Cyber-war and diplomacy The break between Tirana and Tehran and the cumbersome presence of the Mujahedin-e Khalq in Albania
For over ten years, the Balkan country has hosted members of the National Liberation Army of Iran (MEK), thanks to an agreement with the United States. In recent days, the police raided the camp on suspicion of interference in computer systems and terrorism.
On June 20, several dozen forces of the State Police and the special anti-terrorism unit intervened inside the Ashraf 3 camp with an inspection order issued by the Special Structure Against Corruption and Organized Crime (SPak), as part of the investigative operation on the alleged involvement of some mujaheddin in activities of interference in IT systems and terrorism.
Members of the Mek (Mojahedin-e Khalq) resisted the forces of order in an attempt to prevent the authorities from inspecting their premises, with the claim that they had not been notified earlier. To disperse the crowd, the police used tear gas and pepper spray.
The police intervention followed the proceeding filed by SPAK on 15 May for six counts of charges against members of the Mek, including the crime of “provocation of war”, “illegal interception of computer data”, “interference in computer systems.
Fifteen officers were injured in the clash, several vehicles were damaged and twenty-one mujaheddin were taken to hospital for tests. A seventy-nine-year-old Mek member with a history of heart disease has reportedly died. From the first investigations there are no signs of violence on the deceased and the medico-legal report is awaited.
The interior minister, Bledar Çuçi, immediately declared that his death “was not caused by any action by the police”. Furthermore, he said he was indignant at the Mek’s reaction towards the police and affirmed that the judicial authorities will have to proceed with the investigation into the responsibilities: «It is not only a violation of Albanian legislation for those who live in the country, but also a sort of violation of the hospitality code that we have offered».
Despite the tensions, the operation ended with the seizure of about one hundred and fifty electronic devices, computers and servers, which are suspected to have been used by members of the Mek in their activities against the Iranian government authorities.
Camp Ashraf 3 is located in Manzë, a fraction of the municipality of Durres, made up of one hundred and seven buildings spread over forty hectares of land. It was built almost from scratch and looks like a fortified village, and is monitored by security cameras. It is home to about three thousand inhabitants, all members of the National Liberation Army of Iran, also known as Mojahedin-e Khalq (Mek).
Little is known about the functioning of the camp. The Mek has always refused to speak to journalists and the little information we have has emerged from the sporadic stories of the few former members who managed to detach themselves from the organization, rebuilding a new life in Tirana. In the few stories it is clear that a hierarchical and military regime is in force inside the camp, and the almost total isolation from the outside and from family members.
Of far-left origin, the Mek was founded in 1965 to counter the regime of Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi in Iran. Over the years, he has become the main opposition group to the Ayatollah regime, building a controversial profile. It is still unknown who finances their activities.
In 2012, the center-right government of ex-premier Sali Berisha accepted the Obama administration’s proposal for the relocation to Albania of about two hundred members of the Mek. The media believe that the only condition posed by Albania to the Americans was to remove the group from the list of terrorist organizations, where it had been included by the USA in 1997. And so it happened.
With the arrival of Edi Rama’s socialist government in 2013, the number of mujahideen hosted in the camp increased further, and in the following three years it reached three thousand people. The commitment undertaken by Albania provides for their hospitality for humanitarian reasons, and for their relocation the United States has contributed twenty million dollars, with the direct involvement of the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR).
In the past, the main political parties have expressed a general consent to the hospitality offered to the Mek, thus safeguarding relations with the United States. Today, however, several security experts believe that in recent years the Albanian authorities have not adequately monitored the work of the Mek on the national territory, also considering the organization’s profile and involvement in paramilitary activities.
In this regard, part of a 2018 document signed by former police chief Ardi Veliu appeared on social media in recent days, from which it emerges that the presence of the Mujahedin Khalq could be a source of instability and a serious threat to national security. At the moment, it has not been possible to verify what measures have actually been taken by the authorities to counter this potential danger.
Based on the declarations of the Deputy Minister of the Interior, Julian Hodaj, released to Euronews Albania a few days ago, that the authorities do not intend to withdraw from the hospitality agreement of the Mek members and reiterated that the entire hosted community will not be prosecuted: «The criminal responsibilities are individual and the individuals who committed the crimes will pay the due consequences, from penalties to deportation, but this has nothing to do with the community”.
The statement from the US State Department also came in support of the Albanian authorities, which recognizes the right of the Albanian authorities to investigate any possible illegal activity within the national territory: «The Albanian police have assured us that the police operation was carried out in accordance with the laws in force”.
The former prosecutor for serious crimes, Eugen Beci, declared on 28 June that in legal terms a real agreement had not been stipulated between the Albanian authorities and the Mek. With the intermediation of the UNHCR and in accordance with international conventions, all members of the Mek have signed a letter of commitment in which they declare that they will not get involved in politics during their stay on Albanian soil.
The escalation of events in recent months has had a negative impact on the general perception of public opinion towards Iran, and consequently also towards the members of the Mek. Data from the National Security Barometer show that in 2019 only 27.9 percent of the citizens interviewed believed Tehran was a potential danger to the country’s security, while in 2022 this perception was shared by three out of four citizens.
Relations with Iran
As a result of the Mujahideen’s move to Albania, relations between Tirana and Tehran deteriorated significantly. In December 2018, the Albanian government requested the removal from the national territory of the Iranian ambassador Gholamhossein Mohammadnia and a second diplomat, as they were suspected of activities that undermined the country’s security.
On the other hand, in a note verbal sent by the Iranian Foreign Ministry to its Albanian colleagues, it was reported that the Iranian authorities had arrested three teams of terrorist origin on its territory, which had been trained in the Mek camp in Albania.
During 2022, Albanian institutions suffered a series of cyber attacks suspected to have been carried out by hackers affiliated with the government of Iran, resulting in the blockage of various government activities – such as the public services platform e-Albania and the border police control system TIMS – and the dissemination of a large amount of sensitive data of citizens. Despite the several million dollars provided by the United States to Albania to strengthen its computer systems, these cyber attacks have exposed the flaws in Albanian security systems, paralyzing the work of the state for several days.
Faced with allegations of his involvement in the 2022 cyber attacks, the Tehran government did not fail to react, denying any responsibility. The Spak investigative file also reports that the 2022 cyber attacks against Albania are identical to those suffered by Iran a few months earlier, for which the members of the Mek are held responsible. From the summer of 2022, Albania has therefore decided to interrupt diplomatic relations with Tehran.
By Gentiola Madhi – Balcani Caucaso – Translated by Nejat Society