How should we react to the news that four of the plotters identified as “Islamic militants” who were preparing a terrorist attack on Fort Dix, New Jersey, were ethnic Albanians from the former Yugoslavia, three from a town on the Macedonian-Kosovo border and one who had served as a sharpshooter in the Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA) in its clashes with Serbian security forces during the 1990s?
Fearing the burst of negative publicity (even more so because Fort Dix housed ethnic Albanian refugees displaced as a result of the fighting from the 1999 U.S.-led NATO intervention over Kosovo), proponents of immediate independence for the province have been quick to stress the strong pro-American sentiments of the vast majority of ethnic Albanians in Kosovo and Macedonia. Some in the region, in a time honored tradition throughout the greater Middle East, have even questioned whether those accused had anything to do with the plot at all; one cousin of the three brothers who are now imprisoned on terrorism charges declared , "These are simple, ordinary people and they've got nothing to do with terrorism. I expect their release and I expect an apology."
The question before us is not whether or not most Kosovar Albanians are radical Islamists who hate the United States; the overwhelming number are not. And the presence of a Jordanian and a Turk in this cell is testimony to the fact that even when a country is a close ally of the United States, such sentiments may not be shared by every single member of the national community.
But we should not go from one extreme to another and blithely assume that there is no threat. Ever since the Yugoslav wars began, Al-Qaeda and other radical organizations have worked to gain and develop footholds in the Balkans and among the expatriate populations. In spring 2005 the acting head of Bulgarian intelligence, Kircho Kirov, warned that Kosovo would become a “direct source of regional instability and a hub for international terrorism” if concerted action was not taken to address the issue.
And this is why the whole argument of “standards before status” matters. A government unwilling to crack down on organized crime or tackle local warlords and Mafiosi is also not going to take vigorous action with regard to terrorism. Back in summer 2002 Ray Takeyh and I noted :
. . . the continuing conditions in Bosnia, Albania, and Kosovo have created ripe conditions for human trafficking, arms smuggling, and narcotics distribution—all areas in which bin Laden reputedly has been a “silent investor” . . .
The international community has poured material, resources and personnel into Kosovo and the province has been de facto separated from Serbia since 1999. Yet, as Freedom House reported :
Kosovo lacks a functioning criminal justice system. A report by Karl Eide, special envoy of the UN secretary-general, submitted to the UN Security Council in June 2005, noted that the justice system is the weakest of Kosovo's institutions. Both Kosovo's Supreme Court and local courts have been subject to political influence and intimidation. Ethnic Albanian judges are generally unwilling to prosecute cases involving Albanian attacks on non-Albanians, and the physical safety of non-Albanian judges brought into Kosovo to try cases is difficult to guarantee. Criminal suspects who have been arrested under the UN special representative's power to order executive detentions are frequently released on the orders of local judges. The Eide report noted that in Kosovo "property rights are neither respected nor ensured." . . . Trafficking is a major problem in Kosovo, which serves as a place of transit, a point of destination, and a source for women and children trafficked from Eastern to Western Europe for purpose of prostitution. . . .
I wrote before that those who argue in favor of immediate independence for Kosovo must answer some questions. The first is to explain why they are so confident why a local government that under UN and NATO supervision has been unable to crack down on crime and human trafficking or to provide adequate guarantees for the ethnic minorities of the province will somehow be much more effective if independence is granted. I don’t buy the argument that the province’s "undefined status" prevents effective governance. Case in point: Taiwan. (Another, as much as it may pain me to note, is that there has been no evidence of terrorist camps or organized criminal gangs having taken root in the unrecognized Turkish Republic of North Cyprus.)
"Standards before status" was a good policy to have adopted and should still remain the guiding principle. And as we have seen in East Timor, granting independence is not a panacea and does not in and of itself guarantee stability. The Fort Dix incident should be a reminder about proceeding carefully with regard to Kosovo's final status.