An Anti-Terror Success Story ISIS, Kosova, and the New York Times. by Stephen Schwartz

The Weekly Standard July 4, 2016

Late last month, the New York Times published a lengthy report from the Balkan republic of Kosova. Under the byline of an experienced correspondent in the region, Carlotta Gall, and totaling almost 4,000 words, the article was titled “How Kosovo Was Turned into Fertile Ground for ISIS.” As if that declaration were not alarming enough, the subhed proclaimed that “a once-tolerant Muslim society” had become “a font of extremism.”

With all the weight typically ascribed to Times coverage, the story seemed destined to bury the reputation of the Kosovar Albanians. Kosova is roughly 90 percent Muslim. Efforts by Islamic radicals to convert the locals to various stripes of extremism are not new. Gall recorded that in the aftermath of the 1999 NATO air intervention that rescued Kosova from Serbian terrorism, Wahhabi preachers from Saudi Arabia wasted no time in arriving in the country.

The Saudis spent millions of dollars to build about 240 new mosques, leaving the country with some 800 structures for Sunni Muslim prayer. As Gall noted, Serbian paramilitary forces had destroyed 218 local mosques during the Kosova war. The Saudis thus portrayed their endeavor as one of mosque rehabilitation, not expansion. And no doubt they expected in the process to make converts to their fanatical interpretation of Islam. But Gall treated the campaign by Saudi Wahhabis in Kosova as an unmitigated triumph for extremism: In “a stunning turnabout .  .  . Kosovo and the very nature of its society was fundamentally recast,” she wrote.

This vastly exaggerates the success of Wahhabi missionaries in Kosova. The most important aspect of the radicalization attempt is that it was beaten back by Kosovar Albanians and mostly defeated. Muslim fanatics continue to appear here and there in Kosova; the leadership of the official Islamic Community of Kosova has often been slow to react; and some Kosovar Albanians have gone to Syria to fight. Still, even Gall cited as credible a claim by Fatos Makolli, head of the counterterrorism police in Kosova, that “there is no evidence that any organization [in Kosova] gave money directly to people to go to Syria.”

After the Times article appeared, Kosovar Albanians, justly proud of their efforts to beat back extremism, were stunned at the picture it painted of their society having gone around the bend. They weren’t alone. Daniel Serwer, a former State Department official who is among the most serious and knowledgeable Balkanologists in the West, commented on his blog, peacefare.net, that “two thirds of the story .  .  . got short shrift.” According to Serwer, the missing pieces were obvious and simple. The Kosova government, he wrote, had “reacted vigorously and effectively to the inroads Islamic extremists have made.” Further, “Kosova Albanians as well as their government remain overwhelmingly and enthusiastically pro-American and pro-European.”

Serwer noted, “The article would have been a clarion call to action three or four years ago,” but Kosova police have counted 110 arrests, 67 indictments, and 26 convictions for violating a variety of antiterror laws, including a law prohibiting ISIS recruitment. Radical Islam in Kosova, he concluded, “is one of the last things Americans should have to worry about.” His blog post in English was rapidly translated into Albanian and posted throughout media in Kosova, providing some relief from the despair that the Times report had caused.

The next substantial answer came from Rabbi Joshua M. Z. Stanton of Congregation B’nai Jeshurun in Short Hills, N.J. Rabbi Stanton has visited Kosova repeatedly over the years and wrote a May 24 column for the Jewish Telegraphic Agency titled “We can help Kosova become fertile ground for religious pluralism.” He noted, “As a Jew and a rabbi, I have walked the streets of [Kosova’s] capital and several countryside locales with a yarmulke and felt safe and even extensively welcomed when identified by my faith.” He described “a very different Kosova” from that portrayed in the Times, a Kosova that “merits our attention as a bellwether state and exemplar of how to undermine extremism.”

Then, Greg Delawie, U.S. ambassador to Kosova since July 2015, weighed in. Delawie was interviewed by the Kosovar broadcasting enterprise RTV21, which cited the Times‘s description of extremism in the ascendant and asked him, “Do you think the government of Kosova is actually doing enough to combat terrorism and radical Islam?”

The ambassador replied, “I read that article. Actually, everybody, all of my family, all of my friends read that article, too. And my email inbox now is completely full of copies of the New York Times article. I think that article missed an important part of the story, which is the very important and very successful actions that the last two governments of Kosova have taken, especially since August of 2014. .  .  . There is a foreign terrorist fighter law that was passed in 2015. There were, I guess, more than 50 people .  .  . arrested for participating in other people’s wars—people that have returned to Kosova from Syria or Iraq.”

Delawie referred to a verdict just days before, on May 20, when Zekerija Qazimi, a preacher from the town of Ferizaj with an unmistakably untrimmed Wahhabi beard, had been sentenced to 10 years in prison for ISIS recruitment. Qazimi’s codefendants, Ilir Berisha and Sadat Toptani, were also found guilty and received similar sentences. Delawie noted that “the sentence of 10 years .  .  . is, as far as we can tell, the longest sentence for such types of crimes that has been imposed in the entire region. .  .  . I think we’ve got a great partner in Kosova and I do think Kosova is doing a lot.”

Meanwhile, Serbian media had leapt into the controversy. Hardline Serbs in Kosova are pressing for recognition of an Association/Community of Serb-majority municipalities, under U.N. and EU protection, that would assure the permanent autonomy of Serbian enclaves in north and east-central Kosova. Kosova’s Albanian leaders view this exercise as intended to establish parallel Serbian institutions throughout the country. They fear a partition of Kosova akin to that of Bosnia-Hercegovina, which has been divided since the Dayton Accords of 1995. There, Serbs occupy a “Republic of Serbs” with half the land area and a minority of the population, while Bosnian Muslims and Bosnian Croats comprise a “Federation of Bosnia-Hercegovina” with a majority of the population living on the remaining half of historically Bosnian territory.

Predictably, the Serbian media sought to magnify Gall’s reportage and retroactively justify Serbian aggression in the Bosnian and Kosova wars of the 1990s as intended to hold back the invading hordes of radical Islam. Serbian representatives alleged without evidence that an extensive network supporting Al-Qaida had been established years before in Kosova.

On May 27, facing criticism from nearly everybody who knows anything about Kosova, the Times published an editorial, “The World Reaps What the Saudis Sow,” in which the paper stated, as if it were a fresh revelation, that Saudi Arabia “has spent untold millions promoting Wahhabism, the radical form of Sunni Islam that inspired the 9/11 hijackers and that now inflames the Islamic State.” Nevertheless, the editorial stipulated that “the 9/11 attacks quickly clarified the dangers. Several Saudi organizations in Kosovo were closed, and the Saudi government, which appears to have reduced its aid to Kosovo, now insists that it has imposed strict controls on charities, mosques and clerical teachings.”

What is the moral here? It would be stereotypically Balkan to think that the New York Times harbored an agenda to discredit Kosova’s religious and secular authorities. It may be more instructive to recall that the Times has a history of permitting slipshod reporting from abroad, including that of the infamous Walter Duranty, who denied that Joseph Stalin’s policies created a famine in Ukraine killing millions and praised Stalinism as a political doctrine. Duranty won the Pulitzer Prize in 1932 for his appalling reports, a prize never revoked, and for which the Times has never expressed regret. Given that track record, aggrieved Kosovars are unlikely ever to see the Times back down from its unwarranted alarmism about radical Islam there.

Stephen Schwartz first reported from Kosova for The Weekly Standard in 1998.