and sisters” suffering from Assad’s atrocities. It is notable that many leaving in this first wave of foreign fighters referenced the then Kosovo Foreign Minister’s strong support for Syria’s opposition forces and encouragement to join the conflict to oust Bashar al-Assad and his regime. [31]However, even though motivations were simpler and less endorsing of terrorism in the first wave, it was clear that even then clandestine recruitment networks and financing for travel to Syria were in operation inside Kosovo.

The ability and mastery of groups in Syria to utilize social media to vividly portray the conflicts in Syria to those living outside the conflict zone cannot be underestimated as a strongly motivating factor for Kosovars to become foreign fighters. Many told us in our June and October interviews of viewing videos of the regime’s atrocities towards civilians and feeling acutely sensitive to wanting to help their Syrian “Sunni brothers and sisters.” In this sense, they identified with the Syrians on a religious basis, from common experience and on a “fictive kin” basis—feeling a deep and strong responsibility to go and fight in their defense. Even though a number of individuals had returned by the end of 2013/early 2014—after having witnessed the harsh realities of the conflict on the ground—others started joining terrorist groups that emerged during those years, such as ISIS and al-Nusra. [32]

Hijrah, Jihad, End Time Prophetic Thinking and The Call of the “Caliphate”

Since it declared its “Caliphate” in 2013, ISIS began promoting it as an ideal, utopian Islamic state where justice and prosperity would ultimately reign. ISIS also began announcing and promoting it as a place where Muslims of every race and ethnicity would be included and given significant roles, which created an unprecedented response, not only in Kosovo but also worldwide.[33]

The ISIS invitation to jihad was successful for numerous reasons, including the advent of social media and the ability to cast an enormous propaganda net with immediate feedback as to who liked, retweeted, and otherwise endorsed their materials, allowing ISIS recruiters to contact vulnerable individuals and seduce them into traveling to the battleground. Among those Kosovars who have traveled to Iraq and Syria during the last two years, or are currently engaged with terrorist groups in Iraq and Syria, specifically those who we were able to access for interviews directly or indirectly through relatives as well as gain information through data from police reports, it was clear that religious and ideological motives that invoked the struggle as jihad in the name of Allah and ideological motives that called for protection of all Muslims and the creation of an “Islamic State” were the most commonly cited reasons for joining terrorist groups, and remain among the primary motivating factors.[34]

ISIS propaganda very strongly promotes the individual responsibility of all Muslims to take hijrah (migration to Islamic lands) as well as the individual duty to fight jihad (fard al-ayn). Likewise, ISIS also preaches End Times prophetic theology, citing the coming battles in Dabiq (Syria) and inviting all Muslims to join the ultimate apocalyptic battles. The ideological call is made to invoke a sense of duty while also promising materialistic and spiritual benefits (e.g. free housing, cars, food and propane allowances, the promise of marriage and sex slaves, and the rewards of “martyrdom” for those who die in battle, etc.) alongside the chance to live by what ISIS proclaimed as a truly Islamic lifestyle under Shariah law.

The terrorist groups’ propaganda and appealing narratives spread prolifically over the Internet, showing both the atrocities of Assad and the appeal of joining the End Times prophetic battle and building the “Caliphate” alongside the spiritual and materialistic benefits accrued by doing so, thus creating a powerful worldwide appeal. It was one that resonated especially to Kosovars who strongly identified with the victims of interethnic and sectarian conflict. Likewise, recruitment by Albanian leaders in the battlefield—made clear that Albanians could aspire to become prominent players in this “Caliphate”—as well as networks operating on the ground in Kosovo providing financing and logistical support to travel to Syria—easily facilitated the movement of Kosovars into the conflict zone.

It should be noted, however, that not all Kosovars went to Syria and Iraq with the intention of fighting. As informed by the Kosovo police some went simply to pursue a life inside the ISIS “Caliphate,” traveling with their families to the conflict zone to live in the “Islamic State” according to what they believed would be the “righteous principles” of Islam and not to necessarily participate in hostilities.[35] What happened once there was another story, however.

Foreign Assistance and Muslim Identity as a Vulnerability and Motivating Factor

The majority of Muslims in Kosovo follows and practices the Hanafi school of Islam, a traditionally liberal and moderate version of Islam. With the fall of the former Yugoslavia and following the Kosovo war of 1999, Turkey and Gulf countries entered helping to rebuild mosques, the later introducing Salafi and Wahhabi streams of Islam into the country and creating identity confusion for some Kosovars. Salafi Islam can be protective against militant jihadi ideologies of groups like ISIS and al-Qaeda if taught in ways that denounce their call to violence in the name of jihad and Takfiri extremes (i.e. denouncing and allowing for killing Muslims and others who do not adhere to their strict interpretations of Islam). However, if it is not taught in this manner, Salafi streams of Islam can also provide a ready gateway into more extremist Takfiri streams of thinking and acting.

In the case of ISIS, black and white thinking and a clear Muslim identity are promised to those who travel to live under the “Caliphate,” thereby removing any questions in those searching for their identity and trying to find their way living, according to ISIS, as a true and good Muslim.

Desire for Freedom from Repressive Government Policies and Islamophobia

For those practicing Salafi Islam and associated with mosques and towns where there are many who traveled to Syria, government surveillance can be a motivating factor. The desire to practice Islam and live by Shariah practices without government surveillance and interference or Islamophobic attitudes by moderate or secular Kosovars was a motivating factor for some.

Repressive or Dysfunctional Family Dynamics

Similarly, the ability to escape overly strict and conservative families and their expectations or dysfunctional families motivated others to break loose by traveling to Syria and Iraq. Our respondents shared how those living in dysfunctional families and overly strict families were also vulnerable to recruitment into terrorist organizations in Iraq and Syria due to the neglect and failure on the part of family members to fulfill their emotional needs for “acceptance, purpose, and some kind of security.” [36]One of the respondents shared the case of a young male who had difficulties living in a single parent family and who stressed difficulties in coping with everyday economic problems and the inability on the part of his family to provide for his well- being. Conditions such as these create vulnerabilities for easy recruitment into terrorist groups.[37]

Ignorance, Lack of Education, and Illiteracy as Vulnerabilities

Kosovo police reported on the naiveté of poor and rural Kosovars, stating that many are aware of work migrants to Europe and believe it is like landing in Paradise. Because of these positive examples of migration, they also are easily convinced the same about Syria when sold that view by terrorist recruiters. Likewise, in Kosovo, as elsewhere affected by terrorism, foreign recruitment into groups like ISIS is often facilitated by arguing with recruits that the recruiter can speak Arabic, whereas the recruit cannot. Therefore, they are told they should not question the Koran as interpreted to them by the recruiter able to read the Koran in its original language and interpret it as placing the duties of hijrah, jihad, protection of the Muslim ummah, and building the “Caliphate” upon them.

Unemployment and Poor Economic Conditions as Vulnerability

According to Kosovo Police, the male foreign fighters from Kosovo typically drawn into Syria and Iraq may be characterized as young, lacking education (i.e. higher level education), having criminal backgrounds, and coming from poor economic upbringings, although data on a limited sample size, including a predominantly self-reported data after arrest, suggests a majority of them having come from average or above average economic backgrounds. [38] Younger populations and poor economic conditions among the predominantly young (including Kosovo) make Balkan countries particularly susceptible to radicalization, including radicalization leading to violence (See below).

Table Three: Balkan Youth Unemployment (as % of total labor force, ages 15-24)

Country 2009 2010 2011 2012 2013 2014 2015
Kosovo 73.0 55.3 60.2
Albania 25.2 25.8 27.0 28.3 28.7 29.2 NA
Serbia 41.7 45.5 50.4 50.6 49.7 49.5 NA
Macedonia 55.2 53.7 55.4 53.8 51.8 50.8 NA
Montenegro 35.8 46.0 37.2 41.3 40.5 39.5 NA
Romania 21.0 22.3 23.9 22.8 23.8 25.1 NA
Greece 25.5 32.4 44.1 54.7 58.0 53.9 NA
Bulgaria 16.0 22.9 25.2 28.2 29.7 25.9 NA

Source: The World Bank, Kosovo Agency of Statistics, and UNDP (2015-2016).[39]

When one studies the chart above, it must be noted that unemployment alone is not a sufficient motivator to join violence; exposure to terrorist groups and their ideologies alongside social support for taking part in extremism clearly plays a role in who becomes a foreign fighter or terrorist. Strong resonance in Kosovo with Islamic terrorist groups’ demands that one must fulfill duties to the Muslim ummah and fight jihad, clearly exists much stronger in Kosovo than in Greece, for instance, where the population are primarily Christian, although one can see a similar alarming youth unemployment rate. Among unemployed or underemployed Greek youth we see that instead of responding to Internet-based call of groups like ISIS and al Nusra as a response to their poor economic conditions, those drawn into extremism instead tend to respond to anarchists groups that have a history of operating there.[40] Thus, it is important to understand that while high youth unemployment is an important vulnerability leading to radicalization and movement into terrorist groups in Kosovo (as elsewhere affected by terrorism), it still requires a group, ideology, and social support to exploit this vulnerability for violence and terrorism.[41]

Material Benefits of Joining

ISIS foreign fighters are promised salaries, free housing, food and propane allowances, the possibility of cars, arranged marriages, and sex slaves. The group sends out pictures of large homes with swimming pools as possibilities—so seductive that a thirteen- year- old from U.K. being groomed for travel to ISIS reported she thought she would be traveling to ISIS Disneyland if she joined.[42]

When asked about his pay, one Kosovar foreigner fighter to ISIS reported his monthly salary as being equal to those of “high paying politicians in the country [Kosovo],” which is a tempting alternative compared to the average monthly salary of $200 in Kosovo.[43] In addition to high salaries, some reported supplementary income in the thousands of dollars derived from looting houses in territory that ISIS overtook or large bonuses for taking part in ISIS raids.[44]

Unmarried men and women with poor prospects of marriage also might find the allure to ISIS powerful propaganda. Many respondents stressed how often unemployed men in Kosovo find it hard to obtain wives but are promised them inside ISIS, as are women promised husbands, and free housing and the ability to practice a traditional lifestyle.

Desire for Personal Significance

Underemployment and unemployment create a vacuum of personal significance and life purpose. ISIS leadership, by contrast, is filled with vocal Albanian leaders calling their peers to jihad in Syria and Iraq. As role models, they promise Albanian men, in particular, the possibility of significant leadership roles in what appeared for some time to many vulnerable persons a realistic emerging “Caliphate.”

Familial Ties

Females who traveled to Syria from Kosovo, as discussed in the ensuing sections, were nearly all married. When wives do accompany their husbands, it appears to often be out of desire and need to keep familial ties intact, financial dependency and fear of abandonment and hardship if left behind as well as traditional mores of obeying the demands of one’s spouse. In some cases, entire families traveled together to Syria. While in many instances law enforcement officials depicted wives who traveled to Syria as traditional wives obedient to their husbands and without much personal agency, our research shows that there are also many counter examples to this with women encouraging their husbands to go and being active decision makers alongside their husbands. Moreover, the trend of Kosovar women accompanying their husbands may indicate their commitment to the cause, which also may explain the low return rate relative to their male counterparts (i.e. nine vs. forty- one percent as depicted below).

In summary, the trajectories into violent extremism and terrorism in Kosovo share commonalities with other theaters, but as research has shown in multiple other venues, the individual motivations and vulnerabilities for terrorism are always contextual. That said, the lethal cocktail of terrorism nearly always involves exposure to a terrorist group, it’s ideology, and some level of social support for endorsing both. Vulnerabilities and motivating factors alone are not sufficient to make a violent extremist.[45]

Women Specific Vulnerabilities and Roles in Violent Extremism

Estimates are that of the 316 Kosovars who have traveled to Syria and Iraq to join Islamic State, around forty-four (44) are females and girls. These figures are tentative, however, as some parents and families do not report their foreign fighter relatives to the authorities for various reasons. Similar to many parts of the world, there is no single explanation on the motivations that drive women to join Islamic State, which represents a challenge when it comes to seeking solutions to minimize the risk and recruitment of Kosovar women into terrorist organizations. However, all of the factors discussed previously alongside those specific to women are active among Kosovar females.

Familial Ties and Female Agency

With regards to female travelers to Syria, it is noteworthy to mention that nearly all of the 44 women accompanied their spouses and did not travel alone to be wed there, the latter normally expected of women in extremist groups. According to law enforcement, most women who left to join Islamic State were married and left with or to follow their husbands who were already on the battlefield, although there was at least one case of a single women who have left to join for what they believed to be a “utopian” state, expecting to marry once there.

Kosovo police stated that travel with husbands was due to hierarchical, traditional family structures in which women are expected to follow the lead of their husbands. For instance, a law enforcement official shared, “We interviewed a mother whose daughter was there with her husband. She told us, ‘She is where is where she supposed to be, with her husband.’ A wife is supposed to obey the husband. The majority thinks this way.”[46]

While this may be true, police intercepts, according to a journalist we interviewed who had access to the data, showed women having more agency than police credit them for, praising their husbands via social media and texts for joining ISIS and winning a salary for their family by doing so.[47] Kosovo Police also mentioned the case of a woman who had left alone with her children to presumably to find a living and to marry, which also shows a great deal of personal agency on her part, albeit in response to desperate economic conditions.

While those who followed their husbands were characterized by police as having no real sense of personal agency, that seems unlikely given one Kosovar female, Qamile Tahiri, has become a leading ideologue from the battlefield and many of them also appear to have endorsed the idea of building a utopian “Caliphate. ‘According to Kosovo Police, 23-year-old Qamile Tahiri from the city of Mitrovica who joined her husband in the Islamic State is believed to run a women’s camp for ISIS in Syria—housing women from Kosovo, Albania, and Macedonia—and serves as an online recruiter of ethnic female Albanians. [48]

While female agency in deciding to go to Syria and Iraq mostly likely exists in greater proportion than male police credit them with, females whose husbands were determined to go created both opportunities and vulnerabilities for Kosovar females. In one case a police intercept (reported to us by a journalist) showed a woman encouraging her husband in his foreign fighter role and praised him for the salary he was managing somehow to send back to Kosovo for her and their children.

On the other side, police also shared about the complexities of women being left behind by their husbands—that they can face dire circumstances and may accompany for that reason as well: “In Kosovo, people have a lot of economic problems. The unemployment rate is very high. There is extreme poverty. People are trying to survive and make choices because of that. For instance, a husband went to fight in Syria. The municipality stopped social health benefits to her and her kids so she followed him in order to survive. She couldn’t feed the family.” Another woman traveled with her children to ISIS to obtain a husband and living for herself and her children.[49]

Female Roles in Extremist Groups

ISIS and al Nusra limit women’s roles by encouraging them to be in traditional marriages and bear children for the cause. However, ISIS encourages foreign fighter females to join the hisbah, and also allows them to teach, provide health care, and carry out other roles as long as these roles are segregated to interacting with children and other women. Some are put to the task of online recruiting.[50] For example, Qamile Tahiri (as mentioned above) who traveled to Syria became a leader. She ran an ISIS camp as well as serves as an online recruiter—the latter a role that we also learned was common for female foreign fighters to take inside ISIS.[51]

According to Kosovo Police, only one or two females are believed to be involved in the fighting, mainly because, as explained by the police, they had lost their husbands in the conflict and thus became more radicalized. [52] While this may hold true, our previous research with ISIS defectors found female roles in ISIS to be extremely limited when it comes to combat. They included being armed to serve in the ISIS hisbah (morality police), and are sometimes recruited for suicide missions. No one in our larger project reported to us about women joining actual battles.[53]

Escaping ISIS and Terrorism

Likewise, notable is the fact that the numbers of women returning are proportionally much smaller than of men. The rates of return for Kosovar women are only nine percent (4/44) versus forty-one percent (113/272) for men. It is unlikely that so many more women were killed, but this may point to unique vulnerabilities of women when it comes to escaping ISIS. Women who are widowed when their fighter husbands are killed are expected and heavily coerced to remarry. Married they live under the control of their new spouses. In the brief time they find themselves unmarried, they likely find it extremely difficult to escape ISIS unaided. To escape, they need to have access to funds—which their husbands likely controlled, and to be able to secretly find and hire a smuggler, and then may be raped or have sexual favors extorted by the smuggler, a common story in our larger ISIS defector interviews project.

Vulnerabilities Specific to Female Returnees

The likely imminent return of foreign fighters to Kosovo occurring, as the ability of ISIS to hold territory is destroyed, also means more terrorist convictions and imprisonments of married male foreign fighters with their wives perhaps not receiving convictions. Judging by existing cases, no females have thus far been imprisoned for traveling to ISIS. This likely means that spouses of imprisoned foreign fighters will live in the communities likely experiencing social stigma and extreme vulnerability.

Of the four females who have returned from Syria, those still dangerous remain under police surveillance. One is married to a convicted and still ISIS endorsing prisoner. She, according to police, continues to stay in Internet touch with those still in ISIS and is very much under the control of her ISIS endorsing husband. Another is remarried and has firmly redirected her life out of the violent extremist path. No information was available about the other two.

Local Female Roles in Extremism

No female recruiters or ideologues were identified as active inside of Kosovo, although one woman who traveled to Syria actively tries to recruit other women from the battlefield. Female family members also act as facilitators and encouragers to travel into terrorist groups. In one case, we learned of a male foreign fighter who got both his wife and mother’s blessing before leaving for the Free Syrian Army and upon his return, leaving again to ISIS.[54]

Family members often say they were blindsided by their sons or daughters leaving for Syria, yet they also praise them in death referring to them as “martyrs,” thereby glorifying their roles in terrorist groups, perhaps creating social support for others to follow in their path. Likewise, many parents stated that their daughters were correct to dutifully follow their husbands. While these family members are hardly extremists, they contribute to a narrative of passive duty for females to follow their husbands even into “jihad” in extremely dangerous conflict zones and glorifying deaths of those who die there. Glorifying death in “jihad” as “martyrdom” also contributes to the militant jihadi narrative. While these family members might, if worked with, provide powerful examples of the painfulness and price paid when their adult children leave for Syria, they have been largely ostracized and left alone to deal with their grief and confusion.

Legal infrastructure: International and Governmental and non-governmental Response

To combat violent extremism and terrorism in the country, the Kosovo government has introduced new terrorism-related legal reforms to its Criminal Code. Such reforms are intended to strengthen police investigative powers and border security, raise punishments for terrorism-related crimes, and establish additional terrorism-related offenses.  The Law on Prohibition of Joining Armed Conflicts Outside State Territory adopted in 2015 made participation in foreign conflicts a crime punishable by up to 15 years in prison. The law criminalized actions of individuals who “organize, recruit, encourage, lead, or train people or groups by people with the goal of joining or participating in foreign armies or police forces.”[55] The law, however, does not apply in the case of individuals currently serving with military or police formations of internationally recognized organizations or foreign governments and in the case of Kosovo nationals who hold dual citizenship. [56] Developed jointly and in coordination with government representatives (i.e. Office of the Prime Minister, Ministry of Education, Ministry of Justice, Kosovo Police, Kosovo Intelligence Agency, Security Council Secretariat of Kosovo, etc.), religious communities, representatives of the civil society institutions, international partners (OSCE, UNDP, US Embassy, and the EU Office), and different NGO’s and representatives of the media, the Kosovo Strategy on Prevention of Violent Extremism and Radicalization Leading to Violent Terrorism 2015-2020 offers a comprehensive assessment of the context and the drivers of violent extremism in the country. The strategy is focused on implementing four strategic objectives, namely: 1) early identification; 2) prevention; 3) intervention and 4) de-radicalization and reintegration of radicalized persons. The strategy outlines the need to address the issue of violent extremism through the lens of existing country policies and strategies, specifically in line with the Kosovo Strategy for Youth 2013-2017 and the Action Plan 2013-2015 (KSAPY), the Kosovo Education Strategic Plan 2011-2016, the Republic of Kosovo National Strategy Against Terrorism 2012-2017, the National Strategy and Action Plan for Community Safety 2011-2016, and the National Strategy for Economic Development 2015-2015—to just name a few.  The Kosovo Action Plan for Implementation of the Strategy on Prevention of Violent Extremism and Radicalism Leading to Terrorism 2015-2020 is part of the Kosovo Strategy on Prevention of Violent Extremism and Radicalization Leading to Terrorism and contains specific measures and activities its implementation. The Action Plan calls for a sustainable approach to combating the threat of radicalization and outlines specific measures and collective action with respective partners from international, governmental and non-governmental sectors to disrupt the threat of extremism and radicalism leading to terrorism. It also spells out activities that foster employment, education of young people, economic development, and support for vulnerable and affected populations, although it says little about women specifically.  UNDP Kosovo has also undertaken multiple roles in preventing violent extremism in the country, ranging from engaging in a comprehensive assessment of the conditions leading to radicalization to providing stakeholder assessment of activities towards CVE to informing the country’s National Strategy on Prevention of Violent Extremism and Radicalization Leading to Terrorism. The organization has been focused on organizing town hall meetings on radicalization (5 municipalities), engaging in local narrative analysis (15 municipalities) and research on best practices and an ad hoc referral mechanisms (3 municipalities), developing referral mechanism piloting (1 municipality), certifying representatives (EU Bounce resilience tools), and training representatives in vulnerability assessments and referrals. In this regard, Kosovo is on track with other Western countries; however, much of the strategy and action plan yet needs to be well implemented—also similar to many Western countries still struggling to grapple with online and face-to-face recruiting to groups like ISIS and the foreign fighter issue. Through the support of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), the government of Kosovo (Ministry of Internal Affairs) organized its first international conference against violent extremism, held in Prishtina October 26-27, titled, “Coming Together to Counter Violent Extremism.” Drawing from experiences of local and national government officials, international and regional multilateral bodies and experts, and non-governmental actors from civil society and private sector, the conference served as a useful CVE platform that could lead to broad-based and multi-stake CVE action plans and new initiatives in the fight against violent extremism. The respondents noted a number of CVE initiatives and activities, namely EU outreach in the municipalities of Vucitern and Mitrovice focused on encouraging productive debates, raising awareness about the dangers of violent extremism, and preparing first responders; UNDP support in promoting experiences and “best CVE practices” of other countries (e.g. Prevent, Aarhus, etc.); pilot testing of referral mechanisms in several municipalities in Kosovo (e.g. Gjilan) involving educators, parents, psychologists, etc., with the goal of identifying early signs of radicalization; and a number of US-funded projects aimed at working with the youth (e.g. “Partners Kosovo”) and women (e.g. in Gjakova). UNDP has also commissioned a report titled, “Comprehensive Assessment to Counter Violent Radicalization in Kosovo,” which addresses the drivers of radicalization in the country and offers a list of recommendations for future actions. The report is used to inform the government’s strategic documents and action plans related to CVE.

Concerning reports were made to us from numerous informants that foreign money entering Kosovo from Gulf benefactors promoting virulent ideologies both openly through charities and illicitly via cash payments smuggled into the country. While the police informed us of considerable crack down on foreign funding of terrorism-related related teachings that had occurred in recent years, we also continued to hear reports of Salafi stream mosques funded with external funds, bribes paid for opening them despite community opposition, and women and men paid to attend classes and follow the Salafi lifestyle, including wearing traditional Muslim clothing.[57] While charitable contributions in an economically struggling country are likely welcome and encouraging conservative Islamic lifestyles through monetary payment is hardly a crime, police continue to struggle with controlling funding for recruiters to violent extremism.

The Kosovo government, civil society institutions, religious institutions, and international organizations have demonstrated their resolve in increasing women’s roles in the design and implementation of national-level CVE strategies. The Kosovo Action Plan spells out specific objectives and specific institutions tasked with increasing women’s involvement in CVE efforts. Awareness campaigns and activities for the prevention of violent extremism that involve women and children as well as cooperation, training, and dialogue across government institutions, communities, municipalities, women’s networks, youth, religious networks, law enforcement entities, and NGOs reflect some of the insights from the country’s national action plan that informs national-level CVE strategies, yet most still remain to be fully implemented.

In terms of prevention, female roles are still not fully operationalized in Kosovo, but they could be. Female teachers, family members, intelligence agents, psychologists, social workers, health care workers and clerics have yet to be activated into serious prevention roles. The Kosovo Action Plan appears to be leading in that direction, even though it does not specify a priority on using females over males in many of these roles. This is likely fine, as long as in actual practice a significant percentage of females are activated as well as males.

Conclusion and Key Recommendations

As discussed in the preceding sections, a number of governmental, non-governmental, and international actors and entities have already demonstrated their resolve in addressing the issue of radicalization and extremism in the country both through specific safety and security measures and strategic documents aimed at discrediting extremist ideologies and dealing with returning foreign fighters. The following sections offer specific policy recommendations to further strengthen such efforts.

Community Policing and Community Engagement Efforts

Community involvement and community policing are crucial to fighting violent extremism in Kosovo. As also reflected in a number of participant responses, different actors across the governmental and non-governmental spheres are involved in drafting CVE strategies that look at the role of community in prevention, rather than just focusing on solutions derived from the perspective of the security sector, especially those that are solely repressive. Some pointed out the important role of community policing in building trust with local communities and addressing local needs, as opposed to just relying on communities for intelligence purposes without offering them much in return. One of the participants noted: “When we [Kosovars] lived under Serbian regime for decades,the community was not cooperative and responsive to government repressive regime. It created a kind of mentality where people didn’t trust the police and thus decided to take matters into their own hands and solve their problems in the community by traditional rules. Police was left out. People also would be labeled as spies for working and cooperating with police. We overcame it eventually.”[58]

With the collapse of the ISIS “Caliphate,” dozens of returnees from Syria are likely—and most will—to be convicted and imprisoned. However, some may reenter Kosovo under the radar of government and safety and security services. Some will be dangerous and still convinced of terrorist ideologies, other battle fatigued and simply seeking shelter. Community policing will be especially important to quickly recognize and act against any individuals or cells that form around returned individuals.

Community policing is crucial for both raising awareness among communities about the threat of violent extremism and empowering communities to prevent its emergence and spread while helping the community to meet needs of those who are vulnerable to recruitment to redirect them to more productive paths. Through the support of OSCE, 56 Local Public Safety Committees (LPSC) have been formed. As a voluntary and consultative body of Kosovo Police, they serve as a crucial bridge between the police and the community. Members of the committee attend important training organized by the Kosovo Police Academy on capacity building and on how to strengthen the relationship between the police and the community. Upon finishing their training, they return to their respective communities and encourage their community members to share and discuss concerns related to their communities. LPCS members are also taught critical problem-solving skills (e.g. SARA-scanning, analysis, response, and assessment) and how to draft projects prioritized by their community. Equally important, through the support of Norwegian Embassy in Kosovo, LPCS have organized a roundtable (the most recent one in Gjilan) with citizens, youth, women, imams, psychologists, sociologists, professors, and police with the goal of understanding local grievances, specifically related to violent extremism and on how to detect early signs of radicalization.

Participants also stressed the need for more reforms on community policing that could engage women in countering violent extremism. These meetings are a way to involve female community leaders, teachers, doctors, mental health care workers, etc. in countering violent extremism but measures should be made to ensure that females are involved in direct proportion to males.

It is important that females be involved in identifying youth at risk of radicalization and there be modes of reporting them that do not lead to repressive measures and that there are rapid and effective responses occurring to disrupt them from progressing on the terrorist trajectory. Helplines staffed by trained female volunteers—mothers, teachers and female “imams” can be powerful and effective tools for those who are vulnerable to reach out for help. Although the next step is also to create rapid intervention teams to effectively intervene in taking individuals back off the terrorist trajectory, either run by voluntary teams or through government interventions as discussed above.

Police Involvement in Mentoring Programs

Danish police in Aarhus have developed a good model of community policing that is similar in some facets to Kosovo’s with the police active in the community–that is, police are listening to grievances and actively identifying vulnerable persons targeted for recruitment and working with all stakeholders in the community that can offer assistance. They might want to also think in terms of also engaging mentors trained from the community to guide those individuals (per the Aarhaus model) to ensure that they do not enter or continue on the terrorist trajectory. Some discussion of this was made in regard to police mentoring returnees coming out of prison.

Prison Rehabilitation and Community Reintegration for Returning Foreign Fighters

Those who are imprisoned will need rehabilitation in prison and special prison services that are not yet in place, but plans have been discussed to build such programs. It is often hard to bring convictions against ISIS returnees for actual crimes committed other than, for assistance, as a foreign fighter. Likewise, given that prison sentences are relatively short in Kosovo, highly indoctrinated and weapons trained individuals must be carefully dealt with before they are returned to their communities. Even when they return to their communities, untreated PTSD from the battleground and social stigma may cause them troubles and further grievances, contributing to their return to or a deeper commitment to terrorism. Therefore, both PTSD and social stigma must be addressed. There is an ongoing discussion on how to rehabilitate prisoners and move them safely and productively back into their communities, perhaps involving community police as bridges to help reintroduce and reintegrate them.

An overlooked area of concern is that it is only males that have been convicted thus far, but if wives also return and are not imprisoned, they also will face issues of reintegration and need for treatment. Many ISIS members, both male and female, have been exposed to multiple traumas (e.g. witnessed beheadings, crucifixions, etc.) and violence and rejection of anyone not adhering to their violent Takfiri beliefs have become normalized for them. The women whose husbands are in prison also need special programs as terrorist groups have repeatedly shown their willingness to recruit and use women in suicide missions, particularly when they are angry, desperate, or feel strong grievances, which may be the case for stigmatized wives trying to live on their own while their husbands spend time in prison. One wife of a prisoner was still interacting with ISIS members over the Internet, and we must recognize the dangers that such involvement can pose. As ISIS loses its territory, it has turned increasingly to calling for and guiding on the ground homegrown terror attacks. Women who have lived under ISIS and who are indoctrinated into its thinking and living vulnerable while their husbands are in prison may be the easiest to recruit into terrorist attacks or use them to recruit others.

Female Policing

Female police officers are already involved in community policing initiatives, and action plans continue to further involve them. Many respondents reflected on the success achieved by the establishment of the Association of Women in the Kosovo Police (AWKP), a membership association with well over 700 female police members with a primary mission to “make gender balance an integral part of its success.”[59] Many of its members have been sent abroad to pursue training in CVE, such as in the United States. The Association leadership is determined to bring in more renowned experts to further strengthen member training on how to utilize their capacities as mothers, daughters, and sisters, all in an effort to enlighten those who are being drawn into radicalization and extremism. [60]

Such efforts are promising in the sense that they strengthen women-led organizations in terms of capacity building, specifically as it relates to training, community engagement, etc., and CVE efforts in general. Equally important, having female-led police associations and female police officers that are representative of the population they are tasked to help and protect might help with CVE efforts. While female officers may be more responsive to females and their families affected by the phenomenon of radicalization by virtue of their gender, the overall and individual skillset of an officer must be considered as well.

The Association is a powerful voice that could also produce guidance for police and those generally engaged with CVE efforts on “best practices” on how to engage and retain women in CVE efforts. These guidelines should directly reflect local conditions and spell out current barriers to female engagement and retention in CVE efforts from the perspective of the police association. Hopefully, female police have fewer gender stereotypes applied to the women they are trying to protect than their male counterparts may have.

Surveillance and Repressive Measures

Prior to the current and hopefully imminent collapse of the so-called ISIS “Caliphate,” some members of Islamist groups complained to researchers that the government is unfairly targeting them with surveillance and their only hope to live their Salafi lifestyles and endorsement of Sharia unhindered was to migrate to Syria and Iraq.[61] While surveillance is an essential counter-terrorism tool, reliance on building goodwill in these communities and open communication with the police is equally important.

Hence, it is important to elaborate on specific strategies that would ensure that women are not recruited as security tools to spy on their communities and target specific individuals, which would likely create a backlash, but rather ask them to be more aware of what is happening in their households, communities, etc., and to train them to intervene in a more natural manner versus simply become informants.

It was pointed out that unlike in many countries, the Kosovo national police are well respected and follow second only to the military in being the most trusted national institution. The trust vested in police particularly enables them to play a strong community policing role—listening to concerns, trying to help when radicalization is occurring to take vulnerable persons immediately off the terrorist trajectory before repressive measures would be applied, to intervene with those about to travel to terrorist groups and battlefields, and to collect intelligence about recruitment networks, etc. One of the Kosovo Police officers explained: “Only 2-3 years after the war [1999], police became the most trusted entity, only second to the military. Although we are not still satisfied with the sharing of information, we want to move from a reactive approach to a proactive approach. If we don’t have prior information and help [from the community], we can’t help. We want to change the mentality and be seen as helpers.”[62]

Moreover, future policies should clearly spell out the distinction between women’s integration in CVE efforts and counterterrorism efforts rooted in intelligence activities. This is especially important as women who trust that the state will actually help them to prevent terrorist recruitment will likely turn to the state for help. They may, on the other hand, become more insecure about participating in CVE efforts and not report themselves and their family and community members out of fear of arrests and police scrutiny. CVE efforts must prove themselves to women and all stakeholders as being truly protective of the community members—even those radicalizing—versus simply repressive, a problem that is common to many Western states grappling with terrorist recruitment on their soils. Failure to make such distinctions may prevent women from seeking access to important and available services—that is, discourage them from accessing services for fear of exposing family and community members—and even oneself.

Silencing Dissenting Female Voices

A serious concern that was not adequately addressed in our inquiries into how violent extremism occurs in Kosovo and manifests itself in Kosovo was the threats and dangers that are posed to females that speak out against violent extremism. For instance, one female journalist who reported on females traveling to Syria and complained about increasingly conservative Arab Islamic practices and influences that she felt infringed on secular females found herself threatened on social media while her children the victims of violence. She noted that when she reported her concerns to police, she was dismayed that male police officers looking into the threats made in writing by identifiable persons on social media responded to her concerns by saying she had caused it by her Islamophobic remarks.

A prosecutor interviewed for this project stated that the police were incorrect to respond this way (multiple times according to the journalist) and were obliged to open a case against those who had threatened her and her children. The law protecting females (and males) that speak against extremism and receive actual threats to their physical safety does exist, but the will to enforce it on behalf of women (and men) who do speak out must also be present for the law to be properly enforced and for women’s voices against violent extremism not to be silenced.

In a functioning society, females who speak out against violent extremism need to be protected by police from any threats against their freedom of expression—that is, about their rights and concerns about infringements upon their ability to continue to practice their secular lifestyles. By the same token, the media must not spread misinformation that could perpetuate prejudice in the Kosovar society. One of the respondents noted how the media are often engaged in promoting dangerous and unsubstantiated rhetoric when it comes to religious communities, including those more conservative, or of what she referred to as “poor journalism.” [63] In this regard, prejudices against any community must be avoided.

Raising Awareness and Counter-Messaging Efforts

Emphasis has also been placed on including mothers, sisters, wives and other female family members in counter- narrative messaging and equipping them to argue persuasively against terrorist propaganda. More specifically, many respondents argued that mothers have a great emotional pull on their children and are therefore essential to creating an effective counter- messaging. This is true of sisters and wives as well. Yet, all of these actors need powerful tools to help them speak and training to act effectively against terrorist groups to delegitimize them inside their families and communities.

Many parents are uninformed and unaware of the terrorist propaganda that exists on the Internet or how to speak against it. Just like parents and schools equip youth with messages about safe sex and the dangers of drug use, the same needs to occur for terrorist ideologies—to inoculate youth against such ideologies.

Short education modules to be offered in 8th- grade civics class, or even earlier, on the current virulent ideologies that youth are currently exposed to and rational arguments to steer them clear of such groups are needed. Likewise, parents need to be equipped with training and tools to guide their children through the morass of online terrorist propaganda that promises them significance, meaning, purpose, material benefits, and the chance to live a religious lifestyle albeit one that embraces rejecting, if not outright killing, those who do not adhere to their violent interpretation of Islam. While youth imbibe such poison, parents, particularly mothers, need to be trained and equipped to be able to guide their children and guard them against believing the lies that such terrorist groups spread and the dangers of participating in these groups. Without easily accessible tools to do so, mothers are likely to fail in this task.

Mothers without Borders offers a good model of enhancing parenting skills and creating a pyramid of prevention efforts that can cascade through a large number of mothers. We recommend following a similar model in identifying key female figures from among young university women, female clerics, mothers, police and others to be trained and equipped to act against violent extremism in vulnerable communities and throughout Kosovo. They need to be equipped with adequate knowledge and readily accessible tools to fight ISIS and other extremist groups’ propaganda.

Tools to Counter Violent Extremism

The tools that mothers can use to have the “extremism” talk with their children before they encounter terrorist propaganda and recruiters do not yet exist in adequate forms to easily and fully equip mothers. Nor do they exist to adequately and quickly equip male or female teachers, police, university students, imams, etc. to effectively fight groups like ISIS.

Cogent cognitive arguments should be made against extremist ideologies. However, cognitive arguments are not enough, as clearly evidenced by UK Prevent efforts that feel flat in the face of al-Qaeda and ISIS being extremely adept at using graphic images and emotions to seduce youth and propel them along the terrorist trajectory. Emotion- based and graphic multimedia tools to counter violent extremist groups are needed and should be developed to fight these groups.

As the current violent extremist groups operating in Kosovo are using internet based multimedia tools that use emotions to capture the hearts and minds of youth, we recommend using the same—loading them to the Internet and making them available for offline use to facilitate discussions at home, in classrooms, in youth centers, in mosques etc. These tools should adequately portray what groups like ISIS are and are not and the ways in which extremist violence are illegitimate in Islam and generally. The stories of ISIS defectors denouncing the group with their inside perspective of how they fell prey to are powerful examples of messengers with full information enough to emotionally discredit this group. Portrayed in video format, their stories become especially powerful.

We focus tested the ISIS Defector videos made by ICSVE and found them to spark lively discussions among Kosovar youth, and we also found police, teachers, and security professionals enthusiastic about receiving access to such tool. Tools like this can equip and make it easy for a teacher, police officer, NGO worker, or mother who is trying to counter ISIS propaganda coming at youth over the Internet to powerfully fight back by opening a discussion and showing an actual defector delegitimizing the group. We also showed them to various community leaders who all immediately recognized their power and usefulness in fighting ISIS. Additional such materials are sorely needed.[64] Consider some of the responses received from Kosovar youth upon watching the ISIS Defector videos:

“I am not as informed as I should be, but they are misinterpreting Islam and avoiding what they don’t want. They are bombing mosques, and it is a weird ideology.”

“They are not Muslim; they are using the religion as an excuse. Like slavery was in the US. I used to be a Muslim, and it’s about peace and respecting people.”

“My opinion [when watching the videos] is that I experience fear and anger. There were some ISIS members caught in Kosovo, and I was afraid for myself and my family. As a civilian, all you can do is hope that nothing happens nearby. I was in Brussels during the terrorist attack. It could have been me, and I feel sad, but I also feel thankful that I did not get hurt.”

Youth, females included, can also be trained to be active on social media identifying those who are endorsing violent extremism and be equipped to counter them, under adult supervision, with opposing internet-based materials. A recent Google project tested this concept and resulted in a fifty-eight percent response rate on contacting individuals on Facebook who were endorsing extremist groups. The dangers in doing such work are significant, however, as some of the responses were to try to talk the intervener into the extremist ideology. In this regards, adequate supervision is necessary.

Youth and adults, females included, can also be activated to take down violent extremists messaging through actively reporting it to social media companies. The youth, in particular, may be willing to work with police carrying out such efforts as it gives them a purpose and the possibility to work with adults they admire (given that Kosovo police are generally given a high trust factor).

We also recommend that efforts be made to spotlight male and female role models, sports figures and other youth “heroes,” speaking out against violent extremism, and to promote youth campaigns that undermine extremist narratives. These could also -include counter-narrative religious messaging spotlighting female (religious) models that could be accessed via the Internet or telephone immediately by vulnerable female populations if they need help.

There is a need for both government incentives and voluntary initiatives that could serve to further incentivize women’s engagement and help to shape effective counter extremist messages.

While encouraging the dissemination of counter narratives is crucial, it is equally important and necessary to provide authoritative and appropriate communication channels including actors that are trusted.

Role of Religious Actors in Counter-Messaging and Interventions

During the course of our interviews, including our research in other parts of the world, we learned that women are likely to work with religious authorities they trust. When working with vulnerable and religiously conservative women, it is especially important and necessary to involve women as facilitators of treatment; often, religious women are the best equipped to reach them. We learned that because a great deal of authority rests in the hands of male-dominated religious authorities and institutions, women might be distrustful of such authority and feel disrespected by them. Or if they are highly conservative, they may avoid interactions with male religious leaders and prefer to be taught by other women or their spouses at home.

While in Kosovo only the males become imams, this does not mean that women cannot be trained to be “spiritual leaders.” Similar to Morchidat program introduced in Morocco in 2005,[65] women receiving the same training as the male imams could serve to practice religious practices traditionally reserved for the male imams and provide religious education—to women—in mosques, prisons, and families of those affected by the phenomenon of foreign fighters. In Kosovo, there already are 300 trained females “imams” who could be utilized for this purpose and are totally underutilized at present. [66] Women religious authorities can also be paired with individuals active on social media, especially the young, to counter propaganda and the recruitment into extremist and terrorist groups.

Female religious authorities we spoke to also raised the issue of how when it comes to religion and religious issues, the government only invites men to meetings about countering extremism and as a matter of routine does not include female religious leaders. In this regard, it is important to not duplicate the sexism often inherent in religious groups but instead include the voices of female religious authorities and encourage their active participation in government- led initiatives to fight violent extremism. The government must also remain transparent about the selection criteria used to form partnerships with religious authorities to address the issue of radicalization and extremism in the country, and the inclusion of female religious leaders must equal their male counterparts

When it comes to Salafi groups, the female trainer of female imams told us she and her imams were unable to penetrate Salafi groups since their teachings were less conservative compared to Salafi and were Hanafi in nature. In this regard, it may be useful to prepare Islamic arguments based on scriptures Salafis respect that counter Islamic arguments on behalf of Takfiri groups like ISIS and al-Qaeda. It may be productive to have such messaging emanating from and possibly messaging from individuals practicing Salafi Islam, although government involvement and employment of Salafi messengers is problematic. This is primarily because these groups also promote anti-homosexual and anti-feminist teachings that oppose Western democratic values, and sometimes even argue against participation in democratic society, including voting—all issues that would likely outweigh using them as the government paid and recruited messengers. That said, the Kosovo government could invite Salafi voluntary participation in fighting extremism through sermons, Internet messaging, and written tracts denouncing terrorist groups and their Takfiri practices. They can also require oversight of Salafi imams, training for Salafi imams in scriptures that counter Takfiri ideologies, consider limiting foreign investments in mosques, building and paying imams salaries, or promoting a non-indigenous form of Islam in Kosovo. These are delicate issues, however, as they possibly involve restrictions on the freedom to practice religion.

Empowering Women in Kosovo 

The roles of women and their degree of personal agency and influence with their families and communities were reflected in some of the participant responses: “The truth is, even though Kosovo society is a largely patriarchal society, in the Kosovar family mother has an important role, especially for the son [she] is the star. I am the family star. When my sons were growing up, their sisters also played the role of training and guarding them. One day they will get married, and their wives will influence the way they think. “[67]

A Kosovo Police Officer also explained: “[In traditional Kosovar families] The man is the big boss; the wife takes care of the kids and raises them. The woman doesn’t have a will [or say in many aspects of her marriage], but there are a lot of ways to educate and empower them and their role in the family. The woman’s role is very important and critical in her family. As a wife, a daughter and a sister in terms of influence. She can impact and influence the children.” [68]

The paradox inherent in such statements reflects conflicting views on the roles and empowerment of women in traditional Kosovar society, how they should act inside and outside of their household, and how much agency and influence they wield. These contradictory views are problematic in the sense that they can further distort the nature and the role of women in CVE efforts. That said, the statements also reflect female agency in educating and empowering their family members, including their children.

Some of the respondents pointed out how living in patriarchal societies and not being able to make decisions outside their husbands, brothers, and husbands could serve as an incentive to join violent extremist groups to regain self-esteem and empowerment. Although a highly misogynist organization in many regards, ISIS offered free, spacious housing to its foreign fighters, food and propane allowances, and invited female foreign fighters to join the hisbah police. The hisbah female members answer to almost no one and enjoy high status in the ISIS community, which may offer more freedom and power to Kosovar women than those from rural backgrounds would normally enjoy. Likewise, the materialistic benefits may entice them.

Some explained that to challenge extremism, one must also stand up to traditional patriarchal and traditional gender roles that suppress women’s participation in private and public life—to empower them so that foreign enticements hold less power for them.[69] In this regard, the role of women’s influence and power in a Kosovar family remains a highly debated issue and empowering them to choose between traditional and more modern roles is likely a difficult task fraught with potential repercussions both positive and negative. When it comes to allowing and enabling women to participate in counter radicalization and counterterrorism efforts, future CVE strategies must also ensure that they do not too strongly threaten traditional relationships between genders within certain [conservative] communities and cultures in Kosovo in ways that might create a backlash to these initiatives or outright rejection of them.

Interventions to Prevent Spread of Radicalization

During our research, we had the opportunity to interview family members of two foreign fighters engaged in the Syrian and the Iraq conflict, one killed and one still in the conflict zone in Syria. We also learned that the wife and the child of the deceased foreign fighter still remain in Syria, despite their in-laws’ effort to bring them back to Kosovo. Without being provided psychological support for grieving and condemning the terrorist group that recruited her son to his death, the mother dealt with it by labeling her son a “martyr,” and the conflict in Iraq and Syria as just and necessary. Thus, she glorified his sacrifice and the group that had recruited him creating danger in her community and for her other children as well. Without a proper psychological support, she is unable to nuance her feelings or express them in a way that condemns terrorism while honoring the good motives her son may have been following to join the group.

There is a need to reach out to mothers and spouses of those whose offspring or spouses have died in Iraq and Syria and who still hold strong beliefs and convictions about their relative’s involvement in the Syrian and the Iraq conflict. It is necessary to provide assistance and support to such families to help them speak out against terrorism while constructively dealing with their grief. It is also important not to collectively penalize the whole family for their adult children’s involvement or for feeling confused about their son or daughter having made the ultimate sacrifice for a cause that unlikely represents the mother or spouse’s true feelings. This is especially important so as to prevent a further radicalization cycle within the families and communities these relatives are influencing. While dealing with trauma is difficult, it is equally important to understand and investigate emotional and psychological dimensions of women, including of their family members in general, who are mourning their children’s death and struggling to come to terms with the death of their loved ones in the service of a terrorist group.

Likewise, although there are four female returnees from Syria, none of them received prison sentences. We know one stays in contact with ISIS, and we are well aware that these groups have often used women to attack and revenge for their husband’s deaths [or in this case possibly for his incarceration], making clear the need to intervene for these women as well. Likewise, as children return from the battlefield, their needs need to be addressed as well.

Research on the Roles of Female Radicalization and Prevention

There is a need for empirical research that addresses both male and female motivations for joining violent extremism in Kosovo and research that examines the differences in their terrorist trajectories into and back out of terrorism, as well as the roles their female family members played in contributing to their decisions for embracing terrorism or in trying to prevent it. Kosovo police stated that women played passive roles and followed their men, but our interviews revealed another face of women encouraging their men, mothers giving their blessings to go to Syria, and also actively intervening to stop their family members from going. We need a better understanding of what draws women into radicalization and how they are currently preventing it and can be armed to prevent it better. With this type of research, we can better fine tune programming to protect both men and women and enhance the preventative roles of women.

Participants stressed the unique role of women in identifying concerns that may lead to violent extremism, especially among women and the young. Many pointed out to the need for empirical research that addresses women’s motivation for joining violent extremism so as to identify the kind of support women need to deal with radicalization and violent extremism in their families and their communities.[70]

Research should also include needs assessment for women to more effectively deal with radicalization and violent extremism in their families and their communities. Strictly speaking in the context of the latter, there is a need to identify needs and services preferred by women, specifically in terms of the type of support they need to deal with their offspring and spouses currently engaged in violent extremism; the kind of support they need and would embrace to increase their knowledge and empowerment to act against the early signs of radicalization; the kind of support they need to increase their critical analysis skills given that many have fallen prey to online recruitment; and the kind of training they need to become more confident about discussing contentious issues with their children and their spouses. It is equally important and necessary to conduct research on the needs assessment to understand who mothers and other female family members—wives and sisters—trust for solutions, who they fear, who they need, etc. It is also important to measure their confidence in the family and their communities and their confidence in responding to contentious issues in the family and community.

Strictly speaking in the context of the Prevent strand of the Kosovo CVE Strategy, there should be a clear conceptualization on what the role of Kosovo women should be in relation to 1) Challenging violent ideology and promoting moderate teachings and moderate views of Islam, 2) understanding and being fully equipped to speak back about the false claims of extremist groups including their materialist and utopian claims, 3) Equipping women with powerful prevention tools and training, 4) Preventing recruitment, 5) Supporting and engaging directly with those vulnerable through interventions, 6) Focus on community resilience, and 7) Address grievances, perceived or real, that are exploited by extremists during the radicalization process.

The research revealed both national and international actors’ resolve in not only identifying and diverting violent extremism but also supporting women and their families in disengaging from violent extremism. Strictly speaking in the context of the latter, the respondents stressed the need to establish appropriate referral mechanisms for services to help radicalized individuals and the families of radicalized individuals.

The common theme that emerged during the interviews was that training is needed on understanding violent extremism in all sectors of interventions. Likewise, referral mechanisms are important in mobilizing all qualified stakeholders to deliver effective preventative interventions that cater to individual needs. In other words, referral mechanisms allow for mobilizing qualified and credible professionals to deliver effective interventions. This is especially important given that law enforcement and security professionals may not necessarily possess required skillset and expertise. While important, there also needs to be transparency when it comes to criteria used to select actors (e.g. civil society, non-governmental, etc.) to participate in the mechanism; how interventions are assessed and what it is comprised of; and how is important referral information retained/shared with others. Equally important, there need to be clear guidelines that spell out the relationship with the government (e.g. law enforcement), and how referral information is shared with them for preventative and investigative purposes.

As discussed earlier in the report, many of the interviewed government officials depicted women as having little personal agency or knowledge of their movement into a terrorist group. However, in several cases, the authors heard of women who were fully conscious of the kind of groups they were joining when they traveled to Syria and Iraq, with some even becoming recruiters for ISIS. These women seem to embrace the defy cultural norms and embrace adventures path to violent extremism, as well as the materialistic as well as spiritual benefits promised in Syria and Iraq. There were also those who enthusiastically supported their husbands in joining, wanted to move their families to live under traditional Islam and who wholeheartedly believed in the dream of the utopian ISIS “Caliphate” and wanted to play a role in building it. Their engagement may be an expression of empowerment via a terrorist group that offered salaries to both men and women and free housing, of frustrated aspirations, desire for a positive identity, purpose, dignity and a conscious rejection of what the post-Soviet/post-Yugoslav state and society has offered them. There are young women-sometimes married with children – who fall for ISIS’ skillfully-presented romantic narrative and often seek to pursue a jihadi love. They may also be attracted to the notions of moral certainty, purity, and the unity of people irrespective of ethnicity, social equality, and justice that ISIS claims in its online sites and through face-to-face recruitment networks. 

While mothers and sisters can be an entry point for prevention efforts, they can also be a source and encouragement to radicalization that leads to terrorism. For instance, one imprisoned ISIS cadre in Kosovo stated that his mother had given him his blessing to join ISIS and his wife fully shared his commitment and enthusiastically traveled with him to build the “Caliphate” Another mother of a son who had died fighting in Syria found it incomprehensible that her son died a terrorist and instead glorified his death calling him a “martyr” thereby spreading the terrorist narrative in her community. In light of such arguments, more research is needed to understand whether women’s decisions to join violent extremist groups was truly voluntary or driven by their dependency on their husbands as well as what the exact drivers of radicalization to violent extremism are in women and how they differ by age, rural or urban areas, background, ethnicity, and gender. Similarly, there is insufficient research on female resilience to violent extremist recruitment and what are the factors that help them resist violent extremist seduction and pressure to join.

Lastly, we encourage future research on the topic also to include in-depth interviews with returnees from Syria and Iraq now in prison and their mostly female family members residing in their respective communities to gain additional perspectives on women’s roles in these groups. We had also hoped to speak to the wives of some of the incarcerated males after interviewing them in prison and gaining their trust, but were not able to arrange it on short notice without the prisoner’s involvement and endorsements. Again, we highly recommend in-depth and psychological interviews with these populations of returnees and their wives, some of whom also spent time as ISIS members, and their mothers and sisters to learn more details about women’s involvement in the groups and how prevention might have occurred and could occur in the future.

REFERENCE FOR THIS REPORT: Speckhard, Anne (April 14, 2017) Drivers of Radicalization and Violent Extremism in Kosovo: Women’s Roles in Supporting, Preventing & Fighting Violent Extremism. ICSVE Research Reports


Anne Speckhard, Ph.D. is Adjunct Associate Professor of Psychiatry at Georgetown

University in the School of Medicine and Director of the International Center for the Study of Violent Extremism (ICSVE) where she heads the Breaking the ISIS Brand—ISIS Defectors Interviews Project. She is the author of: Talking to Terrorists, Bride of ISIS and coauthor of ISIS Defectors: Inside Stories of the Terrorist Caliphate; Undercover Jihadi; and Warrior Princess. Dr. Speckhard has interviewed nearly 500 terrorists, their family members and supporters in various parts of the world including Gaza, West Bank, Chechnya, Iraq, Jordan, Turkey and many countries in Europe. In 2007, she was responsible for designing the psychological and Islamic challenge aspects of the Detainee Rehabilitation Program in Iraq to be applied to 20,000 + detainees and 800 juveniles. She is a sought after counterterrorism experts and has consulted to NATO, OSCE, foreign governments and to the U.S. Senate & House, Departments of State, Defense, Justice, Homeland Security, Health & Human Services, CIA and FBI and CNN, BBC, NPR, Fox News, MSNBC, CTV, and in Time, The New York Times, The Washington Post, London Times and many other publications. Her publications are found here:


[1] Anne Speckhard, “The Lethal Cocktail of Terrorism, “The International Center for the Study of Violent Extremism, February 25, 2016, available at

[2] NCTC Director Nicholas Rasmussen testimony before the House Committee on Homeland Security. Available at The Soufan Group report dated 2015 estimates the number to be between 27,000-31,000.

[3] The Soufan Group 2015 report. See

[4] Bosnia has the highest representation of foreign fighters among the Balkan countries included in the list (330). However, on a per capita basis (per million of its citizens), Kosovo tops the list with 172 foreign fighters.

[5] Kosovo Police Interview, October 2016, Prishtina.

[6] Neumann Peter, “Foreign Fighter Total in Syria/Iraq now Exceeds 20,000; Surpasses Afghanistan Conflict in the 1980s,” January 2015, available at from; The Soufan Group, “Foreign Fighters: An Updated Assessment of the Flow of Foreign Fighters into Syria and Iraq,” The Soufan Group, 2015, available at Data contained in the latter report reflect both 2014 and 2015 findings. In the case of Kosovo, Bosnia, Albania, Serbia, and Macedonia numbers have been updated and reflect 2015 findings. Data collection criteria and methodology: Data gathered based on official government estimates, UN reports, think-tank research reports, academic sources, and other open source and secondary sources. The report cautioned about methodological weaknesses in collecting data about foreign fighters, specifically in that 1) data reporting entities often fail to disclose their data collection criteria and methodology, hence potentially affecting the accuracy of data, 2) while the number often reflects all foreign fighters traveling to join violent groups in Iraq and Syria, others report such number by deducting the number of returnees and those who have died, and 3) women and children are omitted in some reports while in others they are not.

[7] The Associated Press, “Kosovo Police Say They Prevented Terrorist Attack on Israeli Team,” The New York Times, November 17, 2016, available at:

[8] Marc Sageman, Leaderless Jihad: Terror Networks in the Twenty-First Century (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2008); Michael Taarnby and Lars Hallundbaek, “Al-Shabaab: The Internationalization of Militant Islamism in Somalia and the Implications for Radicalisation Processes in Europe,” Ministry of Justice, Copenhagen. (2010).

[9]Jamie Barlett and Carl Miller,” The Edge of Violence: Towards Telling the Difference between Violent and Non-violent Radicalization.” Terrorism and Political Violence 24, no.1 (2014). 1-21.

[10] Ibid., p.2

[11] Alex P. Schmid, “Radicalisation, De-radicalisation, Counter-radicalisation: A Conceptual Discussion and Literature review,”International Centre for Counter Terrorism, The Hague (2013), p. 10.

[12] Vidino, Lorenzo, “Countering Radicalization in America,” United States Insitute of Peace, Washington, D.C. (2010).

[13] Federal Bureau of Investigation, “What is Violent Extremism,” Federal Bureau of Investigation, n.d., available at

[14] United Nations, Resolution, 2178 (2014), p.2, available at

[15] Ibid.

[16] Note: Data were collected December 2016 through January 2017 as well.

[17] Note that the authors were present at the 2016 International CVE conference held in Prishtina October 26-27, 2016, and were able to engage in both formal and informal conversations with a number of local, regional, and international experts on CVE. The “best practices” generated during the conference were incorporated in the report as well.

[18] The Associated Press, “Kosovo Police Say They Prevented Terrorist Attack on Israeli Team.”

[19] Kosovo Police, October 2016; Erjone Popova,”70 Active Kosovar Fighters in Syria and Iraq,” Prishtina Insight, July 19, 2016, available at;

[20] Bekim Bislimi, “Deradikalizimi mission i (pa) mundshem,” Radio Evropa e Lire,” September 10, 2016, available at

[21] Kosovo Police Interview, October 2016.

[22] ” Erjone Popova, “70 Active Kosovar Fighters in Syria and Iraq.” Kosovo Police and prosecutor Interviews, October 26-28, 2016; Bekim Bislimi, “Deradikalizimi mission i (pa) mundshem;”

[23] Kosovo Police, October 2016; Erjone Popova,”70 Active Kosovar Fighters in Syria and Iraq.”

[24] One must be cautious with data interpretation as such data are mostly self-declared by those arrested. The author interviews with actual participants in the Syrian and the Iraq conflict were few; therefore, it is not possible to generalize.

[25] Kosovo Police Interview, October 26, Prishtina, Kosovo.

[26] Colin Freeman, “Inside Kacanik, Kosovo’s Jihadist Capital,” The Telegraph, August 23, 2015, available at

[27] Ibid.

[28] Prosecutor interview, January 2017, Prishtina, Kosovo.

[29] Law enforcement and prosecutor interview, October 2016-January 2017, Prishtina, Kosovo.

[30] Police also stated seven female returnees on another occasion so the numbers are not certain but estimated between 4 and 7 with only one returning with her husband.

[31] Interview, R.B, January 2017, Prishtina, Kosovo.

[32] Interview, Kosovo Police, October 20, 2016; Kosovo Police Presentation at “Coming Together to Counter Violent Extremism,” October 26, 2016, Prishtina, Kosovo.

[33] ISIS has managed to call the largest migration of foreign fighters ever to a battlefield. Estimates are that approximately 38,000 foreign fighters have left for Syria and Iraq—many to ISIS. Zarqawi’s earlier call to jihad with al-Qaeda in Iraq produced only 5000 foreign fighters while the “jihad” in Afghanistan produced less than 2000 foreign fighters.

[34] Kosovo Police Conference Presentation; Kosovo Police Interview, October 17-18, 2016, Prishtina, Kosovo.

[35] Ibid.

[36] Interview, SH.M., October 19, 2016.

[37] Ibid.

[38] Kosovo Police Conference Presentation.

[39] The World Bank, “World Development Indicators,” The World Bank, 2016, available at;

[40] There are approximately 100,000 to 150,000 Muslims, many Albanians, living and working in Thrace and Athens. It is interesting to know how groups like ISIS and ideologies affected them. Employment and economic opportunities may serve as a barrier to recruitment into violent extremism. The same can be argued about the lack of exposure to face-to-face recruitment networks. That said, Greece is a transit country, and government remains secretive about the participation of its citizens in the Syrian and the Iraq conflict.

[41] Anne Speckhard, “The Lethal Cocktail of Terrorism: The Four Necessary Ingredients that Go into Making a Terrorist & Fifty Individual Vulnerabilities/Motivations that May also Play a Role.”

[42] Yasmin Green personal communication, June 2016.

[43] Ardian Shajkovci, interview ISIS foreign fighter, 2015, Kosovo.

[44] Anne Speckhard unpublished interview with a Kosovar ISIS Defector, June 2016; Anne Speckhard and Ahmet S. Yayla, ISIS Defectors: Inside Stories of the Terrorist Caliphate (McLean: Advances Press, LLC, 2016).

[45] Anne Speckhard, “The Lethal Cocktail of Terrorism: The Four Necessary Ingredients that Go into Making a Terrorist & Fifty Individual Vulnerabilities/Motivations that May Also Play a Role;” Anne Speckhard, Talking to Terrorists: Understanding the Psycho-Social Motivations of Militant Jihadi Terrorists, Mass Hostage Takers, Suicide Bombers & Martyrs (McLean, VA: Advances Press, 2012).

[46] Ibid.

[47] Interview, A.XH. October 23, 2016.

[48] Arbana Xharra, “Few but Fanatical—the Kosovo Women who go Over to ISIS,” Balkan Insight, January 26, 2016, available at

[49] Ibid.

[50] Anne Speckhard and Ahmet S. Yayla. ISIS Defectors: Inside Stories of the Terrorist Caliphate

[51] Ibid.

[52] Kosovo Police Interview, October 18, 2016.

[53] Anne Speckhard and Ahmet S. Yayla. ISIS Defectors: Inside Stories of the Terrorist Caliphate: Advances Press, LLC.

[54] Anne Speckhard, F.L. Interview, 2016, Kosovo.

[55] “On Prohibition of Joining the Armed Conflicts Outside State Territory,” p. 1, available at

[56] Ibid.

[57] Dozens of suspected Islamists were arrested in connection with recruitment networks. Dozens of organizations suspected of funding and promoting extremism were shut down. Arrests specifically targeted those individuals suspected of facilitating and helping to finance ISIS, including Al-Qaeda.

[58] Kosovo Police Interview, M.C., October 20, 2016.

[59]Available at,26,398

[60] Interview, S.M., October 19, 2017.

[61] Ardian Shajkovci, Unpublished Foreign Fighter Interview, 2015, Kosovo.

[62] Interview, Kosovo Police, October 20, 2016.

[63] B.I. Interview, October 24, 2016, Prishtina, Kosovo.

[64] The ISIS Defector videos subtitled in Albanian as well as other languages can be found here:

[65] Available at

[66] Interview, B.I. October, 24, 2016.

[67] Interview, S.M., October 19, 2016.

[68] Interview, Kosovo Police, October 18, 2016.

[69] According to some estimates, the gender distribution in Kosovo is 56.9 % women and 40.7 % men. Only 35 % of women participate in job market. Education, lack thereof, is clearly an issue. Sixty-five percent of women have not completed their secondary education, compared to men 41%. See, for instance,

[70] Interview, S. MJ, October 19, 2016.


Is a globally focused research institution based in Washington, D.C. ICSVE provides research, training, and strategic advice to government leaders, intelligence, defense, international organizations, and civilian communities worldwide to prevent and deter the threat of violent extremism in core areas such as capacity building and programmatic support, countering extremist narrative, messaging, developing community resilience, managing intervention activities, and training.

This research was commissioned and supported by UN Women. The views, opinions, findings, and recommendations expressed in this report are strictly those of the authors. They do not necessarily reflect the views of UN Women.


The information in this publication may not be reproduced, in part or in whole, and by any means, without further permission from the International Center for the Study of Violent Extremism (ICSVE). For permission to reproduce the information contained in this publication, please contact Neima Izadi at


ICSVE would like to thank UN Women and UN Women Kosovo Office for supporting the research. Additional gratitude goes to government officials in Kosovo, the Kosovo Police, journalists, prosecutors, and representatives of local and international organizations. Lastly, thanks also to ICSVE research intern, Haris Fazliu, for translating and assisting with the research in Kosovo.

Published by ICSVE, Washington, D.C.

© 2017 ICSVE All rights reserved.

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