Analysis 23 Mar 16

Albania Faces ‘Jihadi Fighters in the Shadows’ Threat

While the state grapples with returnee fighters and regulating mosques, experts say youngsters are still being radicalised online and warn of potential ‘lone wolf’ attacks.

Aleksandra Bogdani

Mufti of Tirana, Ylli Gurra (left) and US ambassador, Donald Lu (right) at the new mosque in the village of Dragostunja, eastern Albania. Photo: Muslim Council of Tirana, Facebook.

“That mosque is so near Tirana but we went there a full eleven years after it was built. This shows that a part of the responsibility [for radicalisation] lies with the community,” says Ylli Gurra, Mufti of Tirana and Islamic Community of Albania official.

Gurra was speaking to the Balkan Investigative Reporting Network, BIRN, about his November visit to the mosque in Mezez, a village on the outskirts of the capital.

The mosque had been linked to the radicalisation and recruitment of Albanian fighters in Syria for some years, yet he was the first official from the Islamic Community of Albania, ICA, to step foot inside the building.

Fighter numbers

The government estimates more than 100 Albanians have joined jihadi groups in Syria and Iraq, including 13 women and 31 children, 26 of whom are minors.

BIRN has identified at least 107 Albanians who have been to Syria and Iraq during the past four years.

55 Albanians are still in Syria and all are believed, according to security service sources, to be fighting for ISIS or residing in ISIS-controlled territory.

18 are believed to have been killed in the conflicts and 12 injured.

3 fought with Turkish Al Qaeda-affiliate the Murat Gezenler battalion, all others joined Al Nusra or ISIS.

42 returned to the country before the government passed new laws criminalising fighting in foreign conflicts.

The number of Albanians leaving to fight in Syria and Iraq declined sharply after the government passed the new anti-terror laws in February 2014.

2012: 20 Albanian men left the country to fight in Syria and Iraq.

2013:  83 Albanian men, women and children left for Syria and Iraq

2014:  4 Albanians left for Syria and Iraq

2015:  1 Albanian left for Syria

Source: Albanian Prosecution Office (February 2016)

Its imam, Bujar Hysa, is currently standing trial with eight others at the Serious Crimes Tribunal in Tirana. All are accused of distributing violent jihadist propaganda and recruiting as many as 70 Albanian jihadi fighters. All nine deny the charges.

The Mezez mosque is one of about ten mosques that operate outside ICA authority. Unlike the majority of Albania’s 727 mosques, these mosques have rejected the leadership of ICA-appointed imams.

The government estimates that since 2012 more than 100 Albanians, mostly young men, have joined jihadi groups fighting in Syria. Almost all joined Al Qaeda-affiliate Al Nusra or ISIS. The majority were, according to security service sources, radicalised and recruited in mosques outside ICA control.

Bringing mosques under ICA control has been a top priority. The ICA, which is partly state-funded, represents Albania’s Sunni Muslim population and belongs to the Hanafi school of Islam that is traditional to the Balkans. It is regarded as highly tolerant and advocates co-existence with secular values.

Yet the ICA has struggled to establish control over all mosques, partly as a result of the dramatic changes in religious freedoms and exposure to other, stricter interpretations of Islam that followed the collapse of communism in 1990.

With Albanians free to openly practise religion, the country was flooded by foreign Islamic groups with differing aims. Some came to help the poor, others to build mosques and still others to advocate hard-line conservative interpretations of Islam.

The mosques that remain outside of ICA control are reported to belong to the highly conservative Salafi tradition and around seven of those, including the Mezez mosque, have been directly linked with promoting violent jihad and recruiting fighters for ISIS and Al Nusra.

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