Investigation 06 Mar 15

Italy on Alert Over Jihadist Threat From Balkans

Italian authorities are increasingly concerned by the number of radicalized Muslims emigrants from the Balkans joining the ranks of the Islamist militants.

Aleksandra Bogdani
BIRN
Tirana

 

Propaganda graphic posted on Twitter of ISIS conquering the Colosseum

In a video released on February 15, after the murder of 21 Egyptian Christians in Lybia, a masked militant from the Islamic State of Syria and al-Sham, ISIS, points toward the Italian shore and warns: “We will conquer Rome by the will of Allah.”  

Bloodcurdling ISIS threats to the West are nothing new. But, documents from the Italian security agencies, seen by BIRN, show Rome is increasingly worried by the threat of terrorists coming from the Balkans as well as from North Africa and the Middle East.

According to one document seen by BIRN, the Italian Interior Ministry has identified five radical cells from the Balkans operating in Italy and recruiting jihadist fighters for the Islamic State.

The cells are located in Milan, Rome, Liguria, Lucca and Siena, infiltrated into communities of Muslim emigrants from Albania, Kosovo, Macedonia and Bosnia 

So far, eight of the 59 people that Italian security agencies have identified as joining radical Islamic groups fighting in Syria and Iraq come from the Balkans. Four have already died in the Syrian war.

Because of its geographical proximity, Italian authorities are worried that ties between radical preachers coming from the Balkans and local Muslim communities could turn the country into a centre of radical Islamist activity.

Since the civil war started in Syria, several hundred Muslims from the Balkans have joined militant organizations like the al-Nusra front and ISIS.

The International Center for the Study of Radicalization, ICSR, a think tank based in King's College, London, believes the number of fighters from the Balkans that have joined jihadist groups in Syria totals 632.

Last week, two imams and seven of their supporters went on trial in Albania a year after their arrest, accused of recruiting dozens of fighters for ISIS and the al-Nusra front.

The indictment says imams Bujar Hysa and Abdurrahim Balla facilitated the recruitment of 70 fighters from Albania between 2012 and 2014 through their mosques on the outskirts of Tirana.  

Since the start of the conflict, 10 Albanians have lost their lives fighting in Syria, while 30 others have already returned home and are under the constant observation of law-enforcement agencies.

In September 2014, meanwhile, the authorities in Bosnia and Herzegovina arrested a radical imam named Bilal Bosnic under an operation codenamed “Damask.”

BIRN has learned that agents from Italian anti-terror units in the cities of Bergamo and Cremona, which have large immigrant populations from the Balkans, took part in the operation.

Bosnic held inflammatory preaching tours in Italy in 2011. In an interview with the Italian daily newspaper, Corriere Della Sera, in August 2014 Bosnic declared that jihadist recruits had their eye on Italy.

“Italy is a very important country for us because we believe the whole world will become one Islamic State,” he said. “Even the Vatican will be Muslim,” Bosnic added.

Bosnic is not the only radical imam from the Balkans to have preached to Muslim immigrants in Italy. Shefqet Krasniqi, imam of the Grand Mosque in Pristina, is another.

Kosovo authorities arrested Krasniqi last September on suspicion of “incitement to hatred and religious, racial, ethnic intolerance”.

Before his detention, Krasniqi in December 2013 held a meeting with the faithful at the El Hilal mosque in the Italian town of Grosseto, in Tuscany, and a video of his sermon in the mosque can be found in YouTube.

Apart from watching links with radical imams from the Balkans, the Italian authorities are keeping a close eye on Muslims emigrants from the Balkans who feed on Islamist propaganda on the internet.

Using a national security decree issued in 2005 the Italian Interior Ministry has started to deport migrants who post ISIS symbols on the internet en masse by the end of 2014.  

Among those already deported was a 22-year-old from Kosovo, Resim Kastrati, who was suspected of preparing to join the ISIS in Syria. He was deported from Italy on January 19, 2015.

Concerned by the links between Muslims residing in Italy and Balkan jihadist networks, Italian security agencies have strengthened cooperation with their colleagues in the region.

Albania, Kosovo, Macedonia and Bosnia are not members of Europol, so the Italian authorities have intensified bilateral security cooperation with these countries.

Following the January 7 terror attacks in France against staff of the satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo, and a Jewish supermarket, the Italian Interior minister, Angelino Alfano and his Albanian counterpart, Saimir Tahiri, set up a joint task force to exchange information in real-time on radical Islamists elements.

BIRN has learned that Italy intends to set-up similar task forces with other countries in the region.

“This part of the world, the Balkans can be considered a shelter for terrorists, where foreign fighters could be trained,” Alfano said on a visit to Tirana on January 14.  “For Europe, this area is of strategic importance,” he added.

 

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