Jihadi Mobilization within Diaporas: Ethnic Albanian Foreign Fighters from Switzerland

If it comes to the (alleged) death of prominent ISIS members, the proverb “There’s no life in the old dog yet” often seems to fit. The same is true for notorious Kosovar ISIS emir Lavdrim Muhaxheri (Abu Abdallah al-Kosovi). However, a recent press release of the International Coalition for Operation Inherent Resolve declared Muhaxheri and other ethnic Albanian ISIS members dead. Besides Muhaxheri, his deputy Irfan Haqifi, Orhan Ramadani, Jetmir Ismaili and Razim Kastrati were killed by coalition airstrikes in Mayadin and Raqqa between mid of May and mid of June. All five individuals were accused of recruiting foreign fighters from the Balkans and being involved in external terrorist operations in Europe.

Albanian Jihadis did not only incited individuals in their homelands Kosovo, Macedonia and Albania, but recruited also from the diaspora in Switzerland (as well as Germany and Italy). Orhan Ramadani, for instance, lived for a period of time near Zurich, and socialized with Albanian radicals in the whole country. Later in Syria, he became close to other foreign fighters from the Balkans such as Bajro Ikanovic and Ridvan Haqifi. Another dozen of Albanians – especially Kosovars and Macedonians – left Switzerland to join Jihadi groups in Syria, or tried to do so. In-depth research and sources new to the author illustrate that the shared origin of these Jihadis is a crucial factor behind the formation of local radical clusters, transnational networking and the recruitment of foreign fighters to ethnically homogenous combat units within ISIS and other Jihadi insurgent groups in Syria.

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From right to left: Orhan Ramadani with Bajro Ikanovic and Ridvan Haqifi

Ethnic Albanians within ISIS

Taking numbers on foreign fighters from the Balkans provided by Vlado Azinovic as reference, an estimate of 450-600 ethnic Albanians joined terrorist groups in Syria and Iraq between 2012 and 2016. Many of these Jihadi fighters organized within the Albanian ISIS katibat of Lavdrim Muhaxheri and Ridvan Haqifi. Muhaxheri was born 1989 in the Kosovar town of Kacanik. Growing up without his mother during the Kosovar-Serb war, he later worked at the KFOR camp “Bondsteel” until he was promoted in 2010 to a NATO training camp in Afghanistan.

After Muhaxheri returned to Kosovo in 2012, he became an active member and leader of the radical Islamic Youth in Kacanik. Muhaxheri’s hometown soon transformed to a Jihadi hotbed in Kosovo. By summer 2015, two dozens of its residents left for joining the Syrian Jihad. Apparently, Muhaxheri radicalized rapidly within one year since he travelled to Syria in the end of 2012. He firstly became the commander of a fighting unit of Albanians associated with Jabhat an-Nusra, but defected in 2013 to ISIS where he continued to function as military leader and contact for prospective fighters from Kosovo.

Muhaxheri_Islamic Youth
Muhaxheri at a street dawa of Islamic Youth Kacanik in 2012

Ridvan Haqifi, a former imam born in 1990, was like Muhaxheri a student of the radical Kosovar and Macedonian preachers Shukri Aliu and Zekerija Qazimi, who were mainly active at the Alaud-din and El Kuddus mosque in Haqifi’s hometown Gjilan. According to Gazette Express, Qazimi recruited at least eleven foreign fighters from Gjilan but reportedly also issued tezkiye (recommendations) for other prospective ISIS members from Kosovo. Haqifi, who shared family ties with Aliu and Qazimi, travelled to Syria in September 2013 and soon became Muhaxheri’s deputy within the Albanian ISIS katibat. Balkan Insight reported, that Haqifi even replaced Muhaxheri as emir upon arrival due to latter’s brutal executions of Muslim prisoners raised tension among the unit’s members.

Zekerija Qazimi
Gjilan-based preacher Zekerija Qazimi

However, both continued to repeatedly threaten countries in the Balkans with terrorist attacks and envisioned a Caliphate in Kosovo. In November 2016, Kosovar police dismantled various ISIS cells plotting simultaneous terrorist attacks in Albania, Kosovo and Macedonia, including the European football championship qualifier between Albania and Israel. Police found substantial amounts of explosives and arrested 25 suspects who received direct orders by Muhaxheri and Haqifi.

Only one month later, Italian newspaper L’Espresso cited national intelligence officials who expressed their concern about the alleged return of Muhaxheri and 300-400 of his fighters to Kosovo. If Muhaxheri and his comrades really returned to the Balkans via Macedonia remains unclear. Yet, his associate Haqifi was killed in Syria already in February. It is plausible that his brother Irfan became his successor as important ISIS recruiter in Kosovo and deputy of Muhaxheri. Facing trial and being under house arrest, Irfan Haqifi could clear out for Syria in fall 2016 with four other Kosovar Jihadis. He died along Muhaxheri on June 7, 2017.

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Lavdrim Muhaxheri and Ridvan Haqifi with other Albanian foreign fighters

Radical Albanian Visitors in Switzerland

For long time, small but growing Jihadi networks in Switzerland were mainly dominated by North-Africans and Iraqis, but the number of Swiss foreign fighters with Balkan origin became significant. Even more worrisome, extremists with Balkan origin play a crucial role in facilitating the recruitment and movement of fighters from Switzerland to terrorist groups in Syria and Iraq. Only few of these individuals were already radicalized when they entered Switzerland as gastarbeiter and asylum seekers during the 1980s and 1990s. Likewise, Switzerland’s 200,000 ethnic Albanians (mainly from Kosovo and Macedonia) were usually perceived as moderate and less prone to radicalization because of the communist past of their homelands.

However, much changed since then and one factor behind the growing Jihadi movement in Switzerland is, indeed, the increased influence of radical preachers from the Balkans. According to Swiss newspaper NZZ, more than 30 of these Salafi preachers gave guest lectures in Swiss mosques. Some of the most frequent visitors like Shefqet Krasniqi from Prishtina, Ulvi Fejzullahu from Bujanovac, Mazllam Mazllami and Idriz Bilibani from Prizren were later accused for inciting and recruiting Jihadi foreign fighters in their homelands.

Alone in 2013, Albanian mosques in German-speaking Switzerland offered a platform for Shefqet Krasniqi at least seven times and Mazllami four times. While especially Krasniqi travelled to plenty of Swiss cities, his and Mazllami’s activities – sometimes appearing together – focused interestingly on the White Mosque in Aarburg, the Albanian-Islamic Community in Zurich and the Albanian Islamic Association in Regensdorf (near Zurich) which all belong to the Union of Albanian Imams in Switzerland (UAIS), an umbrella organization of around 60 Albanian-speaking mosques in Switzerland. Although UAIS renounced their guest lectures after public criticism, the frequency of those preachers’ visits indicates that their connections to UAIS imams are closer than the mosque authorities want to admit.

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Shefqet Krasniqi with Nehat Ismaili in March 2014

Furthermore, UAIS president and imam of the White Mosque Nehat Ismaili tried to justify the invitation of Krasniqi with the circumstance that he was the imam of Prishtina’s biggest mosque at this time, and UAIS not aware of his and other preachers’ radical worldview. This explanation, however, is not very convincing since the White Mosque organized an event with Krasniqi in September 2014, the same month he was arrested. Likewise, other radical preachers continued to give lectures at UAIS mosques. Ulvi Fajzullahu, who allegedly incited foreign fighters in Serbia, for instance, visited the Regensdorf mosque in March 2015.

Additionally, Swiss media accused UAIS imams for their ongoing personal links to the controversial Salafi Islamic Central Council in Switzerland (IZRS) as well as the Saudi Islamic World League. During the last years, some individuals close to IZRS travelled to Syria, and the association’s leadership maintained contacts to radical insurgent groups especially in Idlib province (see previous blog entry). Krasniqi appeared twice at yearly IZRS meetings in 2011 and 2013, and officially serves as board member of the IZRS-linked Association of Muslim Scholars. The Islamic World League constitutes one of the main sponsors of Salafi mosques in Switzerland, including the Petit-Saconnex mosque in Geneva and the King Faysal mosque in Basel which both made headlines because some visitors of these mosques joined the Syrian Jihad.

The connection between radical Albanian preachers and the diaspora in Switzerland extends beyond sole guest lectures and includes financial support and social bonding. After one of his lectures in February 2013 at Kandil Association in Liestal near Basel, Mazllam Mazllami reportedly announced that the attendees collected 11,000 Swiss francs for Salafi activities in Kosovo. When Kosovar authorities arrested Krashniqi, Mazllami and Idriz Bilibani in September 2014 for radicalizing and recruiting foreign fighters, police found in Krasniqi’s apartment large sums of cash, including 7000 Swiss francs, according to the Albanian-Swiss media portal Albinfo.ch.

Apart from official events, Albanian extremists socialized informally with their fellow brethren in Switzerland. In spring 2014, Ulvi Fajzullahu, for instance, attended a barbeque in Berne that was organized by local Salafis. Among the guests of this event was also Orhan Z. Originally from Gostivar, he lived with his father in the Swiss capital. Shortly after the barbeque, Orhan travelled via Istanbul to Syria, following his father Sadula’s footsteps. Before departing, Orhan Z. connected to several Swiss Jihadis like Chendrim Ramadani.

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Orhan Z. at Salafi barbeque in Bern (2014)

From Criminal to Terrorist: Cendrim Ramadani

Chendrim Ramadani was seven years old when his family moved from Kosovo to Brugg, Switzerland. From a young age, he was involved in various crimes and served a prison sentence of three years for armed robbery. After his release and subsequent deportation to Kosovo in June 2013, Ramadani joined the Chechen group Junud al-Sham (JAS) in Syria. Besides Chechen foreign fighters, a considerable number of Jihadis from Germany and the Balkans received basic military training in JAS camps. For Denis Cuspert (Abu Talha al-Almani) and other Germans – many who once belonged to the militant Salafi group Millatu Ibrahim or the radical Fussilet33 mosque in Berlin – JAS served as first contact after arriving in Syria.

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Denis Cuspert with Ridvan Haqifi and Bekim Fidani

Ramadani and his Macedonian friend Muhammad Zakiri stayed like most German-speaking JAS fighters at the “German house” in an old administrative building near Kasab (Latakia). There, he made contacts with the group of Cuspert, including Benjamin Xu and his Macedonian father Nimetullah, who both previously lived in Berlin. The JAS-connection might explain Cuspert’s links to Albanian ISIS members. An undated picture, for example, shows him with Ridvan Haqifi and Bekim Fidani (another confident of Muhaxheri). In Winter 2013/2014, most German JAS members – including Chendrim Ramadani and Benjamin Xu – followed Cuspert and joined ISIS after an ideological strife within the JAS leadership.

Only few months later, Ramadani, Xu and Zakiri decided to leave Syria for personal reasons: Xu most likely because his father got “martyred”, Zakiri because his heart-thick father was transferred from Syria to Turkey, and Ramadani because he wanted to see his family in Kosovo. An additionally motivating factor was surely that Zakiri and Ramadani spent as suspected spies two months in an ISIS prison. According to a report by Turkish journalist Abdullah Bozkurt, the three ethnic Albanians were smuggled out of Syria by Turkish Jihadi Haisam Toubaljeh (or Heysem Topcala), who was involved in the March 2013 suicide bombing in Reyhanli and transferred foreign fighters and arms to Syria in cooperation with the Turkish intelligence service MIT. Upon arrival in Turkey, Ramadani, Xu and Zakiri were stopped by the police in the central Anatolian province of Nigde and opened fire, killing one officer and two bystanders. In 2016, a Turkish court sentenced Ramadani and the other defendants to life-long prison terms.

The Albanians of the Winterthur Network

Since few years is Winterthur one of the main hotspot of Albanian radicals. But in contrast to other clusters in Northwestern Switzerland and Berne, their activities mainly centered on the an-Nur mosque that was leaded by North-Africans and frequented by an international audience. In December 2014, the radical network in Winterthur especially attracted attention by local media after two teenage siblings with Kosovar origin – Visar and Edita – travelled to Syria where they joined ISIS. TagesAnzeiger reported that both were possibly influenced by extremists frequenting the al-Furqan mosque in Embrach and the Albanian mosque in Winterthur. One of them was the upcoming young Swiss-Albanian preacher Selman Ramadani who studied in Cairo and preached at the Furqan mosque in Embrach. However, it seems that Ramadani and his followers could not gain a foothold in Embrach so that they changed to the an-Nur mosque in Winterthur.

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Ulvi Fejzullahu and Selman Ramadani (left) in Thun (2011)

The mosque was visited by a group of circa two dozen radical youngsters. In the last years, almost half of them joined the “Islamic State”. The group was leaded by Sandro V. and Valdet Gashi, a former Muay Thai world champion with Kosovar origin, who grew up in the South-German town of Singen. Gashi “found back to Islam” in 2012 through the Salafi dawa organization Lies! – Die wahre Religion (Read! – The True Religion). Like many German and Swiss foreign fighters Gashi got involved in Lies activities and participated at street dawas in Singen. In 2013, Gashi moved to Winterthur and opened the martial art studio MMA Sunna where most local foreign fighters physically prepared themselves for the war in Syria. At the same time, Gashi and Selman Ramadani became one of the responsible persons for setting up a dawa network in German-speaking Switzerland. Equally influential for early Lies! activities in German-speaking Switzerland was the Macedonian Spetim Dauti, who socialized with foreign fighters from Basel such as Ali J. and Ferhat A.

Three months after Visar and Edita, Valdet Gashi and his friend Christian Ianniello, a young Swiss-Italian convert, left Switzerland and travelled via Turkey to Syria. Their journey was facilitated by the network of Mirsad Omerovic (Ebu Tejma) in Vienna and ISIS handlers from the Balkans residing in Istanbul and Gaziantep. In Syria, the teenager Visar reportedly attended Quran classes (probably of Mohamed Mahmoud) in Raqqa while his sister was married to an ISIS fighters. Gashi and Ianniello ended up at an ISIS checkpoint near the Euphrates river not far from Manbij, where they allegedly were tasked to fight Kurdish smugglers as Swiss journalist Kurt Pelda wrote.

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Valdet Gashi, Muhaxheri and other Albanian ISIS fighters taking a bath in Euphrates river

Most likely, both were under the command of Lavdrim Muhaxheri and Ridvan Haqifi. Several photos of Gashi in Syria show him with other fighters of Albanian origin. One pictures Gashi taking a bath with his compatriots in Euphrates river. Muhaxheri was present at this event, too, as other photos from the same place and time prove. It can be speculated that other Albanian fighters from Switzerland like Orhan Ramadani played a role in placing Gashi in the unit of Muhaxheri and Haqifi.

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Gashi’s friend with Jetmir Ismaili and Ridvan Haqifi

There is another indicator for the involvement of Gashi: A photo once uploaded by Jetmir Ismaili on Facebook shows a friend from Singen with Ismaili and Ridvan Haqifi. The Albanian was like Gashi active for Lies!. After Gashi’s relocation from Germany to Switzerland, his friend had like him a significant stake in establishing the Lies network in Basel, Winterthur and other cities in German-speaking Switzerland. At the same time, both organized with other Lies! activists street dawas in South-German cities like Konstanz and Stuttgart. It is unknown when Gashi’s friend travelled to Syria but he apparently returned. The siblings Visar and Edita did so, too, whereas Gashi and Ianniello shared the fate of their prominent Albanian comrades Muhaxheri, Ridvan and Irfan Haqifi, Ramadani and Ismaili. Both were most probably killed already in June 2015 by an Coalition air strike during an assault on Kobane.

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