Kosovo Muslim Embraces 'Jihad' in Syrian War

A Kosovar who has fought twice in Syria's civil war, says belief in Islamic holy war has drawn him and many other Albanians into the Middle Eastern cauldron.

(Balkan Insight, Muhamet Hajrullahu) Saturday, June 15, 2013

S.T., a two-time veteran of the sectarian war raging in Syria, says it is not hard to get from Pristina in Kosovo to the heart of the fighting in the Middle East's latest war. All you need is a plane ticket to Turkey, which does not require visas from Kosovars, the 30-year-old ex-schoolteacher says. There, volunteers cross over the porous Turkish border and join the opposition, mainly Sunni, rebels who have been fighting the government of Bashar Al-Assad since 2011. The former English teacher in a primary school in southeast Kosovo now sports a long Islamic beard. Sitting in a café and drinking a macchiato, he takes no notice of the Kosovo police officers sitting nearby. "Everyone here knows that I was fighting in Syria," says S.T. who wants to keep his identity secret from the media. He says he borrowed money to secure a ticket to Turkey and has fought in the ranks of the Syrian revolutionaries twice. "The first time was during the winter of 2012 when I stayed for nine weeks and then returned home for a month for family reasons," he says. "The second time I stayed for only three weeks because I injured my arm and had no choice but to come back." ST says he fought in the northern city of Aleppo and in Sakhur, which, according to him, is known for its brave fighters. "It's like our Drenica," he said, referring to the area of central Kosovo that spawned many rebels in the past. He says he carried a Kalashnikov into battle and fought in the front line. "The front line between the enemies is not more than 30-40 meters apart. I always fought in the front line," he maintained. S.T. says his original inspiration to fight came from footage on the Internet of war crimes committed by Assad regime forces. "I started to dream about it. I knew that one day I would go," he said. He says his reasons for joining the war were wholly religious. "I went to war because of jihad, the doctrine of holy war according to Islam, not for material reasons," he added. S.T., Photo by Besnik Krivanjeva According to the doctrine, when Muslims need help, other Muslims are obliged to offer them material or humanitarian aid or join them in battle, which is what S.T. did. "The initiative came from the videos I saw on the net which got me very concerned," he recalled. "The Koran and the Hadith of Muhammad [the sayings of the Prophet] also state that a day spent in jihad is equal to 60 years of worship and Ramadan," he added. "There are many other tempting and promising verses [in the Koran] for those who come to help Muslims," he continued. S.T. says the mosques of Istanbul act as meeting places for volunteer fighters heading towards the war zone. "The mosques are where you find people who lead you to Syria, as there are many Syrian refugees there," he explained. In Syria, he says that he communicated in a mixture of English and Arabic. Memories of the war in Sakhur are not the only ones he retains. "I once went to a barber shop to cut my hair," he says, "and I needed a perfume so I stopped to buy one, accompanied by my commander. "We were horrified when we saw the shopkeeper had amputated arms and legs," he added. "Assad's Special Forces had come after the shopkeeper; they beat him and cut off his arms and legs." S.T is far from the only Kosovar fighting in the Middle East. Vedat Xhymshiti, a Kosovar journalist who reported from Syria for several weeks, come across many other Albanians who were fighting a jihad. "In general, all the Albanians I met had joined the war for the same reason; jihad, holy war," he said. Xhymshiti says he came across 100 to 150 other Albanians fighters in Syria. Meanwhile S. T. said that the only reason that has made him speak out is the aspersions that some people cast over the motives of the fighters. "The question of 'Do you get paid for fighting, or are you a volunteer?' has forced me to speak out on behalf of my Albanian Muslim community," he said. "I did not take any money," he continued. "I have read a few newspaper articles about the places, addresses and mosques that organize people and these articles contain nothing but lies," he added. "The front line is open for everyone, and if you have the intention to go nobody can stop you. There is no need for such organization." At a press conference on 17 May, leaders of Kosovo's main Islamist party, the Islamic Unification Movement, LISBA, called on the government to help the Syrian opposition, even if only symbolically. At the same time, LISBA denied organizing volunteers for the Syrian war. "We do not know the exact number of Albanians from Kosovo, or other Albanian areas, fighting in Syria, as we do not organize or sponsor them," the leader of LISBA, Fuad Ramiqi, said. "It is done on a voluntary basis. We are not taking any account of who is going there and who is not," he added. The movement, which was established as a political party in March, has protested several times so far, demanding more rights for the Islamic community, which they say is discriminated against. Abit Hoxha, from the Centre for Security Studies in Kosovo, said that there are no organizations in the country making arrangements for people to fight in Syria. Although, according to Hoxha, there are two incentives for people to join the war in Syria. The first is religious faith and the second is the social status these people hope to acquire once they return home. A former reporter of "Rilindja" newspaper from the Middle East, Nehat Islami said that some "Albanians" fighting in Syria and long-time residents of the country who moved long ago, back in 1912. "They are Syrians of Albanian origin," Islami explained. The conflict began on 15 March 2011, with popular protests that spread all over Syria. According to a United Nations report published on 15 May, 80,000 people have died as a result of the armed conflict in Syria, 10,000 in February alone.