Over Easy: The Balkan Nexus
Recently, Albania refused the US request to accept and dismantle Assad’s surrendered arsenal of chemical weapons. A recent Over Easy noted Albania’s poor record for adequate disposal of its cold war arsenal, but there is much, much more to the story about weapons, the US, political Islam, and Albania.
Albania is a majority muslim country. Seventy percent of Albanians are muslim, mainly sunni, although a small minority practice a mystical version of shia Islam. The mountainous Kosovo region to the northeast of Albania is 95% muslim, ethnically Albanian, and historically tribal.
In 1967, Albania’s communist leader Enver Hoxha outlawed religion and institutionalized atheism, the only country in history that has ever done so. Property and resources owned by religious institutions were nationalized, leaving a void of resources for members of the Albanian population wishing to return to Islam after communism fell.
By 1990, two simultaneous and seemingly contradictory influences appeared: A resurgence of Islam; and a desire to integrate with political institutions of the West.
Post communist Albania began to re-embrace its muslim heritage. Sali Berisha, whose Democratic Party (DP) was both strongly anti-communist and supportive of the “rehabilitation of Muslim identity”, was elected President. Under Berisha and the DP, Albania saw the void left by state atheism filled by elements of the movement of radical mujaheddin who established a foothold in the country under the tacit support of Barisha and the then-intelligence chief.
During the 1990s, Albania became a safe-haven for members of Egyptian Islamic Jihad and al-Qaeda. Their members – some of them fugitives wanted by the Mubarak regime – were drawn to Albania for its proximity to Europe, weak institutions, and the existing presence of a large Islamic charity network which could provide them with “legitimate cover.” Albania thus represented a place of perceived escape…
Saudi Arabia was deeply involved in funding and coordinating the logistics of that resurgence through a host of Islamic “charities” and supporting banking organizations. Among those include the Saudi Joint Committee for the Relief of Kosovo and Chechnya and the infamous Al Haramain Foundation.
Albanian soldiers have joined Islamists fighting with the Syrian rebels against Assad.
After the fall of the Soviet Union at the end of 1991, former satellite nation Albania looked west for new allegiances and almost immediately asked for NATO membership. Albanian National Intelligence Service, known as ShIK, joined forces with the CIA to monitor the activities of the influx of Islamic extremists, which included Osama bin Laden himself.
At the behest of the CIA, ShIK had created an anti-terrorist unit that, former ShIK officials said, was essentially an arm of the CIA. In those years, the Albanian government, increasingly worried that it might be playing host to Islamic terrorists, accorded the CIA far more leeway than most other countries to operate within its borders.
Previously ruled by state enforced atheism under the former communist regime, Albania’s majority Sunni Muslim population shared both ethnicity and religion with the neighboring territory of Kosovo, which Serbs viewed as the cradle of Serbian civilization. In the mid-1990’s, the Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA) was created by ethnic Albanians to fight for independence from Serbia.
Here’s where the story gets interesting. As with Afghanistan in the 80’s and Syria today, the USG and radical militaristic Islamists found common cause in Kosovo. More on that next time.
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Public domain image from Wikimedia Commons.