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Is There a Good Terrorist?

Have you heard that Osama bin Laden is coming to Macedonia?
No. Why?
Because we’ve declared an amnesty for terrorists.

This Macedonian joke, told to me recently in Skopje, invites us to reflect on one of the most important questions in the post–September 11 world: Who is a terrorist? It is a question to which the international community sorely needs an answer.

Slav Macedonian nationalists insist that they face their own Osama bin Laden in an Albanian Macedonian guerrilla leader called Ali Ahmeti.1 Yet, they say, the United States and NATO have been making deals with this terrorist, and pressing the Macedonian government to grant him amnesty. Of course, nationalist regimes around the world have always played this semantic card—Russia denounces Chechen “terrorists”; Israel, Palestinian “terrorists”; China, Tibetan “terrorists”; and so on—with widely varying degrees of justification. In this case, however, it is not just the local nationalists who have taken a dim view of Mr. Ali Ahmeti.

On June 27, 2001, President George W. Bush signed an Executive Order freezing all US-based property of, and blocking donations to, a list of persons engaged in or supporting “extremist violence in the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia” and in other parts of the Western Balkans. “I find,” said the presidential order, “that such actions constitute an unusual and extraordinary threat to the national security and foreign policy of the United States, and hereby declare a national emergency to deal with that threat.” Near the top of the list of persons thus dramatically stigmatized is “AHMETI, Ali, Member of National Liberation Army (NLA),” born in Kicevo, Macedonia, on January 4, 1959. The presidential order does not actually use the word “terrorist,” yet it treats him as such. In May this year, the NATO secretary-general, Lord (George) Robertson, described the National Liberation Army that Ahmeti leads as “a bunch of murderous thugs whose objective is to destroy a democratic Macedonia.”

In mid-August, however, under heavy pressure from the United States, NATO, and European negotiators, representatives of the Slav and Albanian Macedonians signed a peace deal. In return for constitutional and administrative changes designed to secure equal rights for Albanian Macedonians in the Macedonian state, the NLA would stop fighting and hand in many of its weapons to NATO. As part of the deal, the Macedonian president, Boris Trajkovski, committed himself to giving amnesty to the insurgents, a commitment effectively guaranteed to Ahmeti by NATO. As President Trajkovski memorably explained to me: “I signed an agreement with the Secretary- General [of NATO] and the Secretary-General’s representative signed an agreement with the terrorists.”

I found some confusion among Western representatives in Skopje about the proper characterization of Mr. Ahmeti. One senior British military officer, who had spent years fighting the IRA in Northern Ireland, told me with emphasis and passion that Ahmeti and his colleagues in the NLA are terrorists. “If you take the NATO definition of terrorism, they absolutely fit,” he said.2 Other senior civilian and military NATO representatives described the NLA action as an “insurgency” and expressed admiration for the restraint exercised by Ahmeti and his men in their astonishingly successful seven-month campaign. On paper, international organizations had characteristically taken refuge in a euphemism wrapped in an acronym. “EAAG,” said the documents—short for Ethnic Albanian Armed Group.

I felt it might be useful to ask Mr. Ahmeti himself. So, with an Albanian driver and interpreter, I drove up high into the beautiful wooded mountains of western Macedonia, past Macedonian police checkpoints, past well-built hillside villages with gleaming minarets, past a makeshift road sign saying “STOP: NLA,” to the village of Sipkovica. Dodging mules carrying great loads of straw up the steep and narrow cobbled street, we made our way to a large house guarded by young men in jeans and dark glasses. While we waited, they proudly pointed to a black Audi “captured” from the deputy speaker of the Macedonian parliament. Inside, Ahmeti, a weary-looking man with swept-back silver-gray hair and fingers heavily stained with nicotine, seated himself cross-legged on a weary-looking armchair and offered me what he called a “very good” whiskey—a fifteen-year-old Bowmore from the Scottish island of Islay. He drank some too. (In the Balkans, Islay trumps Islam.)

After a few minutes of preliminary conversation, I told Ahmeti that there was much discussion since September 11 about terrorism and that “some people would say you are a terrorist.” How would he answer them?

As my question was translated, his bodyguards shifted slightly in their seats. Ahmeti replied calmly and quietly. I expected him to say words to the effect “No, I’m a freedom fighter,” but his response was more thoughtful. “That person cannot be a terrorist,” he said, “who wears an army badge, who has an objective for which he is fighting, who respects the Geneva Conventions and the Hague Tribunal, who acts in public with name and surname, and answers for everything he does…. Someone who is aiming for good reforms and democracy in the country—and that people should be equal before the law.”

Now of course one can’t simply say “Oh well, that’s all right then!” One has to look at what the NLA actually did, and may still do. Nor should we retreat into the weary relativism of the phrase I have heard so many times in Europe over the last few weeks: “One man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter.” To be sure, on this matter there are blatant double standards throughout the world. The Kurds are freedom fighters in Iraq and terrorists in Turkey, or vice versa, depending on where you sit. To be sure, the kind of sudden shifts that we have often seen in Western policy and language invite cynicism. The banned terrorist Ahmeti becomes a valued partner in a peace process. The CIA-funded, heroic, anti-Soviet fighter Osama bin Laden becomes the world’s most wanted terrorist. The former terrorist (or was it freedom fighter?) Menachem Begin wins the Nobel Peace Prize.

Yet it is also true that people change. They spiral downward into brutality like Conrad’s Kurtz, or they reemerge from darkness as they conclude that their political purposes are best served by moving on from armed struggle, as did the former German terrorist Horst Mahler, the Sinn Fein leader Gerry Adams, and Nelson Mandela. It is also true that there are many different terrorisms, and not all forms of using violence to achieve political ends are properly described as terrorism. If we are not to lose the global “war against terrorism,” proclaimed by President Bush after September 11, we need a sophisticated understanding of the differences.


Here are four things to look at in deciding whether someone is a terrorist, and, if they are, what kind of terrorist: Biography, Goals, Methods, and Context. Only a combination of the four will yield an answer. I will use the example of Ahmeti and the NLA, but the template can be used anywhere.

BIOGRAPHY: Who are they, where are they coming from, and what do they really want? Why did fifteen of the nineteen assassins of September 11 come from Saudi Arabia? Does Osama bin Laden really want to destroy the West, to purify Islam, to topple the Saudi royal house, or merely to change the Saudi succession? The classic questions of intelligence work are also the first intelligent questions about any suspected terrorist. Biography may not be at the heart of all History—but it certainly is for this patch.

To anyone who has spent time in Kosovo and Macedonia, what we know of Ali Ahmeti’s life story feels quite familiar. He comes from the village of Zajas, near the town of Kicevo, in the mountainous western part of Macedonia that is largely inhabited by Albanians, but he studied at the University of Pristina, in Kosovo. (It was then all Tito’s Yugoslavia.) He was a student radical. Like many others at that time, he combined Albanian nationalism and Marxism-Leninism. He was imprisoned for a few months. He was, aged twenty-two, an active participant in the 1981 uprising of Albanian students in Pristina. Then he fled to Switzerland. Not having access to classified intelligence reports, I do not know exactly what his “studies” and “work” in Switzerland consisted of, but he remained politically active. In exile he reportedly joined the Movement for an Albanian Socialist Republic in Yugoslavia, and formed a Macedonian subcommittee of the Marxist-Leninists of Kosovo. His style during our long conversation spoke to me of many hours spent debating revolutionary politics in smoke-filled rooms. He read many books, he told me, “for example, about psychology and guerrilla warfare.”

While the rural population among whom he operates is largely Muslim, at no point in our conversation did he even mention Islam, let alone give any hint of fellow feeling for Islamic terrorist groups such as al-Qaeda. It is a reasonable assumption that a whiskey-drinking, ex–Marxist-Leninist, Albanian nationalist does not see himself as part of any Muslim international.

His movements during the 1990s are unclear. He told me that he was back in Macedonia in 1993, when he found his Albanian compatriots still hoping for peaceful recognition of their rights inside the newly independent Macedonia. An unconfirmed report speaks of him being in Tirana, the capital of Albania, in 1997, attempting to organize guerrilla groups. A great influence on him was his uncle, Fazli Veliu, a former schoolteacher from the same village of Zajas (and another name on President Bush’s exclusion list of June 27). Ahmeti joined a small political party called the LPK, which uncle Fazli had been instrumental in founding. The LPK was the main precursor of the Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA).3 They also organized the Homeland Calling fund, which raised money among Albanians living abroad for the armed struggle in Kosovo.4 How much of that money derived from the drug trade, prostitution, or protection rackets we shall never now, but some of it certainly came from ordinary Albanians making patriotic contributions.

Obviously, the military campaign of the KLA in Kosovo in 1998–1999 was a formative experience for him. Ahmeti told me he was in Kosovo at that time, but did not actually fight. Other reports say he fought. Not accidentally, the Albanian initials of the National Liberation Army in Macedonia are the same as those of the Kosovo Liberation Army: UCK.5 Some of the leading figures of the NLA came from the KLA. So did some of the weapons. But above all, there was the immediate example. I asked Ahmeti if he thought Albanian Macedonians would have been ready to fight for their rights in 1998. No, he said, “because of the situation in Kosovo.” But after the West had come in to Kosovo and—as most Albanian Macedonians saw it—the KLA had “won” as a result, there were enough people ready to heed the call to arms in Macedonia at the beginning of this year. Most of the ordinary fighters of the NLA were Albanian Macedonians, many of whom had bought their own guns.

  1. 1

    The point was made to me, vociferously, by a group of nationalist demonstrators outside the Macedonian parliament. A Macedonian Web site makes a tabular comparison of the two men (Occupation: Leader of a terrorist organization; Leader of a terrorist organization; Islamic? Yes; Yes; and so on). See www.realitymacedonia.org.mk.

  2. 2

    But what is the NATO definition of terrorism? This officer could not remember exactly. Subsequent inquiries reveal that NATO does not have one, not least because its member states cannot agree on one—which again indicates the difficulties. Probably this officer was thinking of a working distinction made in British military doctrine between “terrorism” and “insurgency.”

  3. 3

    On this, see Tim Judah, Kosovo: War and Revenge (Yale University Press, 2000), and my review essay on the Kosovo war in The New York Review, September 21, 2000. I quote there US special envoy Robert Gelbard characterizing the KLA in February 1998 as “without any questions, a terrorist group.”

  4. 4

    The Homeland Calling fund may be compared with the US-based Noraid fund, which raised money in the US for the IRA—except that the Noraid fund was long tolerated by the US authorities. The Albanian-American vote was, of course, rather smaller than the Irish-American one.

  5. 5

    The Kosovo Liberation Army was Ushtria Clirimtare e Kosoves (UCK); the National Liberation Army is Ushtria Clirimtare Kombetare (UCK). Thus, when my driver was asking for the location of Ahmeti’s headquarters he asked, “Where is the headquarters of the UCK?”

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