By Steve Rodan

[March 24, 1999] To most in the West, the fighting in Kosovo is the result of an oppressive Yugoslav regime that seeks to quell independence for an Albanian majority in the province. But quietly European defense and diplomatic representatives regard the Kosovo rebellion as a success of radical Islamic states, such as Iran, and groups such as that of Osama Bin Laden.

As they see it, Kosovo has become the latest and most significant arena for radical Islamic states and groups that seek to widen their influence in Europe. Nobody argues that Islamic elements fomented the conflicts in the Balkans. But they say Iran, Saudi Arabia and some of their terrorist beneficiaries have exploited the fighting to establish a sphere of influence that spans from Greece to the Austrian border.

Islamic groups as far away as Pakistan have called for support of the fighters in Kosovo. "The type of cruel and oppressive tactics followed by Serb aggressors in Kosovo and the Balkans is a declaration of war against humanity and the whole Muslim Ummah," the Jamaat Islami, Pakistan, said in a recent statement.

That realization, the diplomats and defense sources say, is why European leaders are increasingly hesitant in approving NATO strikes against Yugoslavia.

"The gap between the public political rhetoric and the private professional discussions is huge," a European defense official said. "Europe is beginning to realize that Kosovo is not just about a rebellion. It's about a growing Iranian attempt to support and dominate movements in states in Europe."

Reuven Paz, who teaches at Haifa University, is regarded as one of Israel's leading researchers of radical Islamic movements, particularly Hamas. He says Iran and Saudi Arabia view the conflicts in Kosovo and Bosnia as that pitting Islam against Christianity.

"All of the Sunni Muslim groups as well as Iran are making lots of propaganda for Kosovo and see it as a symbol," Paz said. "As Europe tries to unite, there could be a lot more unity between the Muslims on the margins of Europe.There is potential that this unity could be used in a hostile way."

Western intelligence sources as well as diplomats said the major supporter of the Kosovo Liberation Army has been Iran and Islamic radicals. They said the Iranian influence began during the Yugoslav civil war in which thousands of Islamic fighters, called mujahadeen, were brought from Afghanistan to help Bosnian forces.

With the establishment of an independent republic, Iran quickly gained control of the government in Sarajevo. The mujahadeen, up to 7,000 of them, were allowed to stay and many of them married local Muslim women. Iran moved it with financial aid to the Muslim government that amounted to tens of millions of dollars annually.

By the mid-1990s, Iranian agents established a base in Albania, which has not had a central government in nearly a decade. Iranian Revolutionary Guards provided weapons, money and training to Kosovo rebels. Iranian and Saudi representatives launched charities and banks. From Albania, Iranian agents moved to Kosovo. In Prizren, Iranian envoys formed a society funded by the Iranian Culture Center in Belgrade and sent groups of Kosovars to Iran to study militant Islam.

By 1998, Iran was smuggling in weapons and fighters, the sources said. Commando units entered Kosovo last May to help the KLA. These units were comprised of Albanians, Bosnians, Egyptians, Macedonians and Saudis. By August, the Saudis were ordered to leave the units and Riyad, strapped financially, reduced financial support to the KLA.

"It's clear that this is an issue on the Islamic agenda," says Boaz Ganor, director of the International Policy Institute of Counterterrorism, based in Herzliya, Israel. "This phenomenon is marked by waves. First, the mujahadeen were in Afghanistan. Then the war ended and they had nothing to do. The Kosovo arena for them is both ideological and a source of employment."

The weapons and money have been smuggled from both Albania and Bosnia. In December, Croatian authorities said they seized close to $1 million of weapons brought from Bosnia that was headed for Kosovo. The route for smuggling, regional diplomats say, has been the Adriatic Sea.

Other weapons were smuggled in cargo shipments classified as humanitarian aid. One such shipment was uncovered by Croatian police in the port of Split in September. Several tons of weapons and ammunition were stored in crates marked humanitarian aid. Yugoslav authorities say the weapons include rifles, mortars and communications systems made in the United States and Israel.

Today, says the Federation of American Scientists, a prominent group of researchers which often consults U.S. administrations, the KLA contains 1,000 mercenaries from Albania, Saudi Arabia, Afghanistan, Bosnia, Croatia and Yemen. KLA training camps are in four Albanian cities under the influence of former Albanian President Sali Berisha.

Yugoslav officials say the KLA's goal is to sever Kosovo from Yugoslavia and merge it with Albania. But Western strategists go further. They say an Islamic Kosovo could serve as a bridge for an Iranian sphere of influence that would soon join Albania in the east to Bosnia in the west. They say Macedonia, which also contains a significant Muslim population, would soon succumb to Iranian control.

The argument is echoed by KLA representatives themselves in their arguments for Muslim support. At the Islamabad conference, a KLA envoy, according to a report by the London-based monthly Filistin al-Muslimah, "explained the geographical and strategic importance of Kosovo in the connection between the Islamic centers of Bosnia, Kosovo, Albania and Macedonia."

Quietly, the Iranian element in Kosovo is being discussed in Washington, particularly in Congress. Analysts have warned that U.S. troops in Kosovo under the NATO umbrella would be more vulnerable than ever as Islamic agents would smuggle weapons and people from Bosnia and Albania.

"At this point, however, nobody is really listening," a congressional analyst says. "The Belgrade government and Milosevic, in particular, has been so clumsy in dealing with Kosovo that all the real issues have been lost. Everybody is talking about Milosevic as the evil man of Europe as if his removal solves everything."

The concern of European strategists is that an Iranian sphere of influence would do greater damage to such Western countries as Britain, France and Germany. France has about two million Muslims, most of them poor and alienated. Britain has about 1.5 million.

"The United States might not realize it, but many European countries have serious minority problems," a Central European diplomat says. "Once these minorities feel that they can obtain the support of NATO, we could see flare-ups everywhere. Nobody really knows the answer to Kosovo but many of us feel that giving the KLA an air force is the worst solution possible."


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