Former KLA Commanders Fight over the Spoils of War

May 9, 2000

In addition to the daily incidents of inter-ethnic violence in Kosovo, a distinctly new type of battle is shaping up. Two of the highest-ranking commanders from the former Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA) have been murdered in the past month. Although the precise reason for their deaths is unclear, the murders indicate infighting among Kosovo’s most powerful ethnic Albanians. Not yet one year after the end of NATO’s bombing campaign, the Kosovar Albanians are beginning to feud over the spoils of war.

A bullet to the head killed Besim Mala, also known as Murrizi, while in a cafe in downtown Pristina April 17. Mala, former commander of western Kosovo’s Adem Jashari 111th Brigade, was serving as commander of the Rapid Intervention Battalion of the Kosovo Protection Corps (KPC). Tens of thousands of mourners gathered at his gravesite, reported Kosovapress, a news agency based in Albania. U.N. police have so far arrested one suspect in the killing, and the investigators blamed the murder on a criminal dispute over protection rackets, reported the Scotsman.

On May 8 the second high-level KLA leader was shot to death in broad daylight. Ekrem Rexha, also known as Drini, was killed as he left his house for work. Rexha, the Environment and Safety officer for the Prizren region, formerly commanded the KLA’s southern forces. Rexha was widely popular among Kosovar Albanians, his face appearing on posters throughout western Kosovo, according to the Scottish Daily Record.

The killings likely resulted from struggles for power, either political or criminal – or both. The former leader of the KLA, Hashim Thaci, reportedly rose to power by violently eliminating his competition. The murders could be the results of a second wave of Thaci’s political paranoia. Both men became famous for their roles in the war against Serb repression, and each remained a hero in his region.

Each man also held posts that would lend themselves conveniently to criminal activity. The former KLA members are closely tied with local drug and arms smuggling rings, which could lead to territorial disputes. As a KPC commander, Mala still had a small army at his service. Sources in Yugoslavia report that he was involved in car smuggling, and the United Nations said his death was related to racketeering. Similarly, as the director of environment and safety, and with close KLA connections, Rexha easily could have demanded extortion and protection money out of local businesses.

Rifts among the KLA leadership have until recently been imperceptible. But, as the Albanian militants become increasingly secure in their authority over Kosovo, fractures are beginning to surface. Another former KLA commander, Ramush Haradinaj, founded a new political movement last week called the Alliance for the Future of Kosovo, made up of four parties. His coalition could challenge Thaci’s Party for Democratic Progress of Kosovo, as it also targets the ethnic Albanians supporting Kosovo independence.

Since winning the war, the KLA militants have become accustomed to the lucrative criminal underworld and the unfettered authority they have achieved in the region. With the peacekeepers busy trying to calm ethnic hotspots, such as the city of Mitrovica, a battle among the former KLA leaders will now begin to whittle down the power structure. If this is allowed to play out without interference, Kosovo will be left with only the most criminal and violent factions in control.

Kosovo: One Year Later
0303 GMT, 000317

Nearly one year after NATO first intervened in Kosovo, it appears the alliance has failed to fulfill its chief objectives, both in waging the war and keeping the peace. Increasingly, Kosovo seems beyond the alliance’s control as crime, weapons and drug trafficking resurface. Alliance forces are now on the defensive against former allies within the ethnic Albanian community; the guerrillas of the Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA) now appear to hold positions of considerable power. Nine months after the war, the West faces a choice. It can increase its grip on Kosovo, committing more troops and confronting the KLA, or the alliance can resign itself to losing control of Kosovo.


NATO’s war against Yugoslavia set a precedent at considerable cost. It was the first instance of unilateral NATO intervention in a sovereign nation during the alliance’s 50-year history. NATO sent more than 1,000 aircraft to fly more than 38,000 sorties, at an eventual estimated cost of tens of billions of dollars. The alliance deployed 38,000 peacekeepers, drawn from 28 countries, with no foreseeable end to their mission. Reconstruction has barely begun and is expected to cost another $32 billion.

But one year later, the alliance’s peacekeeping mission, known as KFOR, is failing. Not only does ethnic violence persist, but the alliance appears to be further losing control. The murder rate in the rural breakaway province now equals that of the world’s largest cities. Sources on the ground report that weapons are increasingly in the hands of former guerrillas. NATO troops have come under attack by the ethnic Albanian majority as well as the Serb minority. The alliance is steadily headed toward a daunting choice. It must increase its grip on Kosovo or resign itself to providing a garrison force that safeguards a tumultuous province, which is effectively in the hands of the KLA.

Kosovo’s State of Violence

KFOR entered the province to fulfill three missions: to ensure safety, enforce compliance with the June 1999 cease-fire agreements and temporarily assist the United Nations with civilian functions, such as policing and reconstruction. But Kosovo has steadily become an upside-down world of reversed roles. The guerrillas were supposed to disarm and disband but have in fact maintained a strong hold on power. Increasingly, KFOR troops are defending themselves not just against remaining pockets of Serbs, but apparently against their wartime allies in the KLA.

It appears that elements of the guerrillas are orchestrating violence that threatens international forces. Even Western military officials have come grudgingly, though privately, to the conclusion that extremist elements of the KLA are making a bid for outright independence. NATO troops were stoned last October in the western city of Pec. The recent violence in the northern city of Mitrovica included a grenade attack that wounded 17 KFOR troops. In February, KFOR Cmdr. Gen. Klaus Reinhardt said, “When NATO came into Kosovo we were only supposed to fight the Yugoslav army if they came back uninvited. Now we’re finding we have to fight the Albanians.”

Violent crime is falling but the largely rural province is far from safe. In the southeast corner of Kosovo, the American sector, there were 615 incidents of hostile fire, 15 mortar attacks, 20 altercations with unruly crowds, 129 grenade attacks and 58 landmine explosions – in the first six months of peacekeeping, according to NATO figures. The murder rate for the entire province has dropped from 127 murders per 100,000 people at the end of the war to 23 murders per 100,000. Still, the murder rate of rural Kosovo now equals the murder rate of Los Angeles, California – one of the world’s largest and most densely populated cities.

Under the June cease-fire agreement, the KLA was supposed to disband and disarm, but there is evidence that former guerrillas now enjoy easy – even sanctioned – access to weapons. Some 5,000 former KLA guerrillas have joined the Kosovo Protection Corps (KPC), a sort of national guard for emergency and disaster response. They are allowed to carry sidearms with the proper permit cards. But the permit cards are being copied and distributed to other former guerrillas, according to an international police source.

The Power of the KLA and Drug Trafficking

In many ways, the state of affairs in Kosovo is the result of a lack of government. The United Nations has never had a complete plan to set up a government; nine months after peacekeeping began there is none. In this vacuum, the KLA has flourished.

While the KLA was to have disbanded, two important wartime figures remain at the core of the still existent KLA power structure. Hashim Thaci, who led the KLA’s political wing and became the chief contact for the West, is now Kosovo’s most important ethnic Albanian politician. The commander of the KLA’s military wing, Agim Cequ, commands 5,000 former guerrillas who are now in the Kosovo Protection Corps.

The KLA is indebted to Balkan drug organizations that helped funnel both cash and arms to the guerrillas before and after the conflict. Kosovo is the heart of a heroin trafficking route that runs from Afghanistan through Turkey and the Balkans and into Western Europe. It now appears that the KLA must pay back the organized crime elements. This would in turn create a surge in heroin trafficking in the coming months, just as it did following the NATO occupation of Bosnia in the mid-1990s.

Two to six tons of heroin, worth 12 times its weight in gold, moves through Turkey toward Eastern Europe each month. The route connecting the Taliban-run opium fields of Afghanistan to Western Europe’s heroin market is worth an estimated $400 billion a year – and is dominated by the Kosovar Albanians. This “Balkan Route” supplies 80 percent of Europe’s heroin.

For the KLA, the Balkan Route is not only a way to ship heroin to Europe for a massive profit, but it also acted as a conduit for weapons filtering into the war-torn Balkans. The smugglers either trade drugs directly for weapons or buy weapons with drug earnings in Albania, Bosnia, Croatia, Cyprus, Italy, Montenegro, Switzerland or Turkey. The arsenal of weapons smuggled into Kosovo has included: anti-aircraft missiles, assault rifles, sniper rifles, mortars, shotguns, grenade launchers, anti-personnel mines and infrared night vision gear, according to a NATO report cited in the Washington Times in June 1999.

There is already anecdotal evidence that the drug trade is flourishing in Kosovo, in full view of international authorities. The bombed out, unpaved streets of Kosovo are the new home to sleek European sports cars with no license plates. There are 20 percent to 25 percent more cars in Kosovo than there were before the war, according to an international police official recently returned from several months in Kosovo. The refugees claim Serbs took the plates, but the black Mercedes are signs of a prospering drug trade.

Beyond Kosovo

Drug smuggling will make an impact beyond the Balkans and deep into the rest of Europe. Ethnic Albanians are the predominant smugglers in the Western European heroin market, according to Interpol data.

Some 500,000 Kosovar Albanians live in Western Europe. Those living off the heroin trade rely on clan loyalties to tightly control their business partners. They gain access to Western European cities by exploiting their reputation as refugees. This gives them a distinct advantage over the Turks or Italians.

Although Albanian speakers comprise about 1 percent of Europe’s 510 million residents, they made up 14 percent of all Europeans arrested for heroin smuggling in 1997, according to Interpol. The average quantity of heroin confiscated from arrested smugglers was two grams; ethnic Albanians arrested for the same crime carried an average of 120 grams, the agency said.

The U.S. government has been – and likely continues to be – well aware of the heroin trade coming through Kosovo, as well as the KLA connection. Just two years before the war, the Clinton administration wanted national security waivers for 14 countries – including Yugoslavia – in order to send arms and stem drug trafficking. The U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency reported in 1998 that ethnic Albanian organizations in Kosovo are “second only to Turkish gangs as the predominant heroin smugglers along the Balkan route.”

Today, Kosovo poses for NATO an ironically similar problem to the one it posed in 1999. Kosovo’s problems – smuggling, crime and violence – threaten to spill out into the Balkan region. Tensions between the Serbs and ethnic Albanians challenge stability in Montenegro and Serbia, the remaining Yugoslav republics. The alliance must not only contain Kosovo’s problems, but prevent renewed war between the KLA and Yugoslav forces in Serbia.

Montenegro threatens to become the next hot spot as a result of the Kosovo war. The province’s leadership has taken its cues from the international community’s defense of Kosovo. Montenegrin President Milo Djukanovic has announced that the West is ready to offer help in the event of a Serb attack. Officials from the U.N. and human rights groups have made increasingly loud requests for Western attention to Montenegro.

NATO’s Next Move

NATO now faces a dilemma. It must take control of the situation in Kosovo by increasing its troop presence and confronting its former allies in the KLA. Or the alliance can accept a role as vassal to the guerrillas, essentially safeguarding Kosovo from a Serbian invasion. The guerrillas, in turn, would run Kosovo as they see fit.

Withdrawing altogether from Kosovo is out of the question; Yugoslav forces would quickly pour into the province. The prospect of vastly increasing forces is unpleasant. As it stands now NATO members are reluctant to deploy even enough troops to meet the current mandate of 50,000 peacekeepers.

To maintain control, though, the alliance must do more than increase its presence; it must reconsider its allies in Kosovo. There are signs that the West may play a longtime moderate, Ibrahim Rugova, against Thaci. During his recent trip to Kosovo, State Department spokesman James Rubin met with Rugova, the first high-level public contact between U.S. officials and Rugova since he was abandoned last year. The prospect is stark. NATO would have to crush the KLA, risking more violence and a public relations nightmare.

NATO’s other option is probably even more unappealing: handing the KLA the keys to Kosovo. In such a scenario, the alliance would give ethnic Albanian political and civil leaders – with a few Serbs thrown in to demonstrate multi-ethnic governance – political control. But in fact the KLA would retain the upper hand. Alliance troops would remain to safeguard whatever state the former guerrillas choose to build.