WESTERN INTELLIGENCE SERVICES FOCUS ON ALBANIA'S ISLAMIST GROUPS AHEAD OF U.S. PRESIDENTIAL VISIT
Christopher Deliso (Founder of the Balkanalysis.com and Member of the World Security Network Foundation at Athens & Southeastern Europe Office)
(Journalist and Member of the World Security Network Foundation at Athens & Southeastern Europe Office)
Tirana is swarming with American and British intelligence officers and Secret Service personnel ahead of American President George W. Bush’s June 10 visit to Albania. While such attention is standard procedure before any such trip anywhere in the world, specific local conditions are being factored in to the equation.
According to published Albanian media sources and off-the-record testimony from Western intelligence officials, the US security detail, with support from the ever-faithful British MI6, is particularly keen to neutralize small Islamic fundamentalist organizations operating in the country. But a mysterious explosion near the US embassy on May 16 and two munitions seizures on May 30 have still not been attributed to any group.
In 1999, after the Kosovo intervention, Secretary of Defense William Cohen and President Clinton were both forced to cancel visits to Albania because of threats from a mostly Egyptian, but Saudi and bin Laden supported, terrorist cell that had entrenched itself in Albania during the early 1990’s. As will be seen, there remains great confusion regarding the circumstances of these cancellations and the foggy fate of one of Albania’s leading terrorist supporters during the 1990’s, Abdul Latif Saleh.
The Wider Context: A Complex Range of Turbulent Issues
On his trip, President Bush will also visit the Czech Republic, Poland, Italy and Bulgaria. The main event underpinning the trip, the June 6-8 Group of Eight (G8) summit in Germany, promises to be a tense affair dominated by the final status of Kosovo. Two days later in Tirana, Bush will meet with Albanian President Alfred Moisiu and Prime Minister Sali Berisha. It is likely that the outcome of the G8 Summit, and whatever agreements can be reached behind the scenes there, will color the president’s public comments in Tirana- regardless of whatever packaged sound bytes his speechwriters have already prepared.
The president is visiting Europe at a particularly sensitive time. A proposed but highly unpopular missile shield in the Czech Republic s already bringing out protesters. While there will probably not be protests in “pro-American” Albania, the independence of Kosovo, and the showdown with Russia and Serbia that the West has forced with this policy adventure, looms large- as do concerns over lurking Islamist elements.
Further, the president will hold meetings with the prime ministers of the three new candidate countries for NATO membership (Croatia, Albania and the Republic of Macedonia), something that has led Greek media to conjecture that the latter will receive an invitation to join NATO under its constitutional name- anathema for the Greeks, for whom the “Macedonian name issue” is returning as a hot political topic in advance of election season. In Albania itself, there have been several attacks by nationalists against Byzantine churches and Greek Orthodox Christians in the south.
A final issue is the legacy of America’s controversial detention center at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, which lives on in Albania- the only country so far which has taken in prisoners discharged from the military facility. Most cannot return to their home countries, for fear of being tortured or killed. This was the case with the five Chinese Uighurs taken in by the Albanian government.
However, a recent BBC profile of ex-Guantanamo prisoners in Albania presents the daily reality of these de facto refugees in a highly unflattering light. A May 18 visit from the British media group to “the ramshackle refugee centre on the outskirts of Tirana” where eight Guantanamo “graduates” live mentioned the case of an Algerian who “cannot leave the country to be re-united with his family… [nor] can they join him to live in Albania.” While the man, Abu Mohammed, is a trained doctor, not knowing the Albanian language he has little chance to find such work in the country. While Albania has presented its acceptance of the ex-prisoners as a gesture of help and support to its American patron, the mens’ lawyers and reports such as the BBC’s indicate that the country is being used more as a dumping ground for the unwanted “human trash” of the so-called ‘war on terror.’
Along with the invasion of Iraq, Guantanamo is one of the main issues to have angered Albania’s Islamist groups. Since some of these groups have shadowy foreign sponsors, the Americans are obviously taking no chances with security. On May 16, an explosion in a Tirana café located very close to the US Embassy injured one waitress. According to the Associated Press, “police are investigating who was responsible and what sort of device was used.”
Most recently, on May 30, “a plastic bag containing a few grams of explosives was found at 2 p.m. [in] a courtyard at the economics faculty of Tirana University, about 100 meters [from] the U.S. Embassy,” reported the IHT, adding that “half an hour later, a package containing 30 grams (1 ounce) of explosives was found at Mother Teresa Square, near the office of President Alfred Moisiu.”
While it cannot be proven, it is not beyond the realm of possibility that these were deliberate plants by the authorities made in order to scare citizens into accepting the draconian security measures that will be in place for Bush’s visit. Indeed, Tirana residents are likely to feel more than a little restricted. According to BIRN, the Albanian capital will be turned into “a high-security zone.” This apparently means “a complete shut down of traffic in the capital and rooftop snipers on every major building along the route of the Bush motorcade… most residents of apartment blocks close to places Bush is expected to visit will be prohibited from appearing on their balconies.” For the record, the preparations are being made under direction of the US Secret Service by a working group headed by Deputy Premier Gazmend Oketa.
Most recently, the Albanian parliament passed an extraordinary law that allowed a select team of US troops to accompany Bush on his visit. The act, passed by the Albanian parliament’s Law and National Security Commission, applies only to Bush’s visit.
While the high level of security is usual practice for a presidential visit it, as well as the grenade explosion and explosives seizures, are at the same time somewhat at odds with the country’s reputation as a bastion of pro-Americanism.
Indeed, the extravagant security operation is being conducted with the awareness that Islamic extremists operating in Albania and neighboring Kosovo could pose a threat, despite numerous efforts to contain them. The borders with Kosovo, Macedonia and Montenegro remain porous and easily exploitable.
According to several security sources, Albania itself hosts a small fundamentalist Wahhabi community, funded by Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states. It is this factor that, according to a former MI6 officer, led the British spy agency to double its presence in Albania in mid-2006. The former officer adds that with the election of French President Sarkozy, a ’strong Europe‘ conservative, we can expect the French DGSE to take a more robust role in the region as well, in coordination with the British.
Further, the Albanian newspaper Shqip recently claimed that a “Wahhabi sect” active within the Islamic Community in Albania poses a threat as a potential supporter of terrorism in the future. As elsewhere in the Balkans, the report notes, Muslims in poor rural areas are taking monthly “salaries” in order to dress and behave in the Wahhabi fundamentalist way.
However, the Islamic community allegedly does not have the authority to control extremists inside their society, “often claiming that this problem is an obligation of the Penal Code of the Albanian Constitution.” In January 2002, a senior Islamic Community official, Salih Tivari, was murdered by extremists after pledging to cut down foreign influence and funding within the Islamic Community. A number of foreign Islamic charities, such as the “mainstream” Islamic Relief, still work in Albania under humanitarian pretexts. In neighboring Kosovo, Islamic relief has tried to become an economic, social and religious force in rural areas forgotten by the West such as Skenderaj (indeed, the charity itself describes “isolated mountain villages” as its specialty in Albania).
The organization has field offices in interesting locations: Shkodra, a largely Catholic city in northern Albania; and Pogradec, a not especially religious town but one strategically located on Lake Ohrid near the Macedonian border. Macedonian security officials have noted that attempted penetration of foreign Islamist charities via Albania was carried out, unsuccessfully, in the past.
While the Lake Ohrid area is not regarded as a significant area for Islamic extremism, it has not stopped international sponsors from reinforcing the faith. In the small village of Lin on the northwest corner of the lake, for example, the United Arab Emirates built an impressive mosque – the Fakhira Harib el Khili Xhamija – in 2001. In Shkodra, as elsewhere in Albania, religious fault lines are being exploited by both conservative Christian and Muslim groups. Tensions have risen with perceived provocations between Catholics and Muslims, as was the case when a cross was put up in Shkodra, and then mysteriously vandalized in January 2006. And, when civic leaders wanted to honor national hero Mother Teresa with a statue, three Muslim groups – the Association of Islamic Intellectuals, the Albanian Muslim Forum and the Association of Islamic Charities – publicly protested.
The former, a relatively new group which allegedly supports interfaith relations, declared that a statue of one of the world’s most renowned humanitarian figures would be a “provocation” to Muslims. In November 2005, Muslim groups were further enraged when Albanian President Alfred Moisiu, speaking at the Oxford Union in England, declared that only a “shallow” sort of Islam exists in Albania, a country with allegedly much stronger and more durable Christian roots. The MFA and other Islamic groups condemned the president for “insulting Islam.”
Other issues, such as the building of churches and the previous debate over whether Albania should accept the discharged Guantanamo prisoners, have also provided great opportunity for rhetorical displays from such pressure groups, which are becoming increasingly vocal and active. As the rhetorical battle heats up, and the imminent independence of Kosovo dissolves the urgency of strictly nationalist mentalities, the animosities between Catholics, Muslims and occasionally Orthodox will only increase.
Final Puzzling Discrepancies
The Albanian intelligence service, the SHISH, operates under the direct orders of the Americans and, when deemed appropriate, the British. This was not always entirely the case. In fact, ironically, the reason why Islamic extremists entered the country in the first place was due to the former head of the spy agency, Bashkim Gazidede, a devout Islamist. During the early 1990’s, the SHISH was therefore both arresting foreign extremists under CIA orders and enabling others. When terrorist leaders such as Osama bin Laden himself visited Albania, it was under the pretext of subsidizing the desperately poor post-Communist country. Sali Berisha, then president, was happy to accept the help, even making Albania Europe’s only member of the Organization of the Islamic Conference- without gaining parliamentary approval.
According to Albanian security expert Damian Gjiknuri, Gazidede, a former chairman of the Islamic Intellectuals Association of Albania was in the early 1990’s “working around the clock receiving official delegations from the Arab world, hence deviating from the official duties and even compromising national security.” In 1997, after the corrupt pyramid schemes collapsed and brought total anarchy to the country, the Berisha government was toppled and Gazidede fled, in July 1997. Reportedly, he went to the Middle East and was later protected and employed by Turkey’s MIT intelligence service.
What happened subsequently is opaque. It was reported that the former spychief returned to Albania in December 2005, following Sali Berisha’s re-election, on a Turkish Airlines flight. However, a European security official claims that this “sighting” was of a body double, and that Gazidede really returned via ship, from Turkish-held North Cyprus. Neither account can be confirmed. Since May 2006, German and Albanian news reports have claimed that Gazidede was given a state job overseeing property issues, but is now in Rome for medical treatment. In any case, it seems that Gazidede is no longer in a position to cause mischief.
A more perplexing disappearance has been that of Abdul Latif Saleh, once a major player on Tirana’s Islamic fundamentalist scene. This Jordanian radical employed by the Saudi government was also the business manager in Albania for Yassin al-Qadi, a Saudi tycoon was designated a terrorist sponsor by the US Treasury in October 2001. Although his American assets were frozen by the Bush administration, al Qadi’s web of business connections means he has not been touched abroad, and indeed his close connections with Turkish Prime Minister Erdogan resulted in his exoneration in that country last year.
In the 1990’s, al-Qadi was one of the leading Arab investors in Albania. His 15-story business centers (they would be seized by the Albanian government in 2002) were known, ironically, as Tirana’s “Twin Towers.” Al-Qadi, the founder and chief investor in the terrorist fundraising charity, Muwafaq (‘Blessed Relief’), was alleged by the US government to have laundered $10 million for bin Laden through his business interests and charities. Investigators would also claim that Abdul Latif Saleh, the 45-year-old general manager of al-Qadi’s construction company, sugar importing firm and medical center, had been given $600,000 by Osama bin Laden for terrorist cells in Albania.
In September 2005, a US Treasury announcement reiterated its claims about the Jordanian. “Saleh has multiple ties to al Qaida, ranging from the Al Haramain Foundation to Yasin Qadi to Usama bin Laden,” said Stuart Levey, the Treasury’s Under Secretary for Terrorism and Financial Intelligence (TFI). “This designation identifies him as a terrorist facilitator and ensures that he will no longer be able to operate unencumbered.”
What this actually meant remains unclear. If Saleh would not be allowed to operate”unencumbered,” would he still be allowed to operate at all, and if so, why? At the same time that US forces in Afghanistan were rounding up random dark-skinned individuals and sending them to Cuba, it was allowing well known terrorist supporters in Europe, such as Saleh, to vanish into thin air.
For example, on November 12, 1999, “following a tip-off from US security services,” Saleh was detained by the Albanian SHISH and was then mysteriously flown by the US “to an unknown country.” A Tirana newspaper claimed that the arrest was related to President Clinton’s upcoming visit to Kosovo. Nevertheless, Saleh was apparently released undamaged, since he was able to make it back to Albania to be expelled again in 2002. According to the US Treasury, Saleh’s last known address was in the United Arab Emirates. Various reports have since placed him everywhere from Yemen to Afghanistan to supporting Muslim extremists in Kosovo.
Why the US would allow a known terrorist supporter to ride off into the sunset, even as it was detaining hundreds of people whose connections to terrorism were tenuous to non-existent, is likely to remain an enigma; however, Saleh’s affiliation with Yassin al Qadi, a powerful mogul with substantial investments around the world and former clients such as the US military itself, may well have played a part in the hands-off approach. A source with close ties to the US intelligence establishment would not confirm the scenario, but conceded that “this possibility cannot be denied.”
On April 30, 2007 the UN Security Council issued a press release updating its information on Saleh. It did not present any new information regarding his whereabouts, but it did note that he had been given an Albanian passport on two occasions (March 8, 1993 and December 1, 1995). This seems to have come shortly after a Tirana newspaper published this information.
The press release also replaced the name of one of Saleh’s alleged terrorist affiliations – the Salafist Group for Call and Combat – with the renamed version of the same Algerian Wahhabi extremist group, The Organization of Al Qaïda in the Islamic Maghreb. On April 11, 2007, the group claimed responsibility for an Algiers bombing that killed 24 and wounded 222. North African terrorist groups have been fingered almost unanimously by Western intelligence experts as the most dangerous new development for possible terrorist attacks in France or Spain.
Interestingly enough, the press release also replaced under its “other information” section the word “na” (not applicable) with “expelled from Albania in 1999”- thus ignoring the Albanian government’s subsequent expulsion of Saleh in 2002. This omission only casts further doubts on why the shadowy terrorist sponsor was allowed to escape Albania, at a time when the Clinton-pioneered “extraordinary renditions” policy was in full swing in that country.