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Feature 25 Apr 16

Albanian Villages Ponder Local Spike in ISIS Recruits

Three villages in southeast Albania are coming to terms with the fact that 24 locals have left to join Islamic militant groups in Syria over the past three years.

Aleksandra Bogdani BIRN Pogradec
Hamdi Alinj with his wife Hurma Alinj in their home in the village of Leshnica, near the city of Pogradec in Southeastern Albanmia | Photo by : Aleksandra Bogdani

Ervis Alinj and Bledar Hamza were childhood friends as they grew up together in the village of Leshnica in southeast Albania.

Their paths later strayed, as Alinj migrated to Greece and Hamza moved with his family to Italy - both in search of better lives. Their paths crossed again, for the last time, under the flag of the so-called Islamic State, ISIS.

Early in 2013 the two young men, both then aged around 25, met in Tirana and decided to join ISIS.

Their names are today listed among the Albanian jihadists who are believed to have died in Syria.  

Ervis’s father, Hamdi Alinj, a hunched man with strong, calloused hands from years of toil, still refuses to believe that his son is dead.

Since his son disappeared three years ago, Hamdi has heard several different stories about his fate and has chosen to believe that his son remains alive.

“It has been years since I have seen him but my heart tells me he is alive,” Hamdi says, his eyes alight with hope.   

Ervis Alinj vanished following a physical and mental transformation, inspired by a new strand of Islam that his parents did not understand.

His father describes him as a quiet boy who lived between Greece and Albania, went often to the mosque and refused to eat meat from the store. When he left home for the last time in 2013, he was clean-shaven and silent about his plans.

A probe launched by the Tirana prosecutor’s office in February 2014 discovered that Ervis, his childhood friend Bledar Hamza and three other young men met in Tirana in January 2013.

From there they travelled together to Istanbul. Ervis phoned his parents three times in February and March 2013 before disappearing without trace.

In his conversations over the telephone, he claimed he was in Germany but his parents already suspected he was in Syria. They later received an anonymous phone call in the Spring of 2013 notifying them that he was dead.  

The village of Leshnica, 15 kilometres from the town of Pogradec, is one of three hotspots of jihadist recruitment in Albania.

In the past three years, 24 men, women and children have left Leshnica and the nearby villages of Zagoracan and Rremenj for Syria. So far, four of the 24 have been reported killed there.

The mosque, whose minaret towers over the village, is seen as the place that radicalized local youngsters and inspired some of them to join militant Islamic groups in Syria.

However, three years after the wave of departures, locals still have now no answer as to how religious fervor entangled this backwater in Syria’s deadly conflict.

Local imam widely blamed:

Former imam of the Leshnica mosque Almir Daci, belived to be a member of ISIS in Syria | Photo by: YouTube printscreenof ISIS propagna video

The villages of Leshnica, Zagorcan and Rremenj, which make up a triangle along the highway that connects the city of Korca and Pogradec in southeastern Albania, share the same dire economic and social situation.

With almost no businesses worth mentioning, many people in the region are unemployed. Some make a living from small-scale agriculture while men traditionally support their families through seasonal farm work in neighbouring Greece.

However, Hamdi Alinj refuses to link his son’s departure for Syria with poverty. He points the finger at Almir Daci, the former imam of the Leshnica mosque, and his friends in the capital, Tirana, who he claims brainwashed his boy.

Many other locals in the three villages are of the same opinion. Yet they are unlikely to obtain justice from Daci, since his relatives reported earlier this month that he had also died in Syria. Daci’s was the fourth reported death among the 24 villagers who have left the region for the Syrian battlefields.

Albania's Prosecutor for Serious Crimes in Tirana has meanwhile pressed charges against him. He is accused of radicalizing dozens of youngsters in the area and recruiting them on behalf of ISIS to take part in the conflict in Syria.

The former imam is now on trial in Tirana in absentia as part of a network of recruiters for ISIS.

However, his parents who are still in mourning, told BIRN that he was no different from other boys who traveled to fight in Syria. “He is poor like everybody else here,” his mother said with a pale face.

Other relatives told the media that news of his death had reached the family from his wife in Syria.

Contradictory news causes confusion:

Like Ervin’s family, many villagers distrust news coming from Syria as the information is often contradictory.

Some families in the area who received news about the deaths of relatives, started and than quickly stopped mourning after receiving fresh news that their loved ones were still alive.

Maringlen Dervishllari’s relatives received news that he had been killed but then felt confused because details of his death differed from one source to another.

“Our daughter-in-law called us on the phone and said that Maringlen died from an illness. On TV, we heard that he had been killed. We don’t know who to trust,” his mother, Fatmira, said from the family’s half-finished home in Rremenj.   

She remains puzzled by her son’s transformation and his decision to leave for Syria.

She says that before 2010, Maringlen worked with his father as a homebuilder, but quit work after he got married.

Fatmira recalls that his wife was only 14 years old, wore a veil from head to toe, and that she and her husband had to scramble to fix the papers due to the young bride’s age.

After Dervishllari left on May 12,t2013, his wife and their infant son followed suit. The couple had a second son in Syria, who has never met his grandmother.

Fatmira says that in her few brief telephone conversations with her daughter in-law, she asked her to come home with the two young grandsons.

“I will never return as I have promised to raise my kids here,” she apparently answered, Fatmira recalls.

Not much hope in the government:

al-Nusra from jihadist fighters in Syria | Photo from Beta/AP

Three years after the youngsters departed for Syria, locals in the Pogradec region are struggling to come to terms with the consequences.  

The families of those who have disappeared seek help to have their loved ones’ remains returned. Others worry about nephews and nieces who are still in Syria.  

However, no one holds out much hope that the government will offer much help in their endeavors.  

In Tirana the authorities speak of strategies to integrate radicalized youth and about social projects to alleviate the repercussions of religious radicalization.

However, the families of those affected say no one has knocked on their doors yet.   

Re-integration of all mosques under the authority of the Muslim Community – the officially recognized religious organization in Albania - is another issue that worries the authorities.

Some of those mosques remain outside control and no one knows for sure what kind of Islam they practice and what kind of ideas they debate.

In Leshnica and Zagoracan, radical religious ideas - which often lead people to travel to Syria - are being kept alive by isolated groups of youngsters who were once close to the now apparently dead former imam, Almir Daci.   

Albania’s Islamic community has appointed new imams to serve the mosques in these two villages, but they hold prayers only on Friday. For the rest of the week the mosques are left to the radical youth.

Hamdi Alinj told BIRN that he had approached these people many times trying to clarify the fate of his son, but said they were avoiding him.

Hamdi said some of them also tried to travel to Syria “but were turned back”.

In Pogradec, Imam Edison Kuqo admits that the waves made by the Syrian conflict have stirred waters in the town located on Lake Ohrid.

Prejudice against Islam has grown while parents keep their children away from the mosques.  

Kuqo describes the followers of Almir Daci as “sheep separated from the flock,” while adding that he personally had stopped some young people who wanted to go to Syria.

According to the imam, what has happened can be explained by the poor religious training of the young who can be easily manipulated.  

“We have tried really hard to stop people leaving for Syria,” he says. “We have clearly come out against it in the mosque, because now we are suffering the consequences,” he concluded.   

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