Sami Osmakac’s life in the U.S. began about a dozen years ago, when he was 13 and his family immigrated to the U.S., according to a video he posted on YouTube. Those who know Osmakac said he mostly kept to himself as a high schooler who loved rap music and rapped about bombs and killing in a song he made with a friend. As he grew older, they said, he grew increasingly confrontational: One Tampa-area activist said Osmakac physically threatened him, and Osmakac was jailed on charges that he head-butted a Christian preacher as the two argued over religion outside a Lady Gaga concert.
Osmakac, 25, is now jailed on a federal charge of attempting to use a weapon of mass destruction and could face life in prison if convicted. U.S. authorities say he planned to use a car bomb, assault rifle and other explosives in an Islamist-inspired attack on various locations around Tampa, including a sheriff’s office.
His family in Florida has said the charges are untrue.
Family members told the AP that Osmakac was born in the village of Lubizde in Kosovo, a tiny hamlet of scattered houses near the Cursed Mountains, a row of snowcapped peaks that divide Kosovo from Albania. The area is home to many adherents to Sufism, a mystical Islamic order whose members often pray over the tombs of revered saints. The Osmakacs are followers of a Sufi sect that has its own shrine just outside the village. Kosovo’s tiny Roman Catholic minority also resides in the area, as the village next to Lubizde, Dedaj, is comprised entirely of Roman Catholic ethnic Albanians.
Osmakac spent his early years in a home shared among his father and two uncles, but difficult living conditions and simmering ethnic intolerance sent the family searching for prosperity elsewhere. Osmakac’s family, like many who fled, brought their traditional trade of baking to what are now Croatia and Bosnia, where they have remained since Yugoslavia’s break-up after a series of ethnic wars in the 1990s. Osmakac’s family was in Bosnia during the bloodiest of all those wars, which left more than 100,000 dead, and eventually fled to Germany and then the U.S.
As a child, Osmakac was “a quiet and fun boy,” said his aunt Time Osmankaj. She said his family regularly sent money home to relatives trying to eke out a living as the wars left those who remained extremely poor.
Osmankaj said the family returned to Kosovo, which declared its independence from Serbia in 2008, for visits during the summer months. But in recent years they noticed a change in Sami, who now grew a beard, donned religious garments, and was frequently accompanied by two devout Muslims from Albania and two from Bosnia. He also began to shun his relatives during his trips to Kosovo.
His aunt said she learned of his last visit in October 2011 through neighbors and that she did not meet with him. Authorities in Kosovo have said he used those visits to meet with Islamic radicals there.
Islam came to Kosovo with the Ottoman conquest of the Balkans in the 15th century, but it had not grown political until more recently. For instance, hundreds of Muslims have taken to the streets to protest a ban imposed by Kosovo authorities on wearing headscarves in schools. Protesters also have demanded that new mosques be built to accommodate a growing number of faithful after a Roman Catholic cathedral was built last year in the center of the capital, Pristina.
The increase in religious tensions has raised concerns that U.S. soldiers serving as part of a NATO-led peacekeeping force could be targeted in attacks.