The Spread of Crime and Terrorism in Albania

In Albania, the growth of the democratic state proceeds slowly, hampered by an economic crisis that is difficult to overcome and the security and legal problems that afflict the country. We address them in this report by Polo de donno.

SPREAD OF RADICAL ISLAMIST TERRORISM: The spread of Jihadism in the Balkans, and more particularly in Albania, cannot be framed within a generalized scheme of action but is based on specific dynamics that relate to the weakness of the state control structures of certain regional entities. As Giovanni Giacalone explains on “InsideOver”, where the state is socio-economically weak and lacking or absent in the activity of monitoring the territory, terrorist cells find fertile ground.

In the case of Albania, it was thought that the doctrine of state atheism, imposed by Hoxha in 1967, would discourage the formation of radical religious cells; in reality, this belief is not corroborated by the facts as is doubtful the opposite thesis, which sees the emergence of a jihadist hotbed as an equal reaction and contrary to Hoxha’s vision. More likely, Giacalone continues, these cells were indirectly fostered by the climate of religious tolerance that communist intervention fostered, within a Muslim-majority community but with a good presence of Catholics, Orthodox and Bektashi. It can be said that the climate of mutual tolerance has fostered the blurring of the priority role of religion in favor of the concept of nationhood or “albanianity”.

Radical Islamism in Albania is a phenomenon of an exogenous nature, stimulated by the religious currents of the Gulf, which aim to spread Wahhabism and Salafism through cash funding of mosques or cultural centers and the indoctrination of local imams. As Giacalone explains, the Albanian Islamic community has always worked with the security forces to remove the most radical fringes; on the other hand, however, there is the problem of the most ardent hate preachers who, through the web and the unrecognized Islamic centers, spread the most radical messages of Wahabism and Salafism (messages of intolerance and malfeasance).

In 2014 there was a major police operation that killed a jihadist network of ISIS recruiters led by the two Albanian imams Genci Balla and Bujar Hysa. The areas where proselytizing of these radical sectors is concentrated are included on the Albanian periphery: Elbasan, Cerrik, Kavaja, Librazhd, Pogradec, Scutari, as well as the outskirts of Tirana. As we have seen in France, in the terrible recent period of the ISIS massacres, the subjects targeted by the jihadist propaganda recruiters are young people in precarious economic and social conditions (the kind of poor individual of the Parisian banlieues).

Another source of Islamist infiltration in the country is Erdogan’s Turkey, which is linked to the Muslim Brotherhood, which uses its cultural and political power; it happened, as Giacalone reports, with the construction of the largest mosque in the Balkans in Tirana (about 32,000 square meters), where the Imams give sermons identical to those of the countries of origin, with strong political as well as ideological-religious tints.

Secondly, since 2016 the headquarters of the People’s Mujahedin-e of Iran (MEK) has been established on Albanian soil in Manez, near Durres; Historically, this group had supported the struggle against the Shah in 1963 and then participated in the Khomeinist revolution of 1979. From an ideological point of view, it is a synthesis of Marxism, feminism and Islamism, positions that have distanced the group from the ayatollahs and brought it closer to Saddam Hussein’s Iraqi regime. It had been blacklisted by the EU, US, Canada and Britain before being delisted by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton during Obama’s first presidential term. Seen on the American side as the bearer of democracy and freedom in Iran and on the contrary side in Tehran as a terrorist organisation, it is certainly an extremely inconvenient tenant for Albania, especially in a context of multi-ethnicity such as the Balkan one.

As reported in an article by Margherita Furlan in the magazine “Antimafia 2000”, the MEK is strongly supported by the American secret services: for what objective and with what tasks? Some Albanian political sources have suggested an exchange: since “the Americans gave us Kosovo, now we have to give them something in return”. Canadian-Albanian historian Olsi Jazexhi even suggested that “America wanted to turn Albania into a safe haven for international jihadism, a second Afghanistan in the heart of Europe.” It is estimated that there are about 4400 members of the MEK in Albania, with a group of militants (according to an Al-Jazeera documentary) trained in the techniques of computer-led anti-Iran misinformation and diversion objectives. It would be a “cyber-jihad” as Furlan says, aimed at spreading false news both in Iran and in Europe in order to discredit the regime in Tehran as a possible negotiator.

According to an article dated 2015, which appeared in the Huffington Post, Albania would become a sorting center for jihadists from neighboring countries, including Italy; In fact, the Salafist nuclei present in the district of Librazdhi and Elbasan for years have been offering support and hospitality to volunteers who arrived by air or sea (at the port of Durres), heading to Syria after transiting through Turkey.

FOREIGN FIGHTERS: In the field of terrorist threat analysis, the crucial problem for the Balkan country is that of so-called “foreign fighters”. As we know, the outbreak of the war in Syria in 2011 has had an effect and repercussions not only on neighboring Arab countries but also on the Balkan peninsula. In a 2019 article on “InsideOver”, Giovanni Giacalone explains how such a mobilization of Balkan foreign fighters for a distant conflict had never been seen in history; a sign of the propaganda capacity of jihadism on the peninsula.

It is estimated that Albania has mobilized about 180-200 jihadist foreign fighters, about half as many as in Kosovo; Given the figure of a population of 2,873 million, it can be argued that the country has managed the problem of terrorist flows to the outside world well. The “Country report on terrorism”, compiled by the US State Department in 2018, explains how Albania, thanks to high-level collaboration with US agencies, has achieved good results, certified by the Personal Identification Secure Comparison and Evaluation System (Pisces) to protect Albanian borders, in addition to controls in maritime and airport nodes.

 If we look at the Balkan region as a whole, more than a thousand people have started out since the outbreak of the war in Syria, of whom 67% are men, 15% women and 18% children. Of these, 260 fighters have died in theatres of war, 500 are still in Syria and Iraq, and about 460 have returned to their countries of origin. The latter figure makes the western Balkan region the area with the highest number of “return” fighters. The phenomenon remained confined to Kosovo, Albania, Northern Macedonia and Bosnia, with a small group of Albanian militants still engaged in the Syrian scenario; However, the impact should not be underestimated because, as Giacalone argues, individuals returning from Syria and Iraq may have been more or less deeply involved in Isis and Al-Qaeda. For example, the wife of a jihadist may have played a negligible role compared to a husband fully involved in terrorist operations; just as we must not overlook the level of indoctrination that minors may have suffered, some of whom were even involved in the execution of prisoners.

Although Albania, more than other fellow travellers in the Balkans, seems to have contained the threat of Islamic terrorism (neglecting the Iranian group mentioned above, of which there is no well-defined profile), also through the use of US prevention systems, on the other hand it is necessary to keep under close surveillance places of worship as possible vehicles of political messages or intolerant religious radicalism and also the role of the Internet, a tool capable of making criminal information fluid, rapid and difficult to trace.

CRIMINAL GROUPS: A LOOK AT THE ROUTES OF THE CRIME: As indicated in the report on crime hot spots in the Western Balkans in 2019, this region presents itself as a vital hub in the trafficking of drugs, weapons and human beings. In fact, it is located between the largest opium producer, Afghanistan, and the largest heroin market, Western Europe. It is also becoming an important point of access and exchange for cocaine, as well as a place of marijuana production (Albanian plantations). First of all, the trafficking of heroin is moving along the so-called ‘Balkan Route’, which originates in Afghanistan and, after transit through Turkey, is spread into Europe by the Balkan countries. This route then is divided into a track that goes from Albania and Montenegro to Italy and a second passage from Northern Macedonia and Serbia to Central Europe (Austria, Switzerland, Slovakia, Hungary).

A second route is that of cocaine trafficking, which sees Albania and Montenegro as links to the criminal chain between South America and Europe. Ships usually arrive in Durres (Albania) and Bar (Montenegro), then send the goods to Kosovo and Serbia and from there trade it in Central Europe. As far as cannabis is concerned, as we have mentioned, Albania has become the largest producer in the region; The main destinations for cannabis shipments are the Italian ports of Brindisi, Bari and Otranto, while Greece and Turkey are at lower levels. Finally, with regard to synthetic drugs, the Balkans are the recipient of cargoes from the Netherlands; local production in Bosnia and Serbia is the exception. We must not forget the illegal trade in cigarettes, in which Montenegro has an absolutely important role; In fact, through the port hub of Bar, it smuggles cigarettes with official or fake marks to Europe, the Middle East and Africa.

In the arms trade, Albania is distinguished by its trade with the Sicilian Mafia, which is the most frequent of its customers. The analysis of these “hot zones” is divided around three pillars: 1) the geographical location of the region, the transit point of such criminal trading especially through airport, port and isolated border areas; 2) the economic vulnerability of some countries makes it easy to infiltrate a poor infrastructure, characterized by very high unemployment (long-term and especially youth), emigration and consequent problems of a socio-psychological nature; 3) a weak state government, often implicated in illegal or corrupt activities, connoted by a poor territorial grip and the typical arrangement of countries not fully developed or even backward.

A SNAPSHOT OF THE MAIN ALBANIAN MAFIOSO GROUPS: From the mapping carried out in 2019 by “Antimafia Two Thousand” emerges the accurate territorial location of the most important Albanian criminal groups. Three structured criminal organizations operate in Tirana, which has been strengthened since the fall of the Hoxha regime thanks in part to corrupt links with local politics and entrepreneurship. Some are involved in laundering the proceeds of mafia activities; others manage drug trafficking, extortion and debt collection on behalf of third parties; finally, there are those who make investments in catering and the exploitation of chromium deposits, which are particularly flourishing in Albania. Not only that, but the city is also an important back office for operations abroad, especially in the Netherlands, the UK, Belgium, Switzerland, Spain, Germany, Italy and Kosovo.

In Scutari there are at least four major mafias involved in the trafficking of drugs, organs, weapons and human beings. The main activity of these groups is the production and trade of cannabis, an area in which they could achieve primacy in the region in a few years’ time. This role is played by the bordering proximity with the Montenegrin groups, with which the Albanians have forged strong ties, and with the Kosovars. Durazzo, on the other hand, not only represents a decisive port issue in the dense criminal network that brings cocaine from South America to Europe, but also offers a vast landscape of criminal investments in the hotel industry, in the trade of stolen cars and also in many social and political activities. The families of the Caushi, Kakami and Gaxhai, currently at war with each other for control of the territory, have settled in Valona. Murders have been numerous in recent years precisely because of the struggle for supremacy in the international routes of the arms and narcotics trade, especially towards Spain and Italy. In Fier we see more qualitatively refined groups not so much in the type of criminal activity (extortion and drug trafficking) as in the bond that unites them, based not only on the blood but also on the community of belonging (Kosovar and Cham).

To understand the excellent links of these groups, it is enough to think that in 2017 Arjan Shanaj was arrested in Greece carrying cocaine from a Colombian cartel. In Berat, the three elements present share the criminal market slices in the tourism sector, having entered into some sort of agreement between them. On the contrary, Elbasan has a strong conflict between criminal groups, certified by the high number of murders in recent times; This certifies a high degree of criminal activity in the city despite the dismantling of the So-called Mandela and Tan Kateshi. It is estimated that the two most powerful groups in Albania are involved in the trafficking of cocaine across Western Europe and the United Kingdom.

After a leopard-spot description of this type and the certainty of facing a well-established and highly integrated criminal phenomenon with the main illegal hubs from Latin America to the Far East (we also remember the so-called “Golden Triangle” of drugs between Laos, Burma and China), we can affirm the structural link between the scourge of terrorist-mafia lawlessness and the weak state presence on the territory, especially with regard to the functions of control and administration of the population. Where the crisis of the socio-economic fabric (unemployment, low income, low reliability of the public accounts of the country of reference) is settling with the lack of transparency in the procedures and with a flourishing counter-state activity of mafias and terrorists, able to offer an alternative (albeit criminal) to the poorest strata, will always find fertile ground in a black economy, made up of deception, fraud, corruption and wretched trafficking.

By Paolo de Donno