(MENAFN - AFP) One of Europe's smallest countries, Kosovo has produced more than its fair share of battle-hardened jihadists whom it is now trying to rehabilitate after their return home from Syria and Iraq.
The fear is, however, that holding and isolating them in prison may only make the problem worse.
"Religious sects are better organised than the prison authorities," said Sami Lushtaku, a former Kosovo Liberation Army commander, who was jailed, then acquitted over crimes committed during the 1998-99 independence war.
Lushtaku's widely-reported remark during an interview with several TV channels followed his detention in two jails, including a high-security centre in Gerdoc, 25 kilometres (15 miles) from the capital, Pristina.
For the government of this small, mostly-Muslim Balkan nation, the returning jihadists are seen as a real threat.
"Kosovo is threatened by those returning from war zones who intend to attack the multi-ethnic and multi-religious character of Kosovo, its democratic government and its secular society," it said in a 2018-22 action plan.
Visar Duriqi, a Kosovo journalist specialising in religious affairs, said isolating the jailed jihadists can "prevent them from exerting any influence on people who have already broken the law and are more fragile."
But there is an ongoing debate over the strategy, with opponents arguing it only further alienates the jihadists and that, if they are to return to normal, they must be treated like any other prisoner.
According to official estimates, some 300 Kosovans fought with Al-Qaeda's Syrian ex-affiliate Al-Nusra Front or the Islamic State group since 2012.
More than 50 were killed but 130 have returned to Kosovo, with around 80 in all detained.
A 2015 law stipulates an up to 15-year jail term for returning jihadists and all others who fight in foreign conflicts.
- Kosovo recruiting ground -
"Relative to its population of 1.8 million, Kosovo is arguably the largest source of European jihadists in Syria and Iraq," according to estimates from 2015 by the US think tank, the Combating Terrorism Center.
For the vice-minister of security forces, Burim Ramadani, "the main challenge is to make these men patriots and not to reinforce their hostility."
The Islamic Community of Kosovo (BIK) plans to have 20 imams under its supervision visit the jihadists.
Radical Islamists should be engaged "in a reflection that will make them become normal citizens... they should not be left to their world," chief mufti of the BIK, Sabri Bajgora, told AFP.
"We do not know how they will react" to the imams, Bajgora conceded, however.
Kosovo media has reported on the case of former jihadist Fitim Lladrovci, 28, who resumed his propaganda activities on social networks as soon as he was released from Gerdoc.
The problem was further highlighted at the recent trial of a group of young men accused of plotting an attack against the Israeli football team in neighbouring Albania in November 2016.
Only one of them was a former jihadist fighter but all were "in permanent contact with the members of Islamic State in Syria," said prosecutor Merita Bina-Rugova.
One member of the cell, Kenan Plakaj, sentenced to 18 months imprisonment and released pending an appeal, told AFP he sought a normal life, "to have kids, continue (my) career as a chemist and find a job."
But the leader of the group, Visar Ibishi, was defiant, refusing to leave his cell at Gerdoc prison and go to the court, where he was sentenced to jail for 10 years.
"I only know the justice of Allah and I do not feel either guilty or (as) a terrorist," he said during the trial.
- Influence of radical imams -
According to Skender Perteshi, analyst at the Kosovar Centre for Security Studies (KCSS), former jihadists "now belong to an international terrorist network, have learnt to use arms and explosives, (and) have been very close to killings and massacres."
This is the sort of experience "that they bring to Kosovo," he added.
Breaking with Kosovo's tradition of liberal Islam, these men have often fallen under the influence of radical imams.
The clerics "played a role in propagating Islamic extremism," the government's action plan says.
Six have been prosecuted, with one, Zeqeria Qazimi, sentenced to 10 years in jail in 2016 for inciting jihad.
And Shefqet Krasniqi, the former imam of Pristina's Grand Mosque who studied in Saudi Arabia for 15 years, was acquitted on hate incitement charges earlier this year and resumed his teaching activities.
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