Friday, May 11, 2007

Kosovo mistakes hit home for U.S.

Thursday, May 10, 2007
Elizabeth Sullivan
Cleveland Plain Dealer

Standing on an airstrip in the steaming sunshine of an Albanian spring eight years ago, the outgoing U.S. ambassador admitted it was no fun having to take a fully armored vehicle and bodyguard whenever she left the embassy.

It was May 1999, the height of the Kosovo air war next door.

As a staunch U.S. ally, Albania had turned most of its airport over to NATO. Marissa Lino, then-U.S. ambassador, said things had improved since the U.S. Army arrived in force.

Still, she said, it was getting a little old, having "to live in one room" for security reasons.

To the general lawlessness and the rise of warlordism in post-Communist Albania in the 1990s was added a civil war that seeded hundreds of thousands of Kalashnikovs all over the Balkans. The small arms helped precipitate guerrilla war in Kosovo and later Macedonia, among other impacts.

As U.S. officials were later to learn, the violence and weaponry also helped make the Balkans a new vector for al-Qaida infiltration, recruitment, arms-running and money-laundering. Twice in the late 1990s, U.S. officials had to be evacuated from Tirana because of civil unrest and threats from al-Qaida.

This week, New Jersey authorities arrested four ethnic Albanian immigrants, a Jordanian relative and a Turkish friend, charged with plotting terrorism on U.S. shores.

They were amateurs, so inept that a Circuit City clerk helped unravel the plot and FBI informants taped their scheming. Yet it's instructive to see where the four ethnic Albanians came from: supposedly the most pro-American Muslim neighborhood in the world, in the southern Balkans.

One was a refugee from the 1999 Kosovo war. The other three appear to have immigrated illegally in the 1980s with their family. The Associated Press reports that they hail from Debar, a tiny Macedonian village on the Kosovo border, where residents harbor generally friendly feelings toward the United States.

That goes along with the general story line in Washington these days -- that the Balkans are yesterday's hotspot, a mostly quiet backwater that may be home to a few too many crime groups, but that no longer poses a threat the Europeans themselves can't handle.

That's why the U.S. government is pushing so hard right now for a de facto U.N. vote for independence for the mostly Albanian province of Kosovo, despite the precedent this would set for dismembering a U.N. member state (Serbia) against its will and rewarding violence and ethnic cleansing.

It would, eventually, free up more than a thousand U.S. troops that still patrol the troubled province.

Yet the evidence of the so-called war on terror is just the reverse -- that the al-Qaida threat America faces today was partly incubated in the Balkans.

David Hicks, the Australian who plea-bargained at Guantanamo so he could be sent home, was recruited to violent jihadist causes while fighting with Albanians in Kosovo.

Omar Sheikh, the former British schoolboy who helped lure journalist Danny Pearle to his death in Pakistan, was recruited in Bosnia.

Extremist groups still post recruitment videos on the Internet, showing combat involving Bosnian mujahedeen, according to a 2005 Congressional Research Service report.

All of this is blowback in its rawest form, in that in the 1990s the Clinton administration was the one that facilitated an army of mujahedeen and Iranian arms into Bosnia.

Bosnia remains the most striking example of a place where public opinion is firmly against the jihadist cause, but al-Qaida is still believed to be entrenched in a corrupt subculture of passport falsification and drug-running.

But Kosovo is the most dangerous, because it's poorer and hence more violent -- and because it's fast becoming both a mono-ethnic and a mono-religious state.

Sullivan is The Plain Dealer's foreign-affairs columnist and an associate editor of the editorial pages.

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