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FERIZAJ, Kosovo — The night before 23-year-old Blerim Heta disappeared from his home in the small farming village of Varosh, he left a letter for his mother under his pillow. He was leaving Kosovo for Syria and would not return.
“I ask you to forgive me, I choose this path alone, no one imposed it on me,” he wrote on the last night of Ramadan in August 2013. “I know that you won’t be happy about this, but you can only find happiness with Allah!”
Seven months later, Heta called his mother and told her he would soon be meeting God.
The following day, March 25, 2014, he blew himself up in an attack in Baghdad that killed dozens of Iraqis, local news organizationsreported. He had become a member of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), the Qaeda splinter group that has seized control of much of northern Iraq and eastern Syria. It is believed he was the first suicide bomber from the Balkans.
“Our village never had problems,” said Hajrush Beqaj, a local mullah and close friend of the Heta family. “I would have never thought that this boy would have done such a thing.”
A year after Heta’s disappearance, his clothes are still draped over a chair in his bedroom, the way he left them. A photo of him as a boy remains in a frame with cracked glass, and a poster in Arabic with the 99 names of Allah hangs on the wall. Nothing has been touched.
One hundred to 200 young Kosovars like Heta, mainly ethnic Albanians, are believed to be fighting with ISIL in Iraq and Syria. These men are among the estimated 15,000 foreigners who have gone to fight for the group in recent months.
According to the Kosovo police, 16 fighters from Kosovo have already been killed in Syria and Iraq.
“Two years ago, it was a pretty big number of [fighters from Kosovo], and I could explain that many of them in the beginning thought that they are going to help fight the dictatorship of Bashar al-Assad’s regime,” said Bajram Rexhepi, interior minister of Kosovo. “But after a couple of months, we saw that in Syria, nobody knows who fights against whom, and unfortunately many of them take part in different kinds of terrorist organizations.”
Many here see youth unemployment, which is about 70 percent, as one of the major factors motivating young Kosovars to fight abroad.
“There is a spiritual struggle. You don’t have a job. you don’t have anything. The only social gathering is the mosque, and that’s where it starts,” said Abit Hoxha, a security researcher at the Kosovo Center for Security Studies in Pristina, the capital. “If we continue neglecting the path of this country that is not getting enough attention here — not getting jobs, not getting an economic perspective or educational opportunities — I think the numbers will grow.”
‘Never in a million years did she think that he would do that.’
relative of a woman whose husband joined ISIL
As the war in Syria escalated and swept through neighboring Iraq, the Kosovo government made it a priority to stem the recruitment of fighters from this nation of 1.8 million people, 95 percent of whom are Muslim.
Rexhepi said the Kosovo Assembly is likely to soon pass a law prohibiting Kosovar citizens from joining foreign armed conflicts. Like other nations that are seeing a rise in fighters, Kosovo is ramping up efforts to intercept citizens preparing to fight abroad for ISIL and other groups such as Al-Nusra Front and Al-Qaeda. On Aug. 11, after months of investigation, the Kosovo police arrested 43 suspected ISIL members. Another 15 people were arrested on Sept. 17.
Since gaining independence from Serbia in February 2008, Kosovo has received assistance from international organizations and cooperated with the FBI and with Interpol to gather intelligence on fighters and recruiters in Kosovo.
Yet men continue to heed the call for recruits. Photos and slick videos showing ISIL fighters from around the world urging their countrymen to join them in Syria abound on social media outlets such as Facebook, Twitter and YouTube.
“Social media is the perfect tool to spread terror, and it’s really terror,” said Hoxha, referring to videos showing ISIL fighters shooting and beheading people. In many of these videos, the fighters do not hide their faces.
Perhaps Kosovo’s most notorious fighter is Lavdrim Muhaxheri, who often appears in ISIL propaganda videos. Originally from the small town of Kaçanik, about 10 miles from the Macedonian border, he worked with NATO in Afghanistan from 2010 to 2012, according to Kosovo media reports. Now he is on Interpol’s list of wanted people.
Late last year, Muhaxheri released a video in Albanian from a northern Syrian city near the Turkish border, calling for men to go and fight for ISIL. In another video, he is shown ripping up his Kosovar passport.
News of his actions has brought shame to the community.
“Before, our parents were proud of us to go to the mosque, but now they want to stop us,” said Afrim Lika, 32, who works at a kebab shop behind Kaçanik’s main mosque and has known Muhaxheri since they both were boys. “He’s dead to me.”
Lika worries that more youths from Kaçanik will join ISIL. He recently told his teenage cousin to stop going to the mosque to avoid being brainwashed by those drawn to the group.
Some young fighters even try to take their wives and children.
In one case, Pranvera Abazi-Zena, a mother from Pristina, received a text message three days after her husband, Arben Zena, told her he was taking their son, 8-year-old Erion, on a weekend camping trip in the mountains in western Kosovo. The message said that he had instead taken their son to Syria and that he would be in touch with her once he had a better signal. That was in July, and she hasn’t heard from him since.
“We know that he joined [ISIL],” said Suad Sadulahi, Abazi-Zena’s cousin, because of photos of Erion that have been circulating on the Internet showing him surrounded with ISIL flags and fighters. (Arben Zena does not appear in any of the photos.) “Never in a million years did she think that he would do that,” Sadulahi said of Arben’s decision to go to Syria with their son.
‘We say that terrorism doesn’t belong to Islam. Islam calls for peace. It doesn’t call for war. War is something ugly.’
imam in Ferizaj, Kosovo
On a recent Friday the Big Mosque of Mulla Veseli, the main mosque in the southern Kosovar city of Ferizaj, was filled to capacity with worshipers spilling onto colorful mats in the courtyard. The mosque can accommodate up to 1,500 people during Friday prayers. After the service, a diverse group of men streamed out of the mosque — from clean-shaven teenagers clad in baggy jeans and T-shirts to elderly men wearing plis, the traditional white hats worn by Albanian men throughout the Balkans.
One young Kosovar, Avni Bytyci, a Fulbright scholar who recently graduated from Syracuse University, said he is surprised by the growing numbers of youths going to Syria and Iraq.
“We never thought this would happen to our society,” he said after attending the sermon. “Albanians support the opposition in Syria but not through terrorist means.”
Adem Hoxha, the imam here since the 1980s, has addressed the issue in his sermons.
“We say that terrorism doesn’t belong to Islam. Islam calls for peace. It doesn’t call for war. War is something ugly,” said Hoxha from his office in the mosque. “That’s a bad image for the whole Islam in general, and that’s a bad image for Kosovo too.”
Another imam from a mosque in southern Kosovo, who agreed to talk on the condition of anonymity, said he has pleaded with members of his mosque, including his own sons, not to go abroad to fight. He said he knows some of the young men who have left Kosovo to fight in Syria.
“I feel very sad, as if they were my kids,” he said. Iraq and Syria are holy lands, “blessed lands,” and the fighters think if they will go there and die, they will become heroes, he said.
Many Kosovars say they worry that some hard-line imams in the country are playing a role in influencing young people to fight in Iraq and Syria. At least 12 imams are among the suspected ISIL members arrested this month. In an interview, Rexhepi said the young fighters are manipulated not only by social media but also by “different mosques, some clerics.”
But the imam in southern Kosovo strongly denied this. He said there are no imams in the country who call for recruits, because of the country’s recent past.
“We are a tired nation, recently got out of war,” said the imam. “We don’t have enough sons and daughters to fight in Syria and Iraq.”
Heta’s relatives say they still know little about why he was drawn to ISIL.
The family spent the last two decades in Germany and Kosovo and lived a comfortable life. By the time he reached his early 20s, Heta had become very religious and regularly attended sermons in Ferizaj and Macedonia that were aligned with imams his parents described as extremists. (The imam of one mosque that he frequented was among those arrested earlier this month, according to his sister, Arjeta Heta-Reqica.) Blerim Heta gradually became more withdrawn and isolated from his family.
“My opinion is that he was lonely here, then he joined the religion and the mosque,” said his uncle Habib Ismajli.
After Heta left for Syria, he often communicated with his family via Skype, telling them that he was studying Islam and Arabic so he could teach others in Kosovo. However, three months before the suicide attack, he confided in Heta-Reqica that he was a fighter for ISIL and approved of the killing of nonbelievers.
The sister didn’t tell other members of the family, not wanting to shock them, but she said she pleaded with him to return. Heta stayed in regular touch with her and other family members, but he always ignored their appeals to go back home.