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.

Summarizing what he told me, I would say that the now forty-two-year-old Ahmeti drew two main conclusions from the Kosovo war. First, you could win more by a few months of armed struggle than Albanian politicians had achieved in nearly a decade of peaceful politics. As in Kosovo, so in Macedonia. Second, that you could do this only if you got the West involved. That was the great tactical goal—and the great unknown. He told me that when the insurgency took off in February, “I knew that without the help of the West we couldn’t win. But we didn’t know how much they would help….” So he had to do everything possible to bring the West in. That meant being deliberately restrained in both their goals and their methods. This was Albanian Macedonia’s chance. This was Ali Ahmeti’s chance.

GOALS: Whatever the tangle of biographically conditioned motives—and human motives are often unclear even to ourselves—one also has to look at the proclaimed goals of a terrorist goal or movement. Sometimes, as in the case of al-Qaeda or the German Red Army Faction, the overall goals are so vague, apocalyptic, and all-embracing that they could never be realized in any real world. But sometimes they are clear and—as much as we deplore tactics that shed the blood of innocents—in some sense rational objectives, which may sooner or later be achieved in the real world. The KLA wants independence for Kosovo; the IRA, a united Ireland; ETA, independence for the Basque Country, and so on.

The NLA was remarkable for the clarity and relative modesty of its proclaimed goals. From the outset, its leaders insisted that they only wanted what Albanian Macedonian politicians had been arguing for since Macedonia became independent in 1991: equal status and equal rights for the Albanian Macedonians. Albanians should be recognized as a constitutive nation of the Republic of Macedonia. The Albanian language should be accepted as an official language, in parliament and the public administration. Albanians should have the right to higher education in their own language. Albanians should be proportionately represented in the bureaucracy, the courts, and, especially, the police, who should stop harassing them. There should be more devolution of powers to local government—with obvious implications for those areas with an Albanian majority. But Macedonia should remain a unitary, multiethnic state.

Compared with the demands of the KLA, Bosnian Serbs and Croats, the IRA, or the ETA, these look as if they were drafted by Amnesty International. Most Western representatives regard them as reasonable, and believe that the Macedonian state should have conceded most of them years ago. Now you may say: but these demands are tactical, designed to ap-peal to the West. Certainly they are. Altogether, I found Ahmeti guarded, elusive, even evasive on these political questions—which is to say, he spoke as a politician. Like the old Marxist-Leninist comrade that he is, he stuck firmly to the party line: equal rights in a unitary, multiethnic state, nothing more! But, it seemed to me, he did so with some personal conviction—and good arguments.

Why, I asked, could one not envisage a federal solution for Macedonia? He smiled: “In a country with just two million people and 25,000 square kilometers?” It would be ridiculous. Federalism would mean new territorial borders and competition between the constituent parts. How could you draw the lines in a country where Albanian and Slav Macedonians live so mixed up together? “Either we’re in the twenty-first century and thinking of integration into Europe, or we do it as they did one hundred years ago….” Putting his hand on his heart, he said, “My country is Macedonia.”

Not all his colleagues agree. I spoke to another NLA commander, Rafiz Aliti, known as “Teacher” because he was, until the spring uprising, the village physical education teacher. He told me that he favored the federalization and “cantonization” of Macedonia. A unitary state could not work. If the Macedonian side did not implement the mid-August “framework agreement,” which on paper fulfills the Albanians’ moderate demands, then they would go to war again. And this time it would be a war for territory. What territory? “The territory where Albanians live.”

Yet there is a substantial body of evidence that most of the Albanian political elite in Kosovo and Macedonia have agreed that the medium-term strategic goal should be different in each place: independence for Kosovo, equal rights in Macedonia. And, incidentally, not Greater Albania for either. Not for the foreseeable future anyway.

There is a very good reason for Albanian Macedonians to take this gradualist path. According to the Macedonian authorities, some 23 percent of the Macedonian population is Albanian, but unofficial estimates put the number as high as 35 percent. The “framework agreement” provides for a new, internationally supervised census, and it will be interesting to see what figure it comes up with. Whatever the result, everyone knows that the Albanian Macedonians have many more children than the Slav Macedonians. At current birth rates, the Albanians will probably become a demographic majority in about 2025. And then the majority might elect the sixty-six-year-old Ali Ahmeti president of Macedonia…

METHODS: This is the single most important criterion. An old man who stands on a soapbox at Speakers’ Corner in London of a rainy Saturday afternoon demanding that the Lord raze to the ground all branches of Marks & Spencer is not a terrorist. He is a nut at Speakers’ Corner. The Scottish National Party has goals much more far-reaching than the NLA—it wants full independence for Scotland—but it works entirely by peaceful, constitutional means.

Does the individual or group use violence to realize their personal or political goals? Is that violence targeted specifically at the armed and uniformed representatives of the state, or does the terrorist group also target innocent civilians? Does it attempt to limit civilian casualties while spreading panic and disruption—as Irish paramilitaries have sometimes done, by telephoning bomb warnings—or does it aim for the mass killing of innocent civilians, as al-Qaeda plainly did on September 11?

Ahmeti and the NLA deliberately chose violence. The lesson they learned from Kosovo was: if you play your cards right, a little well-calculated violence achieves what years of nonviolent politics had not. Which, once again, it did. But, Ahmeti and others claim, they never targeted civilians. They observed the Geneva Conventions, were mindful of the Hague Tribunal, and so on. Most international observers agree that the NLA did much less harm to Slav Macedonian civilians than the KLA did to Serbian civilians in Kosovo. This was especially true in the areas most directly under Ahmeti’s command. But Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International have documented several cases of kidnapping, torture, and abuse by members of the NLA.

I spoke with a group of young Slav Macedonian men who had fled from their villages in western Macedonia. However, they had done so—even by their own account—after themselves having taken up arms against the NLA. They told the dreadfully familiar story of how neighbors who had lived and worked peacefully together for years suddenly turned guns on each other (as in Kosovo, as in Bosnia, as in Croatia…). According to the Macedonian government, some 70,000 people fled or were expelled from their homes as a result of the fighting. International observers suggest the number is much lower. They also say that the worst damage to civilians was done by the Macedonian army and security forces. The guns of an incompetent army indiscriminately pounded rebel villages—the textbook way not to fight an insurgency. Paramilitaries called the Lions, working, as in Milosevic’s Serbia, under the interior ministry, attacked Albanians in the shadows. And there is no doubt that ordinary Albanians have for years been subjected to harassment by a police force that is overwhelmingly Slav Macedonian.

Coming down from my mountain meeting with Ahmeti, our car was stopped by a man in the uniform of a police major and a paramilitary soldier with a large wooden cross around his neck. The major verbally abused my interpreter. When I tried to intervene, saying (rather pompously) that I had that morning spoken to President Traj- kovski and I was sure the President would wish us to be given fair passage, he said to my interpreter, “Tell your man I don’t give a fuck about the President.” When I smiled, he said, “Tell him to stop smiling.” This Macedonian policeman was a fine propagandist for the Albanian cause.

Afterward, my Albanian driver was physically trembling with rage. “You see how they treat us,” he cried, in his broken German. “If I had not seen the policeman waving us down at the roadside, they would have shot us. That is not korrekt.” Not korrekt, indeed.

This was a messy little low-level civil war, in which neither side was very korrekt and neither very brutal, by the low standards of the Balkans. The NLA started it, but the Slav Macedonian side behaved rather worse during it. This brings us to our last criterion: context.

CONTEXT: Basic Principle 1.1 of the Framework Agreement for Macedonia says, “The use of violence in pursuit of political aims is rejected completely and unconditionally.” An ad-mirable principle. But not to be taken too literally. After all, in bombing Afghanistan, America and Britain are pursuing political aims through the use of violence. You may say: but that is justified by all the time-honored criteria of “just war,” and legitimated by international coalitions, organizations, and law. Anyway, to use political violence from inside and against a legitimate state is a quite different thing. But who decides if a particular state is legitimate?

Even within an internationally recognized state, there can be such oppression that armed resistance may be considered legitimate. This is the claim expressed with incomparable force in the words that Schiller puts into the mouth of Stauffacher in his Wilhelm Tell. When the oppressed man can find justice in no other way, says Stauffacher, then he calmly reaches up into the sky and pulls down his eternal rights that hang there, inalienable and, like the stars, imperishable. When no other means remains, then he must

needs take up the sword.6 Such, perhaps, were the Polish uprisings for freedom in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Such was the American War of Independence.

It therefore matters hugely what kind of state you’re in. It is one thing for groups like the IRA and ETA to use political violence in states like Britain or Spain, where the means of working for peaceful change are equally available to all in a mature democracy. It is another thing for Palestinian groups to use political violence against an oppressive military occupation in the Gaza strip or the West Bank. Another again for the ANC against the South African apartheid regime. Yet another for the violently repressed Kosovo Albanians to take up arms against the Milosevic regime in Serbia. We may want to uphold the universal principle “No violence!” but we all know that these are, in political fact and in moral content, very different things, and some violent political actions are—shall we say—less unjustified than others.

“So far as I know,” President Boris Trajkovski smilingly informed me, “world leaders are all praising Macedonia.” Well, I have news for President Trajkovski (who is a nice, decent, personally uncorrupt, and well- intentioned man, but not perhaps pos- sessed of the world’s strongest intellect or character). They’re not. In private, many of them are cursing it. I remarked to a very senior Western negotiator who has had much to do with Macedonia that I had never encountered a more pigheaded, shortsighted political elite than the Slav Macedonian one. “Amen to all that,” the negotiator said, “except that I would question your use of the word ‘elite.'” Just as they fought the war against the NLA in a way that rebounded against themselves, so they are still—at this writing—pigheadedly holding out against amendments to the constitution that most international observers regard as wholly reasonable.

A particular sticking-point is a wording in the preamble that refers (in my official English translation) to “the historical fact that Macedonia is established as a national state of the Macedonian people….” Understandably, the Albanians don’t like this reference to a national state, especially since the word for “people” in this context is narod, implying ethnic community, rather than the broader and more civic nacija. The Slav Macedonian side agreed to a rewording in the summer peace deal, but now the parliament is threatening to renege on it.

Extraordinary Western pressure—almost weekly visits by the EU foreign policy representative Javier Solana and NATO secretary-general George Robertson (who might have a few other things on their minds), the withholding of international aid to the crippled Macedonian economy until the amendments are passed—seems incapable of budging them. The sledgehammer is defied by the nut. And at lower levels, the bureaucracy, the army, and the police seem as stubborn, corrupt, and incompetent as their politicians.

There are explanations for all this. Looking back over the last decade one must have sympathy with Slav Macedonians too. There are peoples that aspire to statehood and peoples that have statehood thrust upon them. The Macedonians had statehood thrust upon them, as former Yugoslavia collapsed in 1991. Well into the twentieth century, all of the country’s four neighbors had claims on its territory: Serbia between the wars treated it as part of Southern Serbia, Bulgaria regarded it as part of Bulgaria (and the Macedonian language as just a dialect of Bulgarian), Albanian nationalists wanted great chunks of it for Greater Albania, and Greeks said Macedonia is really Greek.

None of these claims were fully, unambiguously laid to rest in 1991. Their already battered economy was then shattered and corrupted by Western sanctions on Milosevic’s Serbia, and a Greek blockade of international recognition for Macedonia because, said the Greeks, there is already a Macedonia in Greece. (Hence the state’s awkward international name, the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia, though it calls itself plain Republic of Macedonia.) Then it had to cope with the vast Albanian refugee influx from Kosovo. Western promises of economic aid and investment have remained largely that—promises. Oh yes, and the Slav Macedonians will soon be a minority in their own country. A little existential Angst is understandable. This helps to explain, but it does not excuse. Most of the changes now being made (or not being made) under pressure from the NLA and the West should have been made years ago.

All that being said, the fact remains that the position of the Albanians in Macedonia at the beginning of this year was nothing like the one unforgettably evoked in Schiller’s Wilhelm Tell. There were still possibilities for peaceful change. Established Albanian political parties were in the government as well as parliament (as they still are), and they were pressing for most of the same reforms. They were not getting there very fast (partly because both Slav Macedonian and Albanian Macedonian parties harbor impressive levels of corruption), but in time, with Western and especially European pressure, they would have got there. However relatively restrained the NLA was in its goals and methods, it willfully chose the path of violence when other paths were still open. As a result, it has accelerated the necessary reforms on paper, but it may also have impeded their practical realization. For the war has resulted in further alienation of the Albanian and Slav Macedonian communities, and political radicalization on both sides.


So: was I drinking whiskey with a terrorist? Well, certainly with a former revolutionary politician and a guerrilla leader who deliberately reached for the gun when other means were available. Perhaps the moderation of his proclaimed goals, and the fact that he tried not to target civilians, pulls him just the right side of the line. Just. Perhaps. Certainly, he has moved on to become an impressively consistent advocate of change through political negotiation inside an undivided, multi- ethnic state. So maybe it is all right to drink whiskey with a reformed terrorist? If it were not, the consumption of whiskey by world leaders would have been reduced by quite a few bottles over the last fifty years.

Will the United Nations give us some further guidance on this matter? For a long time, the UN has avoided any definition of terrorism. Recently, it has tiptoed toward one. A November 2000 report by the UN’s Sixth Committee came close to a general definition when it declared:

Criminal acts intended or calculated to provoke a state of terror in the general public, a group of persons or particular persons for political reasons are in any circumstances unjustifiable, whatever the considerations of a political, philosophical, ideological, racial, ethnic, religious or other nature that may be used to justify them.7

But that is unsustainably broad. Isn’t the Taliban a “group of persons” among whom we hope to provoke a state of terror? Who decides what is a criminal act?

Since September 11, support has been growing for a UN convention on terrorism. One wonders how useful any definition it comes up with can be, both because member states will have such widely differing views of what should count and because of the intrinsic difficulties for even the most neutral, independent analyst. Realistically, the best one can hope for may be that as wide as possible a spectrum of states, including states from different “civilizations,” in Samuel Huntington’s sense, may reach agreement on the description of as many particular cases as possible. At the very least, Europe and America should agree—which is by no means guaranteed, if one thinks of differing approaches to Iraq, for example, or to Israel and the Palestinian question. Even then, a common policy might not follow, but at least there would be a common analysis to start from.

To this end, my four headings—Biography, Goals, Methods, Context—may serve as a modest template, but the content in each case will be very different and there will be no universal guidelines for judging the combination. As the great Bishop Butler once unshallowly remarked, every thing is what it is and not another thing.

—November 1, 2001

This Issue

November 29, 2001