Alleged jihadist wanted by FBI lives openly in Kosovo

MITROVICA, Kosovo Wed Nov 24, 2010 2:55pm IST

Bajram Asllani, 30, wanted by the FBI for allegedly conspiring to engage in violent jihad, is interviewed in his house in Mitrovica November 19, 2010. The United States considers lumberjack Asllani one of its most wanted men but, because of Kosovo's unusual international status, it is unable to extradite and interrogate him. REUTERS/Hazir Reka

Bajram Asllani, 30, wanted by the FBI for allegedly conspiring to engage in violent jihad, is interviewed in his house in Mitrovica November 19, 2010. The United States considers lumberjack Asllani one of its most wanted men but, because of Kosovo's unusual international status, it is unable to extradite and interrogate him.

Credit: Reuters/Hazir Reka

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MITROVICA, Kosovo (Reuters) - The United States considers lumberjack Bajram Asllani one of its most wanted men but, because of Kosovo's unusual international status, it is unable to extradite ands interrogate him.

Unlike others on the "most wanted" list, Asllani is not hiding out in a distant desert or rugged mountain range.

The 30-year-old lives openly with his family in Kosovo, a pro-American Balkan country where about 800 U.S. soldiers help preserve a fragile peace between majority ethnic Albanians and minority Serbs, formerly the territory's rulers.

A friendly local policeman even pointed the way to his street when a journalist recently tried to find Asllani's home in Mitrovica, one of the country's largest cities.

Asllani's case is caught up in the hybrid legal system of

Kosovo, whose own weak judicial system leaves European Union judges and prosecutors to handle major cases involving terrorism and war crimes.

Kosovo, whose independence nearly three years ago has been recognised by many countries, wants to join the European Union one day but remains an international protectorate more than a decade after its war for liberation from Serbia.

The FBI "Wanted" poster on the internet (here) has complicated life for Asllani, who lives on state unemployment benefits for his wife and three children of just 75 euros ($100) a month.

"I lost my job and there are times when I don't have enough to feed my children," he said after offering a guest a glass of strawberry juice in his ramshackle house.

"No one is hiring me. They tell me: you are a terrorist, you have attacked the Americans."

The FBI wanted poster reads: "Bajram Asllani is an alleged co-conspirator with a group of eight individuals in the United States who were allegedly co-conspiring to engage in violent jihad, or holy war, and to raise money for mujihadeen, or warriors engaged in violent jihad."

Asllani, a Kosovar Albanian, was arrested in June but released after EU judges rejected a U.S. request for his extradition.

The EU judges found that the United States had not provided sufficient grounds for believing that Asllani had committed the offences, and also cited the absence of an extradition accord between Washington and Pristina.

Asllani says he is innocent of the charges.

BASE FOR EXTREMIST ISLAM

The man the FBI considers highly dangerous lives next door to a United Nations building, and on a typical day prays in a local mosque and greets police officers when he goes shopping.

His appearance is the same as the long-haired, bearded image that appears on Interpol's website link.reuters.com/rur76q, which advises those with information about his whereabouts to contact police or Interpol.

"I am a victim of secret services," said Asllani, who is accused of providing material support to terrorism suspects and conspiring to kill and hurt people abroad.

He is accused of having ties and soliciting money from men in North Carolina arrested last year for an alleged plot to attack a U.S. Marine Corps base in Quantico, Virginia, and alleged plans to hurt people overseas including in Kosovo, Jordan and the Gaza Strip.

The complaint alleges Asllani was preparing to buy land in Kosovo to build a base for extremist Islam, including the storage of weapons and training of fighters with the aim of committing terrorist acts overseas.

"We continue to seek his prosecution in the United States," said U.S. Justice Department spokesman Dean Boyd.

In September 2009, a Serbian court sentenced Asllani in absentia to eight years in prison for selling weapons to Islamic militants, a charge he denies. His house is a few hundred metres from the Ibar River, which divides the part of the city under Kosovo government control from an ethnic Serb community loyal to Belgrade.

Not only the United States and Serbia want to see Asllani behind bars -- the Kosovo government has approved a request from U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to extradite him.

"The Americans know something about him and they will not just accuse someone who has not done something," a Kosovo government source close to the case told Reuters. "He should have gone to United States to face all accusations."

Asllani said all he had left was his family and his faith, which he said had helped him overcome the horrors he witnessed during Kosovo's 1998-99 war.

"I saw people with hearts cut out, without heads, and after the war I had a lot of trauma," he said. "Islam has saved me from these traumas. I thank God that has helped me.

"Everything has been black since I was accused," he said. "If I was armed and dangerous, I would not be here and I would have better living conditions."

(Additional reporting by Jeremy Pelofsky in Washington, Editing by Adam Tanner and Tim Pearce)

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