Albert Berisha, charged with participating in terrorist organisations and on trial in Kosovo, said he travelled to Syria to help the moderate Syrian opposition but got trapped by ISIS fighters.
Ridvan Haqifi (left) and Lavdrim Muhaxheri (right), two ISIS Kosovo Albanian commanders. | Photo: ISIS propaganda video
Albert Berisha, a former Kosovar jihadist who travelled to fight in Syria, appeared before a Pristina court on Monday to recount his version of the story and maintain his innocence.
Berisha, who graduated in political sciences from the University of Pristina and holds a Masters degree from the University of Tirana, was arrested in 2014 and is charged with participating in terrorist organisations. This crime is punishable with a minimum of five years in prison.
Berisha said he went to Syria from October 6 to 20, 2013, to help the Syrian opposition in their struggle against Bashir Al-Assad’s regime but never engaged in fighting.
On arrival in Syria, he asked to join other Albanian-speaking formations to “avoid language barriers”, and was taken to meet Lavdrim Muhaxheri, the ISIS commander of Albanian fighters.
“I swear by God, that I had never heard of him or met him before,” Berisha said, when the prosecution asked whether he knew Muhaxheri before that meeting.
Berisha claimed he searched the internet during the two available daily hours of electricity, trying to understand where he had ended up and came across a video of Muhaxheri.
“It was then when I understood that he was part of the Islamic State organisation, so I decided to leave and join the Ahrar al-Sham group,” Berisha said.
As escaping ISIS proved almost impossible, according to Berisha, he used Facebook to contact a friend in Kosovo to arrange an exit plan.
“He then sent me an SMS saying a relative of mine was sick and I had to return home, which I used as justification to return to Kosovo,” the suspect told the court.
Berisha claimed he then joined Ahrar al Sham, saying he also checked the US State Department list of terrorist organisations, to make sure the group was not included among them.
“The group was being financially supported by Qatar, Saudi Arabia and indirectly supported with weaponry from the US,” Berisha recounted.
While Ahrar al-Sham does not appear on Western lists of terrorist organisations, it is recognised as such by Iraq, Syria, Iran and Russia. Other sources say the group has affiliations with Al Nusra – Al Qaeda’s branch in Syria and Iraq.
Berisha said that when he returned to Kosovo after Muhaxheri granted him permission to leave, an Albanian from Skopje told him that other “Albanian recruits at ISIS had expressed regret for not having killed” him.
Berisha said he spent little time with Ahrar al-Sham because of increased tensions between this fighting formation and ISIS, and he did not want to become part of the fighting between the two formations.
Around 100 people have been arrested in Kosovo since September 2014 on charges of active membership of, or affiliation to, Islamist groups including ISIS and Al-Nusra.
More than 50 are currently on trial. The latest estimates from the authorities are that about 300 Kosovo Albanians have joined ISIS and Al Nusra.