Societal effects of countering violent extremism and radicalization in Kosovo

Countering terrorism and preventing radicalization and violent extremism have taken center stage in donors’ and governmental policy agendas in Kosovo over the past 6 years. While many research and policy initiatives have been funded on drivers, causes and mechanisms to counter violent extremism and radicalization, there has been no critical analysis of their societal effects as they target specific sectors of Kosovo's society.

Counter-terrorism, counter-radicalisation and countering violent extremism (CVE) have become top security priority for the European Union (EU), the United Nations (UN), UNESCO, the OSCE as well as EU member states.[1] Across Europe, softer detection and preventative measures have been developed to prevent violent extremism in sites such as neighbourhoods, communities, schools and hospitals. This has entailed the involvement of a number of non-traditional security actors such as communities, social workers, families, religious authorities, and teachers.[2]

In EU member states, counter-radicalization and CVE measures have shown mixed results while raising fundamental questions regarding the efficiency of prevention, the risk of escalation and the broader societal effects in terms of fundamental rights, religious discrimination and social cohesion. These measures have been criticized for challenging citizens' fundamental rights and civil liberties as well as stigmatizing Muslim communities, thus potentially paving the ground to further violent escalation.[3] Moreover, the incorporation of societal actors such as youth, teachers, families, and religious leaders has raised concerns on how by instilling a logic of surveillance and suspicion, these measures may hamper social trust and cohesion.

The increased participation of foreign fighters from Bosnia-Herzegovina and Kosovo in the Syrian war has brought the question of jihadism and the fight against radicalization and terrorism at the top of governmental and donors' agendas in the Western Balkans. Notwithstanding the emerging criticism from within EU member states regarding CVE, most of the concepts, measures and strategies that were initially developed in the EU, have been exported to, adopted and implemented in Western Balkans countries.

Since 2014, following 130 arrests with the charges of terrorism, Kosovo authorities have tightened the fight against radicalization and foreign fighters. The Kosovo’s Strategy on Prevention of Violent Extremism and Radicalization Leading to Terrorism 2015-2020 was adopted by the Kosovo government in 2015 and was mainly based on the EU strategy.[4]
Initially, counter-terrorism was based on repressive measures and criminalization of radicalized subjects. More recently, and reflecting a global policy shift, the focus of the Strategy has shifted towards prevention and social reintegration of returnees.

Around 400 Kosovo citizens travelled to Syria or Iraq between 2012-17, of which one third has returned to Kosovo and another third has lost their lives in conflict zones. The remainder are presumably still in Syria or Iraq or neighbouring states.[5] Some Kosovan citizens have been arrested in Germany and Kosovo in 2018 on suspicion that they were preparing for a terrorist attack in their homeland and other European countries. While the country has not seen a single terrorist attack so far, the threat of violent extremism still attracts donors’ funding and governmental actions. They increasingly focus on the perspective of the return of former fighters and the radicalization of imprisoned foreign fighters and imams. Data on radicalization and violent extremism threats in Kosovo are vague and often based on anecdotal evidence and media sensationalism. Interviews on the nature and extent of the threat of radicalization show differing and contradictory opinions. Numbers range from a couple of hundreds among those in prison and those expected to return to 20.000/30.000 thousand radicalized individuals detected by unverified intelligence sources in Kosovo.[6] Even less consensus and often much confusion is found among stakeholders interviewed over the concepts of violent extremism and radicalization, with the latter being often identified with Islam and Islamist ideology. If, as interviewees have argued, extremism is that which leads to political violence, risk assessments on violence have shown that 40 percent of it is politically and ethnically based, whereas only 25 percent of it is religiously motivated.[7] However, it is the political violence associated with religious extremism the kind that draws most of the attention to Kosovo, and the funding to prevent it.

While a single profile of Kosovo foreign fighters does not exist, most of those that had travelled to Syria and Iraq belonged to the 20-30 age group. Kosovo has a substantial number of male youth in socio-economic conditions of poverty and marginalization: 43 percent of the population is below 25 years old, with unemployment around 32.9 and youth unemployment around 57.7 percent.


Several explanatory factors for the phenomenon of radicalization and foreign fighters in Kosovo have been identified. Two key factors have predominated the debate: firstly, the invasive presence of religious foreign foundations stemming from diverging Islamic spheres, and secondly, the socio-economic factors. The role of Gulf backed foundations and organizations, especially from Saudi Arabia and Turkey, have been regarded as instrumental in promoting trajectories of radicalization and recruitment of young Kosovars through a combination of private mediators, extremist imams and donations.[8] They have contributed to the introduction in Kosovo of a Salafi/Wahhabi form of Islam, in contrast to the locally-rooted form of Hanafi Islam.[9] There is little evidence that such foundations directly recruited people into violent extremist ideological groups. By contrast, recruitment seems to have occurred through physical or virtual close links.

The socio-economic conditions of the country, and more specifically, the combination of high levels of poverty, (youth) unemployment and low levels of education have been identified as a second factor for radicalization in Kosovo. However, recent data on violent extremists in Kosovo show that education does not appear to be a significant factor in driving the phenomenon. When socio-economic data are further disaggregated, unemployment and social (im)mobility seem to play a greater. Regardless of their social strata, the unemployment rate of foreign fighters is double the rate of the Kosovo average unemployment rate. Findings from a recent British Council’s report suggest that a significant driver seem to be based around the notion of an "identity vacuum, expressed as detachment from the social fabric, as well as very close intra-family ties of younger generations."[10] In other words, belonging to a group that embraces violent extremist ideas is more important that religious doctrine.

Kosovo social sectors and actors such as education and youth have been incorporated in explanatory frameworks for violent extremism and radicalization as well as targeted by preventative measures, seeing them both as a potential cause and solution to the threats of extremism. The radicalization in Kosovo is a youth phenomenon. A neglected explanatory factor has been the widespread inactivity among Kosovo youth. While interrelated to the socio-economic dimension, this factor is at the same time analytically different as it points out and recognizes the agency of those choosing a path of radicalization. This is related also to a widespread absence of perspectives concerning those that have studied and that are not considered economically poor. In this framework, what is at stake is a dynamic of frustration of expectations, and a promise of order and meaning in a context that lacks both. In other terms, following the analytical perspective of Olivier Roy, rather than a mechanism of radicalization influenced by a sectarian and identity-based Islam, in Kosovo one could notice a form of Islamization of other issues and grievances, an identity radicalized between perceptions of marginalization and nihilism.[11] Inactivity and the absence of perspectives among Kosovo youth is related to another explanatory dimension, that of identity. The identity dimension is to be seen as a central factor in understanding and explaining the radicalization of both Kosovo and other Western Balkans youth. Several interviews confirmed that the main focus from international actors in the coming years is expected to be on youth.

Poor education has been identified as a driving factor behind radicalization and violent extremism in the country. Research analysis on the level of educational attainment of foreign fighters compared to the country level suggest no correlation between low educational levels and the emergence of the foreign fighters phenomenon. Foreign fighters have on average slightly higher levels of education. It is the way in which young people and students are engaged within the system that seems to matter more. Moreover, the extent to which education can act as a space where critical thinking is encouraged and the freedom to express themselves is ensured is identified as crucial for education's link and role vis-à-vis CVE and radicalization.

Those actors that regard radicalization as a phenomenon driven and underpinned by a religious ideology identify in education an arena where radicalization and violent extremism can be understood, prevented and addressed. An understanding of extremist indoctrination and radicalization as driven by inadequate information and awareness about extremist ideologies and their consequences has made education a key sector for counter-radicalization responses, narratives and interventions with more than 40 percent of activities in the government's strategy expected to be implemented by the Ministry of Education. In practice, this has translated into a plethora of training sessions addressing education from primary to tertiary level and implemented by a number of governmental and non-governmental actors often lacking coordination by the Ministry of Education.

Local and international counter-radicalization and CVE efforts have initially focused on the push and pull factors of extremism. Subsequently the focus has shifted on at risk communities such as youth, women and local communities. More recently, attention has been placed on reintegration of returnees and their families as well as radicalization in prisons. Social reintegration of returnees has become central and has been based on the German and Danish model. Other projects have focused on imams that are lecturing in prisons, putting counter-narratives as central in the fight against prisons radicalization. International donors have supported the creation of referral mechanisms based on the UK and Danish model, which have been jointly implemented by municipality authorities, imams, police officers. There is an attempt also to involve families as well as friend-to-friend involvement, thus developing a tool that can be applied to all kinds of violence. There have been several cases in which families have denounced their children to the police.

The CVE field in Kosovo raises a number of questions, both on the phenomenon itself and the consequences of how it has been fought so far. While the amount of funding that is expected to increase suggest an ever-present radicalization threat, data are contradictory and often backed by anecdotal and media sensationalism. Moreover, there is no consensus over what violent extremism and radicalization means in the Kosovar context, and often definitions carry and reproduce the same problematic vagueness that are found in international policy discourses on the same topic. The equivalence of violent extremism with religious Islamist extremism risks stigmatizing and alienating the Muslim community that represents also the majority of the Kosovo population. Current explanatory models seem to overemphasize the role played by foreign foundations and equally overlook other factors and dimensions underpinning the relationships between youth and radicalization in Kosovo: most importantly, the question of anomie, inactivity, a lack of employment opportunities for the generation born after the war.

The incorporation of religious leaders, families, teachers in CVE and counter-radicalization policies may hamper trust and damage social cohesion/inclusion in an already fragile country. A critical review of policy documents shows a framing of the role of youth, education and other local actors according to a securitized logic. In this regard, youth risks to be read within two opposing views: on the one hand, as objects of radicalization and thus potentially dangerous for the country's security; on the other, as a tool for preventing radicalization and violent extremism. This has entailed a semantic shift whereby youth are no longer regarded as radical agents but as potentially radicalized subjects. The risk that such a shift entails is that their immanent potentiality to become actors of social change, emancipation and critique is hampered and restricted. In a similar vein, the instrumentalization of education to serve counter-radicalization goals may hamper trust and generate more resentment and exclusion and thus further fuel radicalization. Moreover, it risks restricting the function of education as a primary institution for the questioning of established values and authorities as well as the challenging and overcoming of the status quo.


This study was supported by the Kosovo Foundation for Open Society as part of the project "Building knowledge about Kosovo (2.0)" whose findings will be published soon.

Cover photo: Sinan Pasha mosque, Prizren, by Mrinë Godanca, (CC) 2014.

Inline foto: National library in Pristina, by Ervjola Selenica, (CC) 2018.

  1. Kundnani A., Hayes B. 2018. The Globalisation of Countering Violent Extremism Policies, (Amsterdam: Transnational Institute). ↩︎

  2. Ragazzi, F. 2017. Students as Suspect. The challenges of counter-radicalisation policies in education in the Council of Europe member states. Interim report. Council of Europe. Strasbourg. ↩︎

  3. Bigo, D., Bonelli, L., Guittet, E.P. and Ragazzi, F. 2014. "Preventing and Countering Youth Radicalisation in the EU," PE 509.977 Council of Europe. 2014. Revised EU Strategy for Combating Radicalisation and Recruitment to Terrorism, 9956/14 (, last access 15 December 2018). ↩︎

  4. Author's interview with an investigative journalist, Prishtina, 24 September 2018. ↩︎

  5. Kursani, S. 2018. Kosovo Report. Western Balkans Extremism Research Forum, April 2018, funded by the British Council. ↩︎

  6. These data are not public and they were shared with the author informally and anonymously in various interviews. Author's interview with a local scholar, Prishtina, 25 September 2018; Author's interview with a local official working with an international organization active in CVE, 26 September 2018. ↩︎

  7. Kursani, S. 2017 "Kosovo Risk Assessment Report Since Independence: February 2008 -- June 2017," Report. Pristina, Kosovo: Kosovar Center for Security Studies. (, last accessed 28 October 2018). ↩︎

  8. Kursani op. cit. ↩︎

  9. Demjaha, A. and Peci, L. 2016. What Happened to Kosovo Albanians: The Impact of Religion on the Ethnic Identity in the State Building-Period, June, Prishtina. ↩︎

  10. Kursani 2018 op. cit. ↩︎

  11. Roy, O. 2004. Radical Islam appeals to the rootless, in «The Financial Times», 11 October 2004, (, last access 28 May 2018). ↩︎

(CC) Mrinë Godanca