Since 2014, the international media have paid considerable attention to the number of foreign fighters coming from Kosovo, and the radicalization challenges this entails.

‘International media coverage has generally been unsubtle, characterized by sensationalism. The media have dramatized the situation in Kosovo and presented the country as a particularly dangerous nest of jihadism. In fact, that is not correct –  although Kosovo is facing some real challenges’, Rita Augestad Knudsen (NUPI) points out.

Foreign fighter – or Syria traveller?

She has analysed English-language media coverage as well as publications and other relevant documents on radicalization, and interviewed experts, politicians and practitioners, to explore the international coverage of the challenges facing Kosovo regarding the question of foreign fighters in Syria. Knudsen’s research has resulted in the NUPI note  ‘Radicalization and foreign fighters in the Kosovo context’.

As of March this year, the official number of persons who had left Kosovo to travel to IS-dominated areas was 316.

‘But not everyone had the same motive. Women and children represented a relatively large share of this total – and children have surely had little say in the decision. Some of those who left in the early days of the war in Syria may have travelled to fight against Assad, rather than with the IS. A more appropriate designation is Syria travellers, and not foreign fighters’, Knudsen explains.

Erroneous image

Knudsen note that many media outlets have gone so far as to claim that charities, especially from Saudi Arabia, have brainwashed people into radicalization and foreign fighting.

‘At the same time, most media have ignored factors like extensive unemployment, particularly among youth, online and offline recruitment to extreme communities, failed prioritizations by international leadership in Kosovo, as well as the country’s ‘identity crisis’ since its independence in 2008.  None of these factors can alone explain Kosovo’s challenges, but ignoring them obstructs our ability to form a correct image.’

Knudsen finds the international media coverage often characterized by oversimplified explanations of how young people are brainwashed into joining extremist communities.

‘Reality is much more complex, and research has actually not made much progress in explaining why someone is ‘radicalized’, whereas others with an apparently very similar starting point are not. The nuances connected to this are probably not as flashy or exciting to communicate as are quick and dramatic explanations.’

May do more harm than good

But does it really matter if all the nuances around radicalization are not pointed out?

‘The main risk with undifferentiated coverage is that it obscures a deeper overall understanding that might made possible more effective countermeasures. There is also the risk of developing policy and countermeasures based on incorrect assumptions of these phenomena and the reasons for their existence. Moreover, as regards Kosovo, there’s also a risk of presenting prejudiced images of the country as a place brimming with people who are especially vulnerable to brainwashing.'

‘Media coverage has also focused on – and generally praised – the Kosovan authorities' response to the challenges of radicalization. In 2014, more than 130 persons were arrested for acts related to terrorism, which may also have led to more attention to the phenomenon.

‘Regarding legislation, there are indications that the threshold for being convicted of terrorism-related crime in Kosovo today is low. This, combined with inadequate prison services and several years of little or no attention paid to prison radicalization, may well represent a threat in the years to come. The dangers of letting people who feel that they have been convicted on the basis of weak evidence remain in prison for years without any follow-up that can identify possible radicalization are obvious,’ Knudsen concludes.