Dangerous content promoting political Islam, religious extremism, ‘holy war’ or jihad and disobedience towards Kosovo’s constitution, continues to be present on hundreds of websites in the Albanian language. BIRN’s research sheds light on some of the topics touched by this propaganda.
Recent research, by BIRN found that during the year 2022, substantial quantities of materials promoting political Islam in Albanian were published on the Internet and shared on social networks.
Although security institutions say they have shut down hundreds of such sites, many of the posts are still accessible to the public. Meanwhile, the Government has yet to adopt a strategic plan to delegitimize this narrative with a counter-narrative.
The research shows that publications made during the year 2022 are dominated by narratives promoting the victimization of Muslims in Kosovo and beyond.
The source of propaganda
Between the years 2012-2022, security institutions in Kosovo closed hundreds of pages and platforms promoting political Islam and religious terrorism.
The term “political Islam”, refers broadly to any interpretation of Islam that serves as a basis for political identity and action. More specifically, it refers to movements that represent modern political mobilization in the name of Islam.
At the turn of the 20th century, dozens of Kosovars were educated in religious schools in the Middle East. Some of these schools promoted political Islam as the only solution to world problems.
BIRN found that some of these scholars have been convicted by Kosovo Courts for financing and abetting terrorism.
Analysis carried out by the Kosovo Anti-Terrorist Unit shows the initial materials were imported in physical form during the post-war years when translated pamphlets about political Islam were distributed in Kosovo. The same messages were later digitized and today are accessible on the Internet:
“With the development of technology and the development of social networking platforms and other communication applications, propaganda…has focused on…constantly choosing the newest applications,” says the Police report.
The same document shows that during this time there was also a change in the sources of this information: “Initially, the materials of the so-called religious scholars of the Middle Eastern countries dominated. Then after the beginning of the conflict in Syria and Iraq, the propaganda materials mainly contained elements and images from these conflict areas. While in recent years, materials in the Albanian language, or translated with subtitles in the Albanian language, have also been recorded,” says the police report.
Police data shows that more than 400 Kosovars joined the terrorist organization ISIS and other organizations fighting in Syria.
According to indictments filed by the Kosovo Prosecutor’s Office, propaganda was used as one of the recruitment strategies. The essence of the narrative used was a call to stop victimization of Muslims through violence and jihad.
Other narrative themes published in 2022 include: the denial of European values; calls against the constitutional order; promotion of violence as the only form of solving problems; attempts to impose social norms; damaging the image of religious leaders; disobedience towards government and justice systems, attempts to change the economic order and attempts to promote new Islamic sects.
Despite arrests made by the Kosovo Police, BIRN has found that the promotion of jihad continues, mainly on websites based in the hometowns of people who joined the war in Syria.
The Facebook page “Hani i Elez si Paris,” for example, carries the message: “Palestinian mother holding her son, who was martyred (insha’Allah) yesterday.” Han i Elez borders the municipality of Kaçanik in Kosovo, where some of the propaganda influencing recruitment of people to ISIS originated. The propaganda promotes jihad and death for political sacrifice. Over 20 citizens from this municipality went to war in Syria and Iraq.
Threats in Albanian
The largest terrorist group of the 21st century, ISIS, managed to build a news center using the Albanian language and would later influence the recruitment of people to the group.
In 2016 Ardit Ferizi, 25, from Gjakova was sentenced to 20 years imprisonment in the USA for unauthorized access to data he sent to a terrorist group. This data, mainly details of American soldiers and government employees, was passed on to members of the so-called Islamic State (IS). Ferizi was released in December 2020 and deported to Kosovo on early release. Not long after this case, IS published the data on Twitter warning that it would “attack your neck, your land”.
In a recently published 20-minute propaganda video with the ISIS- sponsored logo, “Alhayat Media Center,” two Albanian-speaking people, Al-Albani and Al-Kosova, describe Albanians mainly as atheists. Addressing citizens from Albania, Kosovo, North Macedonia, and other Balkan states, they announced:
“Black days will come for you. We do not forget what you have done to Muslims; you will be afraid to walk on the street; you will be afraid to work in your offices; you will be terrified even in your homes. We will deal with you, as we did in Iraq with their army. We will come to you with people who love death more than life. We will fight until we raise the word of Allah in that country and this will happen soon.”
In October 2015, a message from a person named Abu Turab reached Balkan media editorial offices threatening:
“The Islamic State is coming to the Balkans, we are warning you that we have not forgotten what their leaders and assistants does to our brothers and sisters in the Balkans. There is no doubt that we have supporters and brothers and sisters everywhere in Skopje, in Tirana, who are thirsty for blood. It would be good for these Prime Ministers to protect themselves. The caliphate is coming to the Balkans and we have a lot of bloodthirsty brothers there.”
ISIS also used Albanian on the website “khilafeti.wordpress” to publish announcements and glorify terrorist attacks on Western countries.
In addition to the media offensive that produced such materials, IS also had physical recruiters.
Files from Kosovo’s Special Prosecutor’s Office (SPO) hold former Imam, Zekerja Qazimi, of the El-Kudus mosque in Gjilan, responsible for recruiting terrorists:
“It is enough to look at the names of those who went to Syria to conclude that Zekerja Qazimi was successful”, said special prosecutor Elez Blakaj during Qazimi’s trial.
According to the SPO, Qazimi started giving religious lectures in the “Islamic Youth” organization in Kaçanik at the beginning of the war in Syria. The main theme of these lectures was the importance of jihad, comparing one hour of fighting to 30 hours of prayer. Most of the members of this organization, including Lavdrim Muhajherin, ended up joining Al Nusra and ISIS.
The indictment charged Qazim with giving instructions, guidance and money to those who went to fight in Syria. Qazim was sentenced to 10 years in prison.
In recent years ISIS propagandists continuously aimed to highlight the presence of the organization in Kosovo as well.
In 2015 five armed men were arrested during an attempt to produce a video while reading the ISIS oath near Lake Badovci, which supplies half of Prishtina with water. In a July 2017 retrial, the Basic Court of Pristina found the defendants – Besnik Latifi, Gazmend Haliti, Milazim Haxhiaj and Enis Latifi – guilty and sentenced them to between 3 to 4.5 years in prison. Fehmi Musa was sentenced to 3 years and was released by the Supreme Court.
July 2016 culminated in the arrest of two persons suspected of spreading terrorist propaganda in Kosovo. The first, known as “NK” from Peja, was the suspected founder of “Radio Ansar,” a station that broadcast religious lectures by two Imams from Macedonia convicted of inciting terrorism: Zeqrija Qazim and Rexhep Mimish.
The Second, Rakip Avdyli, was sentenced to 17 months in prison for distributing material on YouTube calling for jihad. During the trial Prosecutor Merita Bina-Rugova, revealed a recording of Avdyli entitled: “Khilafeti will come to the Land of the Eagles,” where the accused called for the seizure of weapons to attack government and embassies.
Non-acceptance of the Constitution of Kosovo
One of the most popular Imams on social networks is Shefqet Krasniqi, who has close to 400,000 followers on Facebook. Krasniqi was arrested in 2014 following two lectures.
The prosecution claimed that his first lecture, about the Iranian-originating “Rafedi” sect reaching Kosovo, contained hate speech.
In a second video, entitled “Law for Syria and the call not to go,” Krasniqi criticized Kosovar MPs who have approved the Law on banning citizens from participating in foreign wars. During the trial, Krasniqi said that it is his right to oppose the law since according to him, about 30 deputies of the Assembly of Kosovo have done the same.
During the trial The Islamic Community (BIK) said that Krasniqi’s speech was not in the spirit of BIK and does not conform to the teachings of Islam: “The two lectures in question are not in the Islamic spirit and we consider that they are not in the traditional language. The rude language does not coincide with the constitution and other rules of the Islamic Community,” said BIK. Krasniqi was declared innocent on March 23, 2018. He continues to be one of the most followed Imams on social media.
Years later in 2022, the former president of the unity movement LISBA, Fuad Ramiqi, said in a televised debate that he does not accept the Constitution of Kosovo, because it does not fit his principles. “I do not accept this constitution, because it does not correspond to me”, he said. His message was picked up and shared on dozens of social media sites.
Ramiqi began to reappear in the media after an incident in which an Imam was attacked in the municipality of Podujeva. During the debate, he said that the security institutions are against Islam. Further, his interview, shared over 174 pages on social networks, builds a narrative against the Imams of the country:
“In Kosovo, the imams have the least Islam, they are all servile, 99 per cent are servile to the government and they use the Islamic Community as an oligarch to maintain their positions”, Ramiqi declared.
Declaring Imams as ‘kafir’ or corrupt is one of the severe forms of radicalization. Data from the Kosovo Correction Service show that the majority of terrorism prisoners refused to meet Imams who are aligned with the Islamic Community of Kosovo.
Another group of five scholars accused of acts related to terrorism and calls for resistance gathered over 42 thousand followers on Facebook. Bedri Robaj, Idriz Bilibani, Enes Goga and Mazllam Mazllam and Fuad Ramiqi were variously accused of supporting Jihad, inciting hatred, encouraging recruitment and resisting local justice authorities online and in towns from Peja to Prishtina.
The released Imams continue to have a large presence on social networks.
Narratives spread in 2022
During 2022, several messages were recorded showing propaganda against European values, the constitutional order and other social values.
In 2022 there was a campaign against the singer Dua Lipa, one of the most famous Albanian singers in the world, who represents the European spirit of the country. At the height of her support, when she was holding a concert in Pristina, more than 100 posts on Facebook pages aimed to damage her image. A picture of the mother of the hero Adem Jashari, wearing a traditional headscarf appeared in the post, accompanied by the text:
“Imagine if this woman was Dukagjin Lipa’s daughter, was born abroad, had all kinds of artistic skills, made us “proud” with her music…, would she raise men like Baca Hamëz and Adem.”
The message, which was shared in over 100 posts, aimed to demonize Lipa by labelling her immoral. The posts are from Facebook pages that promote schools of Islam that do not allow music and promote the wearing of the headscarf.
A narrative against human rights from similar pages was also made in 2022 when the Government tried to pass the new Civil Code on recognition of the civil union between same sexes.
Muslim, Jewish, Catholic and Evangelical communities in Kosovo announced that they have signed a joint statement, calling for no changes to be made to the Draft Civil Code: “Touching the redefinition of marriage and its participants, i.e. the man born male, and the woman born female, we think that the word and will of God as well as his sacred covering for the entire human family which it started from a man and a woman with the blessing and commandment of eternal multiplication,” the statement said. Public and political opposition caused the approval of the Civil Code to fail and it was returned to the government for redrafting.
There were also reactions when the Government of Kosovo decided to color the building of the Government of Kosovo with the colors of the flag used by the LGBTI community when an Imam from Vushtrri called it a flag of shame.
Initiatives for headscarves in schools
The data gathered by BIRN reveals that initiatives to allow the headscarf in schools received no less than 37 thousand shares on Facebook.
During 2022 there were several initiatives to spread Islam in educational institutions. Starting with requests for the creation of prayer rooms inside schools, such as the unsuccessful case of the “Gjin Gazulli” school; the debate then shifted to the wearing of headscarves in schools. The Ministry of Education had previously issued an administrative instruction, aiming to protect the secular character of the pre-university education system, by banning the use of religious symbols, including headscarves, in the country’s schools.
Jurist Durim Berisha, former advisor to Prime Minister Albin Kurti, submitted a formal request to the Ministry of Education to change the instruction on the justification that this constitutes a violation of human rights and the European Convention.
After submitting the request, a group of activists, including the activist Liridon Kurti from Mitrovica, started a campaign on social media to change the instruction. The campaign received over 20,000 signatures and had over 37,000 shares on social networks.
Responding to BIRN, Kurti said that this initiative was aimed at implementing the European Convention on Human Rights:
“The request and the campaign were aimed at eliminating an illegal provision,” said Kurti.
After public pressure, Prime Minister Albin Kurti gave a new position: the headscarf should be allowed above the age of 16. Following several days as the main topic on social networks, the Minister of Education, Arbërie Nagavci, re-clarified that the instruction remained unchanged.
Imams with pronounced radical tendencies promote the extreme domination of men over women. The language used promotes the view that men should give permission to women for movement, work, visits, etc., while even in property matters there is a narrative that women should not inherit real estate. In this topic, such narratives have been identified that conflict with basic human rights and freedoms, such as the right to marry.
Sadullah Bajrami, an Albanian Imam from Macedonia preaches that a girl must not marry without her father’s permission. This message was shared on at least seven social network pages that have followers from Kosovo. A similar narrative was related by the Imam from Mitrovica, Irfan Salihu. In posts on social networks, he is quoted as having said that girls cannot marry without their father’s permission.
In addition to the family, narratives have also spread against national holidays, traditional and pagan holidays. The questions of whether it is allowed to celebrate the New Year, whether it is allowed to celebrate Halloween, whether it is allowed to mark holidays of a national nature in addition to ethnic ones, arouse fierce debates which are also filled with hate speech on social networks.
Narratives against other religions
Although Kosovo is valued with great tolerance for religions, there have been cases when public discourse has been developed against Albanian historical figures such as Mother Teresa or Skënderbeu. For example, at the beginning of 2022, a statement made by the former Minister of Foreign Affairs of Albania, Paskal Milo, about the figure of Skënderbeu was misquoted. He had said in a debate that Skenderbeu was born Orthodox, while the media misquoted him with the headline: “Skenderbeu was a Slav”. In addition, a video with sequences cut from Pascal Milo’s statement was published. In a clarification, Milo said:
“Do you know where the deformation was? They had taken and stitched phrases separated from the entire 2-hour debate and pasted them together to create the impression they wanted to create,” said Milo, adding that the montage was made by Islamic radicals present in Albania. The video was published on the YouTube page “TheOsmanlit”.
Similarly, the first protest to build a large Mosque on the campus of the University of Prishtina, was held in front of the Mother Teresa Cathedral. Lavdrim Muhaxheri, who later joined the terrorist organization ISIS, participated in this protest. The cause for the construction was later taken up by the Unity Movement – LISBA led by Fuad Ramiqi, followed by BIK.
Another element of the discourse is the issue of conversions to Islam. Cases occur where conversions are distributed by a whole network of websites, thus echoing and creating [an amplified] perception about conversions. The news about the conversion of a German woman in Mitrovica, on the Crowdtangle platform, has been shared over 100 times on different websites.
Narratives related to the prohibition of taking loans or the rate of interest or the economic regulation of the country are also present in Kosovo. These narratives are often accompanied by examples of how countries outside of Kosovo, such as Turkey, have been successful because they are against usury.
Despite the closure of hundreds of internet sources promoting political Islam, such as those described in this article, religious propaganda remains prevalent in Kosovo. In the coming year, the Government of Kosovo, within the framework of the Anti-Terrorism Strategy, has foreseen the start of the drafting of a strategy which aims to identify and combat these extreme narratives.
Research was carried out by BIRN for the Centre Against Disinformation of the Western Balkans, led by the Metamorfozis Foundation.