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Kosovo offers Europe a test run for handling of former jihadis

Today, hundreds of foreign Islamic State fighters languish in Syrian and Iraqi jails. President Trump would like to follow the example set by Kosovo, which has reclaimed its jihadis for trial. But many European nations fear the fighters will commit terrorist acts if allowed to return home. Special correspondent Malcolm Brabant reports from Kosovo, where some ex-jihadis say they have reformed.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    Hundreds of foreign fighters who fought for the Islamic State are still languishing in jails in Syria and Iraq. President Trump would like European nations to follow the example of Kosovo, bring them home, and put them on trial.

    But many European countries fear that the former fighters will commit terrorist acts if they're allowed to return.

    Special correspondent Malcolm Brabant traveled to Kosovo to meet a man who claims to have reformed, after fighting for a group linked to the Islamic State.

  • Malcolm Brabant:

    We have just left Pristina, which is the capital of Kosovo. We're going to meet a man called Hajrush Laci, who says that he's a repentant jihadi, and he's just come out of jail, having spent three years inside, and he says he wants to talk.

    I'm working with award-winning Kosovar journalist Shkumbin Ahmetxhekaj.

  • Shkumbin Axmetxhekaj:

    Kosovo, back in 2014, has approved a law which bans participation of its citizens in foreign wars. So, if they have participated in these terrorist organizations or in foreign wars, they face jail.

  • Malcolm Brabant:

    After the Islamic State was defeated, the Kosovo government transported back to these hills four jihadis and 100 wives, widows and children.

    For a year, Shkumbin has been trying, without success, to persuade a returning extremist to talk.

  • Shkumbin Axmetxhekaj:

    Because they just feel that they're going to be stigmatized and they're going to be seen as people who have destroyed the image of this country, because now, actually, as they have returned, they want to have a life here.

  • Malcolm Brabant:

    We're heading to the cradle of Kosovo jihadism, a small industrial town called Hani I Elezit that produced many of the 400 Kosovar fighters who joined the Islamic State and bestowed the country with an undesirable reputation for radicalism.

    And this is 30-year-old Hajrush Laci. Before he left for Syria in 2014, he was a distribution manager for a logistics company. Laci says he was radicalized after watching online videos about Syria. He says he joined a militant group that was absorbed by the Islamic State, and fought against forces of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad near the port of Latakia.

    But he quickly became disillusioned, and returned to Kosovo after a month. Laci spent time in this high security jail after being convicted of belonging to the Islamic State.

    "They took me to prison at the worst period of my life," he says.

    "Let's get out of here," he says. "Let's do the interview somewhere else."

    We drive for 20 minutes. Laci's short war was costly. He's brought shame on his family. His relationship disintegrated. He seeks atonement, while justifying his legacy.

  • Hajrush Laci (through translator):

    Everyone wants to be remembered for something he's done in his life. Those who have no values die forever.

  • Malcolm Brabant:

    We stop by the main mosque in a nearby town.

    Are you a terrorist?

  • Hajrush Laci:

    I'm not terrorist. Islam learned me to be good person, good man, not terrorist.

  • Malcolm Brabant:

    Did you ever decapitate anybody or do anything like that?

  • Hajrush Laci (through translator):

    Never.

  • Malcolm Brabant:

    What was your motivation for going to Syria?

  • Hajrush Laci (through translator):

    Above all, it was due to compassion I felt for those people who called for help. Actually, I went there because I saw that they were abandoned by the world. They were Muslims, and who cares about them?

  • Malcolm Brabant:

    What sort of atrocities did you see, if any?

  • Hajrush Laci (through translator):

    I haven't seen such atrocities, because to get their confidence for having access to these sites, with these actions we see on YouTube and other social media, you need to spend at least six months to a year to be trusted as a person.

  • Malcolm Brabant:

    It's been about a year since President Trump appealed to European nations to bring back jihadis and their families from prisons and camps in what was Kurdistan and to put them on trial.

    But most European nations have been extremely reticent. Some, including Britain and Denmark, have taken away passports of those with dual nationalities to make sure that they don't come home.

    Rexhep Lushta is chief imam of this mosque and one of 20 theologians working to defuse the religious fanaticism of returning fighters. So far, 120 have come back.

  • Rexhep Lushta (through translator):

    When we clarified some of the contentious religious areas, they started to understand that their beliefs were based on illiterate theological understandings, and that they were wrong.

    I hope that the meetings and lessons have contributed to their religious beliefs being reformed.

  • Malcolm Brabant:

    But isn't that naive? Aren't the jihadis just telling the imams what they want to hear?

  • Rexhep Lushta (through translator):

    Based on my judgment and the contacts I had with these guys, taking into consideration also the global trend, I don't see that they pose any danger from radicalism in Kosovo when they get out of prison.

  • Malcolm Brabant:

    These are the foreign fighters of the Islamic State that President Trump wants Europe to take back.

    The video, obtained by war correspondent Anthony Loyd of The London Times last year, is of a Kurdish prison in Northern Syria. The Kurds struggled to contain them. The fighters faked the sickness of a comrade, rushed the guards, and took over a corridor, before being subdued.

    Can these militants ever be changed?

    Security expert Skender Perteshi has met all the returning Kosovar fighters, who, he admits, still have a potential for violence.

  • Skender Perteshi:

    All of them which have returned, they have experience on the battlefield. They have experience of the trauma, different kinds of trauma, and the conflict in the Middle East.

    And majority of them which have returned back in Kosovo, somehow, they are a risk and a threat to our national security. We cannot guarantee that these persons can be deradicalized.

  • Malcolm Brabant:

    Foreign diplomats also worry that, when jihadis finish short jail sentences, they aren't required to attend deradicalization programs, nor are they placed on probation or compelled to live in halfway houses.

    But Skender Perteshi says that Kosovo's system appears to be working so far.

  • Skender Perteshi:

    It's much more important to change the behaviors of each individual. So, by changing the behaviors, and somehow preventing this individual from violent ideologies, can be successful in the long term.

  • Malcolm Brabant:

    Thus far, only 16 jihadis have returned to the town of Hani I Elezit.

    Mayor Rufki Suma says not all are hard-core terrorists. But there's 35 percent unemployment here, and the mayor's worried that not enough is being done to help them reform.

  • Rufki Suma (through translator):

    As a municipality, we don't have a single cent allocated for this category. If we had the financial means to help these people to open their own businesses, because we have people who are experts in their fields, it would be good.

    Otherwise, they will remain in their houses, isolated. They will remain on the street. And, by doing so, and they will represent a risk.

  • Malcolm Brabant:

    The town's repentant fighter wants to help.

    What do you think that you can actually contribute in terms of trying to help deradicalize people?

  • Hajrush Laci (through translator):

    In the past, I have tried to deradicalize people who have taken the wrong path and have been influenced by those with bad beliefs.

    But, at the moment, many of them are still in prison, and I can't do anything while they're in jail. I hope to cope with my own issues in the meantime, but I can still contribute and help others in the future.

  • Malcolm Brabant:

    Kosovo is preparing to repatriate a second batch of extremists. Security expert Skender Perteshi is critical of other countries that refuse to do the same.

  • Skender Perteshi:

    If they do not return them back, if they do not rehabilitate them, they are not diving in countering and prevent radicalization.

  • Malcolm Brabant:

    The Islamic State may have lost the war, but is it finished?

  • Hajrush Laci (through translator):

    No, I don't believe they are done. Even in the past, they lost terrain, but returned more powerful. But the ISIS which I read about, heard about, the one that I was close to, ISIS, which my group cooperated with, is not done, although I wish it was the case.

  • Malcolm Brabant:

    It's going to take time to determine whether Kosovo can safely defuse the potential time bomb that it has willingly imported. The rest of Europe is watching with trepidation.

    For the "PBS NewsHour," I'm Malcolm Brabant in Kosovo.

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