Inside Over, Tirana, Albania, January 01 2020:… 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. MEK Presence In Albania
(Translated by Iran Interlink)
Link to the original article (Albanian)
MEK Presence In Albania Hampering Dealing With Islamic Extremism
The Albanian state between jihad and radical Islamism
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.
MEK Presence In Albania Hampering Dealing With Islamic Extremism
Lo scenario albanese tra jihad e islamismo radicale
Il problema dell’infiltrazione jihadista e islamista radicale nei Balcani occidentali è reale e pluriforme, in base al Paese di riferimento e alle relative caratteristiche istituzionali, politiche e socio-economiche. Non si tratta infatti di un fenomeno che può essere inteso come generalizzato, ma piuttosto legato a specifiche dinamiche. Il radicalismo di matrice islamista fa infatti breccia lì dove lo Stato è carente o assente, dove le condizioni socio-economiche (in particolare quelle dei giovani) sono gravose, senza dimenticare la storia del relativo Paese, che può in qualche modo contribuire alle modalità con le quali si sviluppa il fenomeno.
Nel caso dell’Albania, il fatto che l’eredità del regime comunista guidato da Enver Hoxha, che aveva portato all’annullamento della religione nel Paese e all’introduzione dell’ateismo di Stato (1967) come dottrina ufficiale, possa aver contribuito ad impoverire la fertilità del terreno nel quale l’islamismo radicale poteva progressivamente cercare di far breccia dopo la caduta del regime è ancora oggi oggetto di dibattito.
Nonostante alcune teorie secondo le quali l’ateismo di Stato avrebbe rafforzato, per reazione, il credo del popolo albanese, fin’ora l’unica effettiva conseguenza comprovata in Albania è la reciproca tolleranza e cooperazione tra le diverse comunità religiose in un paese a maggioranza musulmana, ma con relativa presenza cattolica, ortodossa e bektashi. Difficile invece sostenere che l’ateismo di Stato abbia contribuito a un incremento del numero di credenti in un paese dove il nazionalismo, la cosiddetta “albanesità”, ha la precedenza su etnia e religione e dove il tasso di matrimoni misti è particolarmente elevato. E’ possibile dunque ipotizzare che la notevole tolleranza interreligiosa sia in realtà risultato di un’impostazione che, tramite l’ateismo di Stato, ha portato a mettere in secondo piano l’aspetto religioso, visto come secondario rispetto all’appartenenza alla Nazione. In aggiunta, l’Albania non è mai stata teatro di conflitti religiosi sul proprio territorio.
L’islamismo radicale alimentato dall’estero
L’estremismo di stampo islamista presente in Albania è un problema importato dall’estero e ricollegabile a diverse fonti. Ci sono paesi del Golfo e organizzazioni caritatevoli che hanno tutto l’interesse a diffondere wahhabismo e salafismo, finanziando moschee, centri culturali, associazioni benefiche di stampo religioso, importando materiale dottrinario da distribuire e indottrinando imam.
Se da una parte la comunità islamica albanese (Kmsh) è molto attenta a individuare ed eventualmente respingere derive radicali, al punto che già nel 2015 chiese l’intervento delle Istituzioni per far fronte al problema, dall’altra è presente una realtà formata da predicatori radicali, attivi in centri islamici non ufficiali ma anche sul web, alcuni dei quali rientrati in Albania dopo periodi di studio in scuole islamiche del Medio Oriente. Questi predicatori di odio non solo si occupano di diffondere quell’ideologia salafita e wahhabita fondata sulla prevaricazione e l’intolleranza, ma invocano apertamente anche il jihad. Non caso, nel marzo del 2014, le forze di sicurezza albanesi smantellavano una delle più grosse reti di propagandisti e reclutatori per l’Isis attive nei Balcani occidentali (e la più importante d’Albania), con a capo proprio i due imam Genci Balla e Bujar Hysa.
Tra i personaggi collegati alla rete “Balla-Hysa” vi era anche Almir Daci, ex imam della moschea di Leshnica, apparso con il nome “Abu Bilqis Al-Albani” nel noto video sui Balcani rilasciato dall’Isis a giugno 2015 e dal titolo “Honor is Jihad”.
La zone prese di mira dai predicatori di odio sono prevalentemente quelle periferiche di Elbasan, Cerrik, Kavaja, Librazhd, Pogradec, Skutari ma anche la periferia di Tirana. I loro target sono in gran parte giovani individui in precarie condizioni sociali, culturali ed economiche.
Un ulteriore problema è poi l’infiltrazione economica e politica della Turchia di Erdogan, ideologicamente legata all’islamismo radicale dei Fratelli Musulmani, infiltrazione perpetrata tramite l’utilizzo del cosiddetto “soft power”, la capacità di persuadere, attrarre e cooptare, tramite mezzi quali la cultura e la politica. Un pericolo ben più serio perchè più difficile da individuare e da gestire. Un esempio? La grande moschea di Tirana (la più grande di tutti i Balcani), fatta costruire da Erdogan a due passi dal Parlamento albanese su una superficie di 32.000 metri quadrati. Ovviamente tutto ha un costo e in questo caso di tipo ideologico-politico. Non deve infatti stupire se i sermoni predicati all’interno di queste moschee siano gli stessi pronunciati dagli imam dei paesi d’origine, con contenuti che vanno oltre gli aspetti fideistico-dottrinari per sfociare nel politico. Un’arma potentissima nelle mani dei regimi.
Il jihadismo di ritorno e il contrasto al terrorismo
L’Albania ha “contribuito” alla causa jihadista in Siria e Iraq con circa 180-200 foreign fighters su una popolazione di 2.873 milioni ma sembra anche avere un buon controllo della situazione. Il “Country Reports on Terrorism” del Dipartimento di Stato americano per l’anno 2018 ha infatti messo in evidenza come l’Albania, nonostante la scarsità di risorse, abbia comunque ottenuto buoni risultati nel contrasto al jihadismo. La collaborazione tra la CTU albanese e le agenzie statunitensi nella lotta al terrorismo è attualmente ad elevati livelli; un ulteriore aspetto di rilievo è inoltre la modernizzazione del Personal Identification Secure Comparison and Evaluation System (Pisces) per proteggere le frontiere albanesi, oltre ai già elevati controlli presso gli scali marittimi ed aeroportuali.
Nel complesso, l’Albania appare in grado di gestire il pericolo derivante dal jihadismo legato al rientro di foreign fighters e alla radicalizzazione sul territorio; ciò è certamente il risultato della cooperazione con le agenzie europee e statunitensi, ma anche la presenza di un’efficiente sistema di intelligence interno, eredità del periodo comunista. Più problematica risulta invece la gestione della propaganda tramite web che colpisce non soltanto in Albania ma anche la diaspora (un problema tra l’altro su scala globale), propaganda che potrebbe influenzare anche jihadisti ritornati in patria, oltre che quelli latenti, mai partiti.
Il quartier generale dei Mujahideen del Popolo iraniano
Un’ulteriore problematica in suolo albanese è legata alla presenza del quartier generale dei Mujahideen del Popolo d’Iran (Mek), insediato a Manez (vicino Durazzo) dal 2016, dopo anni di attività in Iraq. Una presenza che ha creato non pochi grattacapi alle istituzioni di Tirana.
Il Mek nasceva nel 1963 con l’obiettivo di combattere il regime dello Shah e nel 1979 partecipava alla rivoluzione islamica guidata dall’Ayatollah Khomeini; l’ideologia divulgata (un incrocio di marxismo, femminismo e islamismo) si scontrava però con quella degli Ayatollah, veniva quindi messa al bando e i mujahideen trovavano rifugio nell’Iraq di Saddam Hussein.
Visto con molta diffidenza da Israele e mal sopportato da molti iraniani anti-Ayatollah, in precedenza il Mek era inserito nella lista nera da Unione Europea, Gran Bretagna, Usa e Canada, per poi venire “sdoganato” tra il 2008 e il 2012, grazie anche all’ intervento dell’allora Segretario di Stato, Hillary Clinton.
Se da una parte Washington vede nel Mek “la principale forza d’opposizione promotrice di democrazia e laicità in Iran”, dall’altra, Teheran lo identifica come “organizzazione terroristica responsabile di attentati ed atti di violenza politica”. Se il Mek sia promotore di “democrazia e libertà” o meno, è difficile dirlo; certo è che il connubio tra marxismo-leninismo ed islamismo predicato dal gruppo non è certo una garanzia, così come non lo è la struttura che mostra elementi tipici di una setta, come illustrato recentemente dalla Bbc.
Vale la pena ponderare sull’utilità della presenza del Mek in territorio albanese, presenza scomoda, forse inopportuna, che rischia di creare più problemi che vantaggi in un contesto estremamente delicato come quello balcanico.
MEK Presence In Albania
MEK defectors raise doubts over alleged Iranian ‘terror cell’ in Albania
Suddaf Chaudry, Middle East Eye, December 12 2019:… Gjergj Erebara, a journalist with the Balkan Investigative Reporting Network, said the press conference – which he attended – was unusual, to say the least. “Albanian police gave no proof to substantiate its claims. They said they have discovered the “terrorist cell”, but they didn’t make any arrests,” Erebara said. Hassan Heyrani, a former high-ranking MEK member who defected from the group in 2017, said he believes the story that the police presented is fabricated. “If it was true, why hasn’t Interpol arrested them? Albania is a very poor country where corruption is rife, police can be bought,” he said. MEK defectors raise doubts over alleged Iranian ‘terror cell’ in Albania
MEK defectors raise doubts over alleged Iranian ‘terror cell’ in Albania . MEK Presence In Albania .
Police said cell planned attacks on exiled Iranian opposition group. Others wonder if Albania is being drawn into US and Israeli fight with Iran
By Suddaf Chaudry
Albanian police recently announced that they had discovered a terror ring, run by the Iranian Revolutionary Guards, which had planned attacks on an exiled Iranian opposition group living in Albania.
“A terrorist cell of the foreign operations unit of Iranian Quds was discovered lately by Albanian intelligence institutions,” Police Director General Ardi Veliu said at a press conference in late October.
The goal of the ring, Veliu said, was to strike the Mojahedin-e Khalq (MEK), an exiled Iranian opposition group which has been based in Albania for the past three years.
Names of group members were also released, including Alireza Naghashzadeh, whom Veliu identified as the cell’s operations chief and a member of the Quds Force, the arm of the revolutionary guards which conducts foreign operations.
The ring, he added, had been identified by sources inside it.
But no arrests have been made and Albania has yet to request international arrest warrants for the alleged attackers, leaving local journalists and Iranian dissidents with lingering doubts.
‘If it was true, why hasn’t Interpol arrested them?’
– Hassan Heyrani, former MEK member
Gjergj Erebara, a journalist with the Balkan Investigative Reporting Network, said the press conference – which he attended – was unusual, to say the least.
“Albanian police gave no proof to substantiate its claims. They said they have discovered the “terrorist cell”, but they didn’t make any arrests,” Erebara said.
Hassan Heyrani, a former high-ranking MEK member who defected from the group in 2017, said he believes the story that the police presented is fabricated.
“If it was true, why hasn’t Interpol arrested them? Albania is a very poor country where corruption is rife, police can be bought,” he said.
MEE repeatedly asked the Albanian police for further details about the alleged ring, but a spokesperson declined to comment. The Iranian Embassy in Tirana refused to comment.
Without further detail, some observers say they have been left wondering if the announcement is a sign that the Balkan country is being drawn further into America’s – and Israel’s – fight to overthrow the Iranian government.
From Iran to Albania
Established in 1965 as an Islamist-socialist movement, the MEK rose up against the rule of the Shah of Iran during the 1979 Islamic Revolution, but soon ran afoul of new leader Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini.
Facing a deadly crackdown, the MEK launched attacks on government officials and security forces and eventually was forced to flee the country, first to France and then eventually to Iraq.
The group, whose activities have been described as cultish, with a goal of overthrowing the Iranian government using violence and indoctrination, was designated for more than a decade by both the US and the UK as a terrorist organisation.
But in recent years, and as both countries delisted the group, the MEK has become a favourite of anti-Iran hawks in the US and Europe who see it as a weapon against the government in Tehran.
Between 2014 and 2016, at the bequest of the US, at least 2,700 MEK members were resettled in Albania after the group came under attack at Camp Ashraf, the Iraqi refugee camp where they had been living since the mid-1980s.
These days, the group lives in a fortified camp in the country’s northwest, heavily protected by Albanian authorities.
Analysts say the group’s presence in Albania has raised alarm bells in Tehran and there have been reports that prominent members of the group have been under surveillance globally.
Ruslan Trad, an independent researcher focused on Iranian influence in the Balkans and co-founder of De Re Militari, said he believes Albania is now “a subject of espionage games” between Israel, Iran and the US.
Trad said Iran’s presence in Albania must be understood in the context of Tehran’s activities over the past two decades in the Balkans where it has been quietly establishing a foothold, triggering the concerns of western governments that the conflict with Iran had arrived in their backyard.
A 2012 attack killing five Israeli tourists, a bus driver and the bomber outside the airport in the Bulgarian city of Burgas, which Bulgarian intelligence eventually attributed to Hezbollah, was seen by many analysts as part of the covert war between Iran and Israel. Hezbollah denied its involvement.
Since then, however, Trad said he believes the Balkans have become an attractive location for Hezbollah, according to locally based Hezbollah members and sympathisers he has interviewed.
“Hezbollah is using Kosovo and Macedonia as a logistic centre and transit path, and Bulgaria as a hub,” he explained. He believes Hezbollah is heavily linked to Balkan mafia circles.
In turn, the activity has seen the Israelis step up their own operations in the Balkans, he said: “The Albanian authorities are probably cooperating with them.”
Heyrani, the former MEK member who defected, said he believes the main reason Albania has been so supportive of the MEK is a result of the close relations between Albania and the US.
“Albania is under American control and also MEK is supported by the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC),” he said, referring to the appearance of MEK members in an AIPAC-funded TV commercial against the Iran nuclear deal in 2015.
Under Donald Trump’s administration, hawkish support for the MEK has continued, including from now-former security advisor John Bolton and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo.
Bolton praised Albanian President Edi Rama at the end of last year for expelling the Iranian ambassador in Tirana in direct relation to an alleged terror plot targeting MEK members.
Prime Minister Edi Rama of Albania just expelled the Iranian ambassador, signaling to Iran’s leaders that their support for terrorism will not be tolerated. We stand with PM Rama and the Albanian people as they stand up to Iran’s reckless behavior in Europe and across the globe.
— John Bolton (@AmbJohnBolton) December 19, 2018
Trump wrote a letter acknowledging Albania’s “steadfast efforts to stand up to Iran and to counter its destabilising activities and efforts to silence dissidents around the globe”.
The continued support and safety measures that the Albanian government provides the MEK – now with the added questions about the alleged terror cell – has led many dissidents who have left the group to be concerned about their futures.
MEE spoke to several MEK defectors, several on condition of anonymity, who said they were distressed about what would come next for them, given the government’s stance.
“We just want a normal life, to get married and have a family. We have no citizenship, no passports, no land rights. We came here on humanitarian grounds, but we are treated like criminals,” Heyrani said. “I have no choice but to live here. I can’t go back to Iran. They do not accept us.”
Heyrani said that recently his image was splashed on Albanian television where he was described as an enemy of the state.
“They have no evidence, just like the alleged terror plot,” he said. “But here in Albania that is not important.”
MEK defectors raise doubts over alleged Iranian ‘terror cell’ in Albania. MEK Presence In Albania .