For months, Faik Uksmajli warned the Kosovo police that his elder son was determined to go to Syria to join the Islamic State. And for months, the police insisted that the country’s border posts were on alert, ready to stop him if he tried.
So when Uksmajli’s son Arbnor telephoned one day last July to say that he, his wife, two children and younger brother, Albert, were in Syria, Uksmajli took matters into his own hands. He went after them himself.
“I saw that no one would help me, and I decided to go to Syria,” he recalled recently, sitting on the back porch of his modest home in the farming village of Naradinja, in southern Kosovo. “I knew all the dangers and the risks. But the only thing I could think about at that moment was finding my sons.”
Uksmajli’s account – impossible to confirm – of the odyssey that took him into the murderous heart of the Islamic State’s “caliphate” is a chilling tale of official ineptitude, alleged collusion between police and Islamist recruiters, amateur detective work, luck, scrapes with death and a harrowing search that he ultimately was forced to abandon or lose his own life.
It’s also a story of a father’s love and determination to reunite a family sundered by the Islamic radicalism that’s been growing in Muslim-dominated Kosovo since the 1999 U.S.-led military intervention put Europe’s newest country on the road to independence from Serbia. As many as 300 men, some with wives and children, have left Kosovo to fight in the Middle East, most of them for the Islamic State, according to officials.
In the end, Uksmajli failed in his quest. Just a day after an Islamic State death threat forced him to leave Syria, 21-year-old Arbnor died and Albert, 19, lost an arm in airstrikes in the eastern city of Aleppo.
Uksmajli now is all but bankrupt, unable to maintain the concentration he needs to operate the dangerous saws and grinders of his small woodworking business. He feels betrayed by his government and bitter that he’s powerless to rescue Albert – who went to care for Arbnor’s family, not to be a jihadi – or his daughter-in-law and grandchildren, who remain in Syria.
The Uksmajli family
When Arbnor Uksmajli left Kosovo -- with his family and younger brother -- to head to Syria and join the Islamic State his father, Faik Uksmajli, followed him to bring him back. Eventually Faik would return, but without his sons or family.
“I’m just waiting, trying to survive. I have other family members who need to eat, to live,” said the stout 49-year-old with soft eyes, salt-and-pepper hair and large hands that bespeak his years as a craftsman. “Life must go on.”
The family lived in Germany for years, dodging late Serbian strongman Slobodan Milosevic’s brutal ethnic cleansing offensive, which he’d unleashed in 1998 to crush an uprising by Kosovo’s oppressed ethnic Albanian majority, leading to the U.S.-led intervention.
From good years to radicalism
After the war, Uksmajli moved the family and his business – producing doors and other wooden products – back to his village.
The business prospered. Uksmajli’s sons graduated from university. Arbnor returned to Germany to work, while Albert found a job with a U.S. humanitarian group, teaching music to poor children.
In 2013, Arbnor returned from Germany and began attending the village mosque, Uksmajli said, nodding at a minaret across pastures and orchards. And that’s when his son began to change, Uksmajli recounted, explaining that Arbnor grew a beard, regularly attended prayers and adopted the puritanical Wahhabism of Saudi Arabia.
“All of my family are traditional Muslims,” he said, referring to the liberal Islam of the Balkans, whose adherents tolerate drinking and smoking, mix and marry with other faiths, and rarely attend prayers at mosques. “We’ve never hated anyone from other religions.”
Early last year, Arbnor started railing about the Syrian civil war and the need to stop the killing of Sunni Muslims there by the Shiite Muslim Iran-backed regime of President Bashar Assad. He also spoke about bombing Camp Bondsteel, the U.S.-built NATO peacekeeping headquarters in eastern Kosovo.
“I asked him, ‘What’s happening to you? Why are you acting like this?’ He’d reply, ‘Do you see what’s happening in Syria? They are killing people,’ ” Uksmajli recounted. “My son told me, ‘The first chance I get, I’m going to plant a bomb in Bondsteel.’
“Every day I had fights with my son,” he recalled.
Uksmajli blamed the radicalization of Arbnor and some 20 other young men who he said also had gone to Syria on the local cleric, Nehat Husseini, and an associate who’d had several run-ins with the police after returning from fighting in the Middle East.
Uksmajli said that all Arbnor talked about “was how to plant a bomb inside Bondsteel, because Nehat Husseini told him, ‘You will be closer to heaven the more Americans you kill.’ I said to him, ‘How dare you say that. Who was it who helped us in 1999? Do you know that the Americans are our greatest friends? . . . It was God first and Bill Clinton second.’ ”
“But Nehat Husseini preached to them every day, telling them to kill as many Americans as they could. He preached how Americans were killing Muslims in Afghanistan, Syria and Iraq, and how we need to take revenge,” he continued.
Husseini, 32, denied Uksmajli’s allegations. In an interview at his house, next to his small, silver-domed mosque, he said he’d never urged anyone to kill Americans or fight in “any foreign wars.”
After initially saying that Uksmajli’s sons “never came to my mosque,” Husseini conceded that the pair had attended services “four or five times. But I never spoke to them.”
Several minutes later, Husseini again revised his recollections. Albert, he said, had sought his advice because he planned to return to Germany and “wanted to know how to pray there.”
“When the youngest boy came to me, he also said that there wasn’t a good atmosphere in his home and that he was in conflict with his father and older brother,” Husseini continued. “Yes, the police came and asked me if I was connected to this issue. But what I told the police is what I’m telling you now.”
Father seeks help
Uksmajli decided to go to the Criminal Division of the Kosovo Police in the capital, Pristina.
“I told the police that my son is praying in the mosque and the imam of that mosque is telling my son to go to Syria,” Uksmajli said. “I told them about the man who’d been to Syria. I told them that they are trying to get my son to go to Syria. I told them they’re pressing my son to bomb Bondsteel.”
The police questioned Arbnor, and released him. At that point, Uksmajli said, his son stopped coming home most days and turned off his cellphone. Again Uksmajli called the police, asking them to arrest Arbnor and confiscate his passport and those of his family, but to no avail, he said.
“I was surprised, because the same day that I asked the police to confiscate their passports . . . Arbnor called me and said, ‘Why did you ask the police to take our passports? I’m sorry you went to the police. You must know that we are stronger than the police and we can get passports anytime we want. The imam, Nehat Husseini, can get us passports in 24 hours.’ ”
“I was calling the police every second day,” said Uksmajli. “This period was May 2014, and the police again told me not to worry because they’d already contacted people at the airports in Albania and every other border of Kosovo and the moment they try to cross the border, they’ll be detained. The police also told me that they already had their passports.”
In a statement to McClatchy, the Kosovo Police denied confiscating the passports.
The police, however, confirmed that they’d asked Kosovo border authorities and “other countries in the region” to watch for the group and to alert the Kosovo Police if they tried to leave the country, so that an “official request to stop their travel” could be issued.
“Despite these efforts, the sons of Faik Uksmajli, one of them with his wife and two sons, managed” to reach Syria by flying “through a third country” to Turkey, the statement said.
On June 27, Albert told Uksmajli that he was going to the German Embassy in Pristina to apply for a visa. Arbnor, who’d returned home a day earlier, said he was sending his wife, Laura, 20, and sons, Andi, 3, and Omer, 1, to visit her parents in another town and then visiting friends.
“It was the last time I saw him,” said Uksmajli. “I tried calling them for two days. I couldn’t get them. So on June 29 I called the police. I told them my sons weren’t home. They told me there was no chance for them to cross the border. And after six days, Arbnor called me from Syria.”
“I asked him, ‘How did you get there?’ He told me, ‘With a plan.’ I asked him, ‘How could you do it without passports?’ And my son told me, ‘No, we got our passports back.’ And then he hung up.”
Another call to the police. Another assurance that the group couldn’t leave Kosovo.
The search begins
So Uksmajli did his own sleuthing, canvassing travel agents in the nearby town of Ferizaj.
“I found the travel agency in Ferizaj where they’d bought their tickets,” he said, explaining that his sons had taken a bus to Albania’s capital, Tirana, from which they’d flown via Istanbul to Gaziantep in Turkey, a key transit point on a major route used by foreign fighters bound for Syria.
Uksmajli made copies of the group’s ticket receipts and showed them to the police.
‘I said to them, ‘Here is the proof. You see that they went and that they had passports. So are you stronger or are the imams?’ The police just shrugged and said anything was possible,” he said.
The police, he charged, “have their own financial interests in sending people to Syria” and collude with the hard-line clerics.
The police deny it, saying they’ve stopped “dozens of young people and many families with children from going to Syria.”
Uksmajli decided to follow his sons, to try to persuade them to return home. He asked the government for financial assistance and a document certifying that he wasn’t going to Syria to fight. He got neither. So he sold his car and truck for about $34,000, bought a plane ticket and flew to Gaziantep.
He found a small restaurant in Gaziantep, and using his fluent German he asked diners whether they knew how someone could get into Syria or Iraq to join Albanian-speaking fighters. A German-speaking Afghan offered to drive Uksmajli for about $30,000 to a compound near the Iraqi city of Mosul where Albanian-speakers were based.
“I showed him photographs of my sons and he convinced me they were in Mosul,” Uksmajli said. “I had no other choice. I decided that this was my only way.”
That evening, Uksmajli climbed into a van driven by the Afghan, who was with another man. Both were armed. Two Afghan women – clad in body-length black chadors with eye-slits to see through – and a third man sat in the back, bound for the Syrian city of Aleppo. They drove across the border without a problem and, after an all-night trip, reached Mosul.
It was Aug. 15, a little more than two months after Iraq’s second largest city had fallen to the Islamic State’s offensive that swept to the doorstep of Baghdad. There was fighting everywhere.
“You could lose your life in a second,” said Uksmajli. “But I wasn’t thinking about that. My only goal was getting to where my sons were. All the way to Mosul, I saw bodies. . . . I saw burnt cars, bodies all over, children who’d been killed, women, old people. Houses on fire. But the driver knew which roads to take.”
The Albanian camp
In Mosul, Uksmajli found some fighters from Albania, who advised him to look for his sons at a base of Albanian-speakers outside Aleppo, Syria’s second largest city. The drive from Mosul took more than 20 hours, he said.
“The driver knew which ways to go. When there were big fights and explosions we’d stop to rest.”
The Afghan found the Albanian-speakers’ camp. As the van approached the entrance, Uksmajli said, he saw his younger son, Albert, walking out with two men. He shouted for the Afghan to stop. As the vehicle slowed, gunfire rang out, ripping the van with bullets.
The Afghan floored it, but the bullets found the tires, and the driver had to stop a half mile down the road. Uksmajli and the two men in the front seat got out. The two women and the man in back did not. The women were dead. The man was alive, but barely, bleeding from a head wound.
“The driver dragged the two women out of the vehicle and left them in the road,” Uksmajli said. “The man was still alive. The driver turned around and shot him in the head. I asked him, ‘If I also was wounded, would you have killed me as well?’ He said to me, ‘Yes, because what would I do with you if you were injured?’
“I’d seen a lot of bodies on the way. So when that happened, I was already numb. I was depressed, and I didn’t know which way to go or what to do. What was I supposed to do now? How was I to get in touch with my children?”
The search resumes
The three men ended up walking to a nearby house, where the Afghan ordered Uksmajli to wait and then left with his companion. A few hours later, another German-speaking Afghan showed up. His name was Ali Hussein.
Hussein had fought with the Soviet force that occupied Afghanistan in 1979, but then apparently he’d switched sides and become a jihadist. He knew some Albanian words that he’d picked up fighting against the Serbs in Kosovo with some 40 other foreign Islamists. He knew Uksmajli’s village. His passport showed that he was 63 years old.
Uksmajli spent the next eight days driving around war-ravaged eastern Syria with Hussein. Each day, before they set off, he’d scribble a note on the back of one of the 10 copies of his passport picture page that he’d brought and give it to Hussein to drop at the camp where he’d seen Albert. The notes stated his name and where he was staying, and requested to speak with his sons. He received no responses.
The pair drove to rebel-held areas of Aleppo, Homs and Raqqa, the “capital” of the Islamic State. Hussein kept a black Islamic State flag in his car that he’d display when passing through the group’s territories and would hide when passing through land controlled by Syrian rebels who were fighting both the Islamic State and the Assad government.
“There were women and children dead all over the place. Old people. Houses were on fire in Aleppo, Raqqa, Homs, everywhere. People were killed and left on the road. I saw different kinds of groups, like groups from Russia, from Serbia, from different countries,” Uksmajli recounted. “There were lots of groups. and you never knew who was fighting whom.”
He remembers Hussein as being “very kind” but powerless to help. “Even Ali wasn’t allowed inside that camp” where he believed his sons were, Uksmajli said. “Ali told me he didn’t have the authority to reunite me with them without their permission.”
On the final day of his stay near Aleppo, Uksmajli finally received a written response in Arabic to his letters. Hussein translated. It wasn’t what Uksmajli had hoped for.
The response said that a check with clerics in Kosovo had showed that, “You aren’t a person who was sent to fight. Your name isn’t anywhere. Someone sent you from the police, and if we capture you, you know how you’ll end up.”
That evening, Hussein told him he’d have to leave Syria immediately if he wanted to live.
“Then Ali took my phone because I’d been recording videos the entire time. He told me, ‘We need to destroy this phone because if they capture us together with this phone, they will behead us both.’ ”
They crossed the border on Aug. 24 and drove to the Turkish city of Hatay, where Uksmajli boarded a flight to Istanbul. From there, he flew to Skopje, the capital of Macedonia, and then drove the short distance home.
“I was feeling bad, depressed, because before going, I hadn’t seen all of the stuff that I saw. I had hope, but when I went there and saw the reality, I lost my expectations,” he recounted. “During all that time, I was stressed that someone would tell me that my sons had been killed.”
The bad news came Sept. 1. Albert called to say he’d lost an arm and Arbnor had died in airstrikes on Aleppo the day after his father was forced to leave Syria.
Uksmajli is convinced that the raids were launched by American aircraft, but the U.S.-led air campaign against Islamic State targets in Syria didn’t begin until Sept. 23.
Several police officers came to speak to Uksmajli after news about his sons spread. But no one came from the government or the Islamic Community, the official body that oversees Islamic affairs in Kosovo, he said.
Uksmajli said he’d called for an investigation of Husseini, the cleric, but that none was launched.
“I’ve been on television. I publicly mentioned the imam’s name, my sons’ names. The Kosovo Police said they’ve got no evidence,” said Uksmajli. At one point, an Albanian-speaker called, warning that Uksmajli would be beheaded if he didn’t remove a video of one of his interviews with a local TV station from the Internet.
Standing in the dim light of the woodworking factory behind his home, Uksmajli pointed at several large, silent milling and cutting machines.
“I worked in Germany for half my life. I saved money in order to return to Kosovo and start this factory,” he said. “I haven’t been able to work since June 2014. It’s hard, because this work is dangerous because of these machines. You need to be very careful. You need to concentrate. But my mind is somewhere else.”