Who Is the Kosovo Liberation Army?

Members of the Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA), who have been lionized as “freedom fighters,” have also been demonized as communists, narco-terrorists, and Islamic fundamentalists. Who are these folks? And what are their goals?

The group’s origins are murky, and like most guerrilla armies it does most of its business in secret. But this much is known: The KLA grew out of independence demonstrations staged in the early 1980s by Kosovo’s ethnic Albanian majority. Serb authorities arrested hundreds of protesters, many of whom called themselves Marxist-Leninists, in part to secure assistance from their ethnic brothers in communist Albania. The demonstrators’ goal was to rid Kosovo of Serb rule. During the 1980s many current KLA members, including future Rambouillet delegates Jakup Krasniqi and Azem Syla, served time in Serb prisons for organizing peaceful demonstrations, leafleting, or calling for independence.

The KLA was formed some time in the early 1990s, shortly after Belgrade abolished the autonomy the province had enjoyed since 1974 and purged ethnic Albanians from civil and state institutions, including the military. (Many KLA leaders received their military training in the Yugoslavian army.) Ethnic Albanians responded to the purge by creating a shadow government under the auspices of the Democratic League of Kosovo and electing Ibrahim Rugova their unofficial president in 1992. While war ravaged other parts of the splintering Yugoslavia, Rugova–the “Balkan Gandhi”–persuaded Kosovars to remain nonviolent, arguing that the international community would reinstate the province’s independence. But when the 1995 Dayton Accords ended the war in Bosnia but left Kosovo’s status unresolved, other nationalists decided nonviolence was ineffective: They noted that Yugoslavian minorities who took up arms won independence, while those who didn’t were strong-armed.

The Albanian diaspora funds the KLA through an organization named “Homeland Calling,” soliciting funds in the U.S. (mostly Brooklyn), Australia, Canada, Switzerland, Germany, and other European nations. A UN arms embargo prevents member nations from funding the KLA. The European press alleges that ethnic Albanian drug traffickers contribute to the rebel army, a report that arms trade experts confirm. Although most ethnic Albanians are Muslim, the Kosovo independence movement is not much influenced by Islamic fundamentalism. The group’s spokesman says that they shun the assistance of Middle East radicals despite sketchy reports that Iran surreptitiously finances the KLA. The State Department denies, at least for the record, that it knows the source of KLA funding.

The KLA began hit-and-run attacks against Serb policemen and officials in early 1996 in hopes of abolishing “Serb colonization.” In 1997, following the collapse of order in Albania, that nation’s military depots were looted and small arms poured into Kosovo. The KLA stepped up its attacks, kidnapping and executing not only Serb officials and their families but suspected ethnic Albanian collaborators.

In 1998, Serb President Slobodan Milosevic retaliated against the KLA uprisings by executing Albanian clan leader Adem Jashari and members of his family. Radicalized by his martyrdom, Kosovar Albanians rallied to the KLA. Armed with assault rifles and rocket-propelled grenades, the KLA punched a supply route through to Albania where they established a staging base for operations.

No match for the better equipped Serbian army, the KLA retreated in the face of a Serbian offensive last year. The Serbs torched villages and killed scores of civilians, triggering a refugee crisis. In protest marches, ethnic Albanians of all ages began to defiantly chant, “We are the Kosovo Liberation Army,” and the nation’s many political factions began to rally to the KLA cause. “President” Rugova’s credibility was damaged beyond repair last May when he met with Milosevic, and several of Rugova’s moderate colleagues, including Rambouillet delegate Jakup Krasniqi, spurned him by joining the KLA.

Adem Demaci, who spent 28 years in Serb prisons and led the Parliamentary Party of Kosovo which rivaled Rugova’s, called on the KLA to establish a political presence “because one cannot communicate with the world with statements released from forests.” NATO silently urged rival factions to unite and the KLA formed a political wing last summer. Demaci briefly became the KLA spokesman and quickly attributed previous calls for a pan-Albanian state from within the group to political immaturity. The augmented KLA clearly tempered its core.

At least 8,000 rebels once fought for the KLA, although that is a very soft number. According to Albanian television reports, the KLA ordered all Kosovars between the ages of 18 and 50 to join its ranks earlier this month. The KLA successfully recruits in the refugee camps and among the diaspora. More than 5,000 fresh recruits are now training in Albania. Command remains decentralized, but seems to have settled under the control of Bislim Zyrapi, who formerly led a militia brigade in the Bosnian conflict. Albania is giving ammunition and trucks to their efforts. The situation in the province is fluid and rebels struggle to hold their remaining isolated enclaves. Macedonia has charged that the KLA conducts military activities within its borders. The KLA has yet to build an effective military force and it is considered unlikely that they could defeat government forces, even with the assistance of NATO air cover. The Department of Defense acknowledges that the KLA reports to NATO on the situation inside Kosovo, but the extent of KLA/NATO cooperation is not known.

The U.S. has cited the KLA for provocative acts of violence but has yet to place the organization on its official terrorist list. In fact, the Clinton administration has warmed to the rebel force. Last June, U.S. envoy Richard Holbrooke met with a KLA commander in Kosovo. The Contact Group nations (Russia, Britain, France Germany, Italy, and the U.S.), decided that the KLA represents a significant portion of the Kosovars and that no settlement is possible without them.

KLA attendance at the Rambouillet negotiations lent the group new legitimacy, as did the election of KLA political director Hashim Thaci as leader of the 15-member ethnic Albanian negotiating team. The KLA’s willingness at the Rambouillet talks to demilitarize Kosovo in return for the reinstatement of autonomy was interpreted by many as a signal that a peaceful organization might evolve from the guerrilla force.

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Explainer would like to thank Ben Fischerof Indiana University, Barney Rubin of the Council on Foreign Relations, Kurt Bassuener of the Balkan Action Council, John Hillen of the Center for Strategy and International Studies, and Jane’s Intelligence Review.

This item was written by Eve Gerber.