The problem of radical jihadist and Islamist infiltration in the western Balkans is real and multiform, depending on the country of reference and its institutional, political and socio-economic characteristics. In fact, this is not a phenomenon that can be understood in general terms, but is, rather, linked to specific dynamics. Indeed, radicalism with an Islamist matrix breaks through where the state is lacking or absent, where socio-economic conditions (particularly those of young people) are severe, without forgetting the history of the relative country, which can in some way contribute to the modalities with which the phenomenon develops.
In the case of Albania, whether in fact the legacy of the communist regime led by Enver Hoxha, which led to the annulment of state religion in the country and the introduction of state atheism (1967) as official doctrine, may have contributed to reducing the fertility of the grounds which radical Islamism could progressively seek to breach after the fall of the regime is still a matter of debate today.
Despite some theories, according to which, reaction to state atheism has strengthened the beliefs of the Albanian people, so far the only proven effective consequence in Albania is mutual tolerance and cooperation between the different religious communities in a majority Muslim country, but with its Catholic, Orthodox and Bektashi presence. On the other hand, it is difficult to argue that state atheism has contributed to an increase in the number of believers in a country where nationalism, so-called ‘Albanianity’, takes precedence over ethnicity and religion and where the rate of mixed marriages is particularly high. It is therefore possible to hypothesize that the remarkable interreligious tolerance is actually the result of an approach which, through state atheism, has led to the religious aspect being seen as secondary to belonging to the nation. In addition, Albania has never been the scene of religious conflicts on its territory.
Radical Islamism fueled from abroad
Islamic extremism in Albania is a problem imported from abroad and connected to various sources. There are Gulf countries and charitable organizations that have every interest in spreading Wahhabism and Salafism, financing mosques, cultural centers, charitable associations of a religious nature, importing doctrinal material for distribution and imams for indoctrinating.
On the one hand the Albanian Muslim community (Kmsh) is very careful to identify and eventually reject radical drifts, to the point that already in 2015 it asked its institutions to intervene to deal with the problem, on the other there is a reality created by radical preachers, active in unofficial Islamic centers but also on the web, some of whom returned to Albania after periods of study in Islamic schools in the Middle East. These hate preachers are not only concerned with spreading that Salafist and Wahhabi ideology based on abuse and intolerance, but also openly invoke jihad. Not surprisingly, in March 2014, the Albanian security forces dismantled one of the largest networks of propagandists and recruiters for ISIS active in the western Balkans (and the most important of Albania), headed by the two imams Genci Balla and Bujar Hysa.
Among the characters connected to the ‘Balla-Hysa’ network there was also Almir Daci, ex imam of the Leshnica mosque, who appeared with the name ‘Abu Bilqis Al-Albani’ in the well-known video on the Balkans released by ISIS in June 2015 and entitled ‘Honor is Jihad’.
The areas targeted by hate preachers are mainly the peripheral ones of Elbasan, Cerrik, Kavaja, Librazhd, Pogradec, Skutari but also the outskirts of Tirana. Their targets are largely young individuals in precarious social, cultural and economic conditions.
A further problem is the economic and political infiltration of Erdogan’s Turkey, ideologically linked to the radical Islamism of the Muslim Brotherhood. Infiltration perpetrated through the use of so-called ‘soft power’; the ability to persuade, attract and co-opt, through such means as culture and politics. This poses a far more serious danger because it is more difficult to identify and manage. An example? The great mosque of Tirana (the largest of all the Balkans), built by Erdogan a stone’s throw from the Albanian Parliament on an area of 32,000 square meters. Obviously, everything has a cost and in this case it is of an ideological-political type. In fact, it is not surprising that the sermons preached within these mosques are the same as those pronounced by the imams of the countries of origin, with contents that go beyond the theocratic doctrinal aspects and flow into politics. A very powerful weapon in the hands of regimes.
Return of jihadis and the fight against terrorism
Albania has ‘contributed’ to the jihadist cause in Syria and Iraq with around 180-200 foreign fighters out of a population of 2,873 million, but also seems to have good control of the situation. The US State Department Country Reports on Terrorism for the year 2018 has in fact highlighted how Albania, despite the scarcity of resources, has still achieved good results in countering jihadism. The collaboration between Albanian CTU and US agencies in the fight against terrorism is currently at high levels; a further important aspect is also the modernization of the Personal Identification Secure Comparison and Evaluation System (Pisces) to protect Albania’s borders, in addition to the already high controls at sea and airports.
Overall, Albania appears to be able to manage the danger deriving from jihadism linked to the return of foreign fighters and radicalization in its territory; this is certainly the result of cooperation with European and US agencies, but also the presence of an efficient internal intelligence system, a legacy of the communist period. More problematic is the management of internet propaganda which affects not only Albania but also the diaspora (a problem among other things on a global scale), propaganda that could also affect jihadists who have returned to their homeland, as well as latent ones, who never left.
The headquarters of the People’s Mojahedin of Iran
A further problem on Albanian soil is linked to the presence of the headquarters of the People’s Mojahedin of Iran (MEK), established in Manez (near Durres) since 2016, after years of activity in Iraq. A presence that has created many headaches for the institutions of Tirana.
The MEK was created in 1963 with the aim of fighting the Shah’s regime and in 1979 participated in the Islamic revolution led by Ayatollah Khomeini; however, the populist ideology (a cross between Marxism, feminism and Islamism) clashed with that of the Ayatollahs, and the Mojahedin was therefore banned and the group found refuge in Saddam Hussein’s Iraq.
With much suspicion of Israel[i involvement] and badly tolerated by many anti-Ayatollah Iranians, the MEK was previously blacklisted by the European Union, Great Britain, the USA and Canada, only to then be “cleared through customs” between 2008 and 2012, thanks also to the intervention of the then Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton.
While Washington sees in MEK “the main opposition force for promoting democracy and secularism in Iran”, on the other hand, Tehran identifies it as a “terrorist organization responsible for bombings and acts of political violence”. Whether the MEK is a promoter of “democracy and freedom” or not, it is difficult to say; it is certain that the union between Marxism-Leninism and Islam preached by the group is certainly not a guarantee of that, just as its structure which shows typical elements of a sect (cult) is not either, as recently illustrated by the BBC report.
It is worth pondering the usefulness of the MEK presence in Albanian territory, an uncomfortable, perhaps inopportune presence, which risks creating more problems than advantages in an extremely delicate context such as the Balkan one.
Inside Over, Tirana, Albania, Translated By iran-interlink