By Fatos Bytyci
PRISTINA (Reuters) - Three years ago, Liridon Kabashi was in the Middle East, training to fight alongside Islamic State. Now back home in Kosovo, he and fellow returnees are working to stop others from choosing the same path.
Over the past four years, Kosovo has contributed more fighters per head of population to the conflict in Iraq and Syria than any other European country. More than 300 Kosovars have left for the Middle East and at least 50 have died there.
In response to European and United States pressure to do more to stem the flow, Kosovo last year passed a stringent law prescribing up to 15 years' jail for anyone fighting in foreign wars.
But stiff jail terms are not the answer, the returnees say. A group of them have set up a charity dedicated to persuading potential Islamic State recruits not to leave and help those that return to re-integrate.
"They don't need foreign soldiers," said Kabashi, 29, highlighting the kinds of practical messages he uses to dissuade people from leaving.
At least 70 Kosovars are still believed to be in the war zone, and the prospect of a jail sentence will discourage them from coming home, says Albert Berisha, also 29, awaiting the outcome of his appeal against a three and a half year sentence.
"You cannot offer them a choice between going to jail or dying in the war," he said in his office opposite Kosovo's main police station. "We want to tell them that there is a third option: reintegration and re-socialization."
Experts echo that message, saying that militants, once isolated in prison from mainstream Kosovar society, may simply become further radicalised.
Kosovo's Muslims are largely secular, a legacy of 50 years as part of officially atheist Yugoslavia, but an influx of Gulf money into religious charities and mosques after the war has helped propagate a more fundamentalist reading of the faith.
Berisha said he returned home as soon as he realised he was set to fight alongside Islamic State, not the rival group he had expected to join. Kabashi, also 29, said he was given training but never took part in fighting.
They are seeking funding from the European Union and Western governments to take his message to other young returnees. The government has also launched programmes to rehabilitate returnees after they serve their time.
While it is too soon to judge the impact of Kabashi's group, which has only recently started operating, it may be helping the government discourage new militants going to the Middle East -authorities say they have no record of anyone heading to fight in Syria and Iraq this year.
(Reporting by Fatos Bytyci; editing by Thomas Escritt and Dominic Evans)