More than 300 people from Kosovo went to join Islamists fighting “holy war” in Syria and Iraq – per capita the highest number in Europe. But not all of them match the popular image of a jihadi, as Helen Nianias discovered when she met a hipsterish young man for coffee in the Kosovan capital, Pristina.
A man with a short beard, a dark pea coat and a bemused expression weaves towards me between the tables of this smart cafe. Sitting down, he looks slightly embarrassed as a tall glass of coffee topped with a huge quiff of whipped cream is put in front of him.
This is Albert Berisha. He’s 31 years old and five years ago he went to Syria to fight.
“I know it’s hard to believe, but it happened,” Albert says about his nine days with different extremist groups. Articulate and focused, he says his primary reason for going to Syria was to oppose the Syrian president, Bashar al-Assad.
To misquote the film Withnail and I, Albert went to fight “by mistake”, ricocheting between uncomfortable and frightening experiences. During this brief but eventful period, he says al-Nusra Front – a group once affiliated to al-Qaeda – tried to enlist him, before letting him go. Then he went to stay with a group of fellow ethnic Albanians – before finding out they were trying to join so-called Islamic State, which he didn’t want to do.