Kosovo's Mafia: Assassinations and intimidation - Part II

Published on March 28, 2011, GlobalPost

Category: Organized Crime in Kosovo

Matt McAllester

PRISTINA, Kosovo — It’s known as K-SHIK, an Albanian-language acronym for Kosovo’s National Intelligence Service, and it has always operated in the shadows of Kosovo’s darkest corners.

That is, until now. GlobalPost has interviewed a key informant in a criminal investigation into alleged K-SHIK assasinations as well as several victims of alleged K-SHIK intimidation tactics. In a series of extraordinarily candid interviews, these sources have come forward to shed new light on U.S. support of K-SHIK’s operations in Kosovo and K-SHIK’s alleged history of targeting political opponents for intimidation — and allegedly murder.

Setting up a headquarters here in Kosovo’s capital in the aftermath of the 1999 war, the notorious intelligence agency became an extra-legal entity that was at first under the command of the victorious and U.S.-allied guerrilla movement, the Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA).

Later it was directed by the Democratic Party of Kosovo, American and Kosovar sources say. The party’s leader is the prime minister, Hashim Thaci, who was recently elected to a second term and who continues to receive support from the highest levels of power in Washington.

Today, there is no longer a physical headquarters and officially the intelligence service does not exist, according to the man who headed up the agency for nine years. But sources connected to SHIK, as it is most commonly known, maintain that it remains active in enforcing the political status quo through fear and intimidation.

The United States and other NATO countries who fought to oust Yugoslav forces from Kosovo in 1999 provided support for SHIK, according to the intelligence service’s own former chief.

The former head of the intelligence service, Kadri Veseli, a key ally of Thaci, revealed in an exclusive interview with GlobalPost that he received U.S. support, saying, “We had a lot of partners — 25 intelligence services … . The U.S., they help us a lot.”

Veseli denies that SHIK carried out systematic political killings, but he says that the foreign intelligence services assisted SHIK “in every way.” He refused to discuss specifics of how the organization operated.

A half dozen sources, including another former SHIK operative, a former KLA fundraiser, a Western diplomat with knowledge of the region and a Kosovar political analyst, confirmed that the United States has supported SHIK, which was never formally overseen by a government or international body.

The former hitman

In a house heavily guarded by NATO troops, the former self-proclaimed SHIK hitman, Nazim Bllaca, told GlobalPost that SHIK orchestrated a campaign of political murder after the 1999 war ended. During that period, he said, hundreds of minority Kosovar Serbs and Kosovar Albanians suspected of collaborating with Slobodan Milosevic’s forces or being members of a party opposed to the victorious KLA were killed. It is unknown how many of these alleged murders prosecutors in Kosovo believe were carried out by SHIK, but since talking to GlobalPost, Bllaca has agreed to testify in another trial that began in mid-March of two former KLA soldiers with whom he has told prosecutors he killed an Albanian man in June 1999.

The NATO troops outside Bllaca’s door were there to protect him, he explained, from possible assassins trying to silence him as he has come forward to provide testimony against SHIK.

“I was part of a criminal and illegal organization called SHIK,” Bllaca said. “I am the author of one killing and I assisted in many others … . Personally, my group and I were working on collaborators and political killings.”

Two Kosovo Albanian politicians, one a former deputy prime minster, backed up the claims of the self-proclaimed hitman, saying that agents of the intelligence service tried to kill them. Bllaca said it was, in fact, his team that tried to kill the two men.

Prosecutors at EULEX, a mission of the European Union that works with Kosovo officials on enforcing the rule of law, are preparing Bllaca’s indictment on charges of murder, attempted murder and involvement in organized crime, according to EULEX documents seen by GlobalPost, and according to Bllaca himself, who is cooperating with EULEX prosecutors. Bllaca has told prosecutors that a senior former KLA official ? a close ally of Thaci named Azem Syla ? ordered him to do the killings. EULEX prosecutors declined to say whether they planned to indict anyone else connected to the murders.

“My goal is to shed light on all the killings in Kosovo,” Bllaca said.

Veseli denied that he or SHIK had ever been involved in murder or any crime. “Nazim Bllaca was never part of SHIK,” said Veseli, 43, during a more than two-hour interview in a restaurant in Pristina. “We were never in touch with him.”

Neither Veseli nor Thaci has been charged in a criminal case.

American involvement

The U.S. ambassador to Kosovo, Christopher Dell, declined repeated requests for an interview, as did officials at the State Department in Washington. They also declined to respond to written questions.

Most people who spoke to GlobalPost about SHIK, its activities and its ties to the U.S. government spoke on condition of anonymity because they did not want to face repercussions.

“It was sponsored by the CIA,” said a former senior U.S. official in Kosovo, who believes that SHIK turned into an organized crime organization. “At the beginning there were about 16 chosen by hand ? trained, equipped and outfitted and doing good things … but what it turned into was a method to maintain control of the crime and the politics in Kosovo.”

The former American official said SHIK was still supported by the United States and is “stronger now than it’s ever been, quite frankly.”

“The U.S. has been involved in training both SHIK and Kosovo’s security structures,” the Western diplomat with knowledge of the region said.

A former SHIK operative who no longer lives in Kosovo confirmed that he had been trained in the United States and Germany by American intelligence officials.

“[Veseli] had direct links with the American and English intelligence,” said Florin Krasniqi, a former KLA fundraiser and now a member of the Kosovo parliament. “Anything Americans and English wants, he gave them, on a plate … Kadri Veseli was financed, supported, supplied by these agencies.”

Veseli was friendly enough with U.S. officials to be invited to at least one, possibly more, Fourth of July barbecue celebrations at the U.S. Embassy in Pristina, according to three sources, including one who saw him at the celebration. Veseli did not dispute that he attended Fourth of July celebrations at the embassy, although he would not directly confirm his presence there.

There is strong indication that American officials knew of the suspicions of SHIK’s alleged involvement in targeting political opponents, even as the United States and other NATO countries were providing support for SHIK.

An intelligence report dated 2004 notes that Thaci associate and former KLA commander Xhavit “Haliti with Kadri ‘SALI’ VESELI, chief of KshiK prepared a ‘Black List’ of moderate politicians who were intimidated by KshiK and PDK supporters.” It is not known who in the American government has seen the report but the well-informed Western diplomat confirmed that officials in Washington had seen the report. (The report is marked “Secret Rel USA KFOR and NATO,” which is standard Pentagon code for “Secret – Releasable to the United States and NATO.” KFOR is the NATO force in Kosovo.)

The same intelligence report states: “KShiK has strong links with a number of Kosovar criminal organisations and derives much of their funding from illegal activity … KShiK also uses intimidation tactics to obtain funding from companies.”

Another intelligence report, this one authored by the German intelligence agency, the BND, in 2005 states, in German: “The SHIK developed its present form in the second half of 1999 in PRISTINA on THACI's initiative. THACI and [former KLA leader and prime minister Ramush] HARADINAJ, among others, used it to recruit suitable candidates for the Kosovar police service and the TMK [the Kosovo Protection Corps, an emergency response force comprised mainly of former KLA soldiers]. In reality, the service is primarily involved in spying activities, intimidation, and physically eliminating democratic forces.”

In accusing Syla and SHIK ? and by implication, Thaci and Veseli ? of complicity in the political murders he has confessed to, Bllaca is striking at the heart of Kosovo’s power structure and reputation. There are no more powerful political figures in Kosovo than Thaci, a close American ally who has been received at the White House and has hosted Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in Pristina.

If Bllaca is convicted, he will likely go to prison for many years. He nevertheless seemed remarkably upbeat. He was clean shaven, had a new haircut and joked with the Italian soldiers guarding him. His motives are hard to fathom.

If he is driven by his guilt at killing a man then his relaxed, quick-wittedness entirely masks a tormented soul. Some analysts have guessed that Bllaca is driven by fear, rather than guilt, and decided that the only way to save his own life was to turn himself in and seek a plea agreement. Indeed, in the interview with GlobalPost, he spoke of a falling-out with SHIK several years ago and how he believes there is now a price of 100,000 euros on his head.

Veseli, one of Bllaca’s targets, believes that Bllaca did kill the man he claims to have killed. But it was not as a member of SHIK, Veseli said.

“Maybe he is now mad,” Veseli said, shrugging his shoulders.

The victims

Another person who believes Bllaca’s claims is Buki Kllokoqi, the son of the man Bllaca says he killed.

For years the Kllokoqi family have remained silent on the topic but Buki and his mother, Drita, agreed to be interviewed in the home where Ibush Kllokoqi was shot dead on Aug. 6, 1999.

“[Bllaca] was ordered to do that,” said Buki Kllokoqi, 30, an IT specialist with an international company that has an office in Pristina. “The guys who ordered it are the real criminals in this case. He is just a puppet.”

Kllokoqi, in perfect American-accented English, spoke with controlled anger about his father’s murder. There is an atmosphere of fear and intimidation in Kosovo that has historically prevented witnesses from speaking publicly, or in court, against senior former KLA officials. Kllokoqi is different. “I really don’t give a ---- about what they may say or do,” he said, when asked whether he was worried about the consequences of discussing his father’s death.

Kllokoqi refused to answer questions about which individuals he holds responsible for his father’s murder but he was unusually frank in saying that Bllaca’s accusations about who his bosses were ring true to him.

“It makes sense to me,” he said. “Who else would want my father dead?”

Kllokoqi makes a point of saying that he and his father, and all the family, were and remain strong supporters of the KLA and Kosovo. “Certain individuals, in the name of the KLA, did atrocities but that does not mean the KLA is bad,” he said. “They used the KLA banner to do whatever they did.”

What brought assassins to Kllokoqi’s front gate on that night in August, 1999, was a misapprehension about Ibush Kllokoqi, the dead man’s son and wife said. Ibush Kllokoqi was a senior officer in the old Yugoslav intelligence service, his son said. “He left his job in 1991,” he said. “His job was occupied by Serbs. He was not a collaborator … . He got his pension and left. Because he did not want to be part of the Serbian terror machine.”

Unfortunately for Ibush Kllokoqi, he had learned “too much about all of those guys,” Buki Kllokoqi said, referring to Albanian and Kosovo Albanian criminals who later became powerful in the KLA.

After he retired, Ibush Kllokoqi bought two buses to rent out, his son said, but the business was not successful. During the war of 1999 the family fled to Montenegro. Along the way, said Drita Kllokoqi, some Serbian men “beat up my husband so badly.”

Once home in Pristina, after the Serbs had retreated from Kosovo, the family put word out that they were selling their buses. So it was hardly a surprise when three men came to the front gate of the wall that surrounds the family’s house on a sloping street in central Pristina. The men asked about the buses that were for sale.

“I went out,” said Drita Kllokoqi, 59. “There were three but just one came near the gate. The others were standing behind him. I asked my husband to go outside.”

It was about 9 p.m. and Ibush Kllokoqi was eating his dinner. He was carrying a piece of pie in his hands when he came through the front yard to the gate. “I turned my back and heard shots,” Drita said. “At least three, maybe four. I turned around and saw him lying down. He was still alive.”

He died soon after.

Drita remembers little else about the murder. “I can’t even remember the face of the guy I talked to,” she said.

Bllaca says his is one of the faces she can’t remember.

“Ibush Kllokoqi was part of the Yugoslav secret service,” he said, explaining why Kllokoqi was a target for him and his two accomplices.

When talking of the murder Bllaca tended to talk in the passive. “He was killed in Pristina at the footsteps of his home. With a gun. A Scorpion [machine pistol] with a silencer. It was the evening, in the dark. Six to 11 bullets. They hit him in the left of the body. He was killed in front of his wife. There were three of us. Our first job was to get him out of his home. The person on the right had the job of talking to him.”

When asked which of the three had actually shot Kllokoqi, Bllaca said: “It was me.”

Bllaca has told EULEX prosecutors, as he has stated publicly and to GlobalPost, that his hit squad also tried to kill two prominent members of the Kosovo Albanian party, the Democratic League of Kosovo (LDK), which was the KLA’s major rival.

Adem Salihaj
Adem Salihaj
(Matt McAllester/GlobalPost)

In an interview, one of the men, Adem Salihaj, a former deputy prime minister of Kosovo, said that he had been given information by a friendly source in SHIK that other men from SHIK would try to kill him. So as he drove home on June 12, 2000, to his house in the town of Ferizaj, about 40 minutes outside Pristina, he was armed.

“I had a handgun with me,” he said, “which I held in my hand.”

As he drove toward his house, a car pulled up alongside him. One of the men in the car was pointing a machine pistol with a silencer at him. “I stopped,” he said. “They stopped.”

Salihaj and the gunman got out of their respective cars and aimed at each other. “He couldn’t shoot,” Salihaj said. “I think my gun was not cocked to shoot either. We were just two guys pointing guns at each other.”

The would-be assassin got back into his car and the men rapidly reversed away from Salihaj. Salihaj cocked his gun and fired at the car. He shot twice more.

A second car was awaiting him close to his house ? but it drove away. “Nazim Bllaca says he was in that car,” Salihaj said.

Salihaj is convinced he knows who tried to kill him.

“It was SHIK,” he said. “No one did political killings other than SHIK. At that time I was threatened by the PDK all the time.”

He added: “I think, ultimately, it was SHIK’s chief who did this,” he said. “Kadri Veseli. But the killings wouldn’t have happened without the order of the political leader.”

Asked if he meant Thaci, Salihaj said: “They couldn’t be done without the political approval of Hashim Thaci … . The only mechanism SHIK responded to was the PDK so there is direct responsibility of HashimThaci.”

“SHIK,” Salihaj said, echoing many well-informed people in Kosovo, “still exists.”

Agim Veliu
(Jetmir Izidri/GlobalPost)

About three weeks after Bllaca says he and his fellow assassins tried to kill Salihaj, they moved on to a new target, another LDK party official named Agim Veliu, who is now the mayor of Podujevo, a town half an hour outside Pristina.

This time, the assassins did a better job, peppering Veliu’s car with bullets as he drove home at about 7 p.m. on the evening of July 1, 2000.

Sitting in his office, Veliu, 50, produced a photograph of the side of his car, which was pierced with several bullet holes. “I was injured with three bullets,” he said.

“SHIK, of course,” he said, when asked if he had any suspicions about who had tried to kill him. “Of course it was SHIK. That was their way ? to eliminate people in their way of power.”

He named Veseli and Thaci as being in charge of SHIK.

“I think that no one related to SHIK deserves to be the head of government, leading the people,” Veliu said, “and no one involved with SHIK deserves American support.”

Veliu said that the love that most Kosovars have for the United States is beginning to fade. “I’ve been in so many villages and all appreciate the USA so much but now I’m seeing trust lost because the USA supports these kind of people who are involved in organized crime.”

Jovo Martinovic contributed to this story.

(GlobalPost funding for human rights reporting on stories like these is provided in part by a grant from the Galloway Family Foundation.)
 


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