Militant Islamists, Organized Crime and the Balkan Diaspora in Europe
Publication: Terrorism Monitor Volume: 13 Issue: 23
By: Ebi Spahiu
The Jamestown Foundation
In light of terrorist attacks in Paris on November 13, countries across Europe have visibly increased security measures and are on the alert for more attacks. Countries in the Western Balkans have similarly boosted security after state agencies received alerts from international partners and from their own intelligence organizations on potential Paris-style attacks in cities of the region (Ora News, November 18). Since the emergence of the Islamic State and continuous reports of Balkan foreign fighters who have joined the organization in Syria and Iraq in recent years, local security analysts and think tanks have attempted to provide profile local fighters who have joined this jihadist organization. They have largely concluded that a majority have criminal backgrounds and come from impoverished areas, but were then mobilized and inspired by individual radical imams, who serve as key links between volunteers and jihadist groups abroad.  So far, however, there has been relatively little focus on the alleged role that organized crime groups from the region have played in aiding militant cells in Western Europe, or the involvement of the Balkan diaspora in providing an arms for terrorist groups in the West.
A recent study released by the Flemish Peace Institute, based in Brussels, concluded that the majority of firearms used for violent attacks, including the Paris shootings, make their way to Europe via the Western Balkans from groups that capitalize on existing routes originating in or transiting the region utilized for drug trafficking and other illegal activities. “Police have noticed an increase of Kalashnikov-type of assault weapons in recent years and official records show that the majority of these weapons come from the Balkans,” said Nils Duquet, co-author of the study, in an interview with Top Channel News in Tirana (Top Channel, November 21).
Organized Criminal groups, Terrorism and the Balkan Diaspora
Since the dissolution of the former Yugoslavia and the collapse of the Communist regime in Albania in the 1990s, weak rule of law and corruption have strengthened smuggling networks in the region, many of which are often closely linked to public officials. Such weak state structures to combat organized crime and high levels of corruption have enabled several nexus groups to emerge and dominate drug trafficking and arms trade in European markets, but also establish significant relationships with terrorist organizations, as they have done in the past with the Kurdish PKK or al-Qaeda.  The most notable case is the rise of the Albanian mafia and the nexus with the Kosovo Liberation Army in the late 1990s, which expanded out of Albania’s economic downfall following the collapse of “pyramid” investment schemes in 1997. Violent rebellions led to the ransacking of hundreds of military and police storage facilities across the country (Bota Sot, October 25). Over 100,000 weapons are believed to have been stolen over the course of a few months during this period—the majority of which are still used in conflicts or recycled in European markets. Some are also now believed to end up on the hands of terrorist organizations, including sleeper cells based in Western countries, with Belgium providing the largest black market (Financial Times, November 19). Furthermore, regional networks created over the years out of these criminal and political nexuses, including those tri-border areas between Albania, Kosovo and Macedonia, are also believed to be “directly tied to operational developments of militant Islamist cells in the UK,” often due to their dominance of smuggling heroin and other types of drug and human trafficking.  According to several accounts, heroin from the Balkans accounts for over $20 billion annually, which also largely finances groups like Hezbollah and al-Qaeda (The New York Times, April 28, 2014).
In this context, it is no surprise that militant Islamist groups, including the Islamic State, seek to exploit homegrown cells established in the Western Balkans, but also diaspora-based communities and the trafficking networks elsewhere in Europe. According to an EU-led study, looking at the ties between organized criminal groups and terrorism in Western Europe, in addition to geographical components that link terrorism to Balkan organized crime, there is also a notable increase of Balkan second and third generation diaspora becoming more involved with radical Islamist communities based in the West. This has been particularly concerning for the Balkan diaspora in Austria, Switzerland, Italy and the UK, which have seen a number of youth, mainly nationals of Albania, Kosovo and Montenegro, among others in the Balkan, join the Islamic State in Syria and Iraq. In Switzerland, for instance, a sizable percentage of foreign fighters are of Balkan origin, particularly from Kosovo, whose migrant population makes up a large portion of Muslims in the country (CTC Sentinel, July 30, 2014). Although, according to experts, many of the ethnic Albanian Muslim communities in Europe, including those in Switzerland, have access to independent funding for their religious needs, they are not immune to the influence of well-funded Wahhabist and Salafist foundations and mosques representing more radical religious views. “Many religious communities fight over the leadership that is going to represent Muslims, making Albanians practitioners susceptible to be usurped by suspicious finances and attracted to radical ideologies,” claims a Tirana-based security official interviewed by this author who wishes to remain anonymous. 
The Balkans as a Transit Route for Terrorists
A number of police counter-terrorism operations have exposed these connections, which are now becoming increasingly visible to security agencies across Europe. In July 2014, Italian police, in collaboration with the Albanian authorities, carried a large operation against a group of Islamic State supporters who had recruited and aided several foreign fighters to cross over to Turkey, to join the Islamic State in Syria (Shqiptarja [Tirana], July 1). Among those arrested, the majority were Albanian and Italian nationals who had allegedly assisted the travels of foreign fighters, including that of Maria Gulia Sergio, an Italian convert, and her Albanian husband, Aldo Kobuzi. Investigations have since revealed that these individuals traveled to Syria on September 2014, by seeking help from Kobuzi’s remaining relatives in Albania, who were also followers of Salafist ideologies (Balkan Insight, March 2015). Similar stories are becoming noticeable as local and international media discover transit routes of foreign fighters linked to the Islamic State. This is particularly underlined in light of the flow of refugees crossing the region on their journey to Western Europe and the potential for individuals linked to extremist organizations to enter Europe through this route. Such fears have been heightened by allegations of some of the Paris attackers entered Europe through the Balkans, posing as a Syrian refugee (RT, November 15).
Since the Paris attacks, regional security services have stepped up security to prevent any possible attacks by local Islamic State supporters. For instance, Albania, a NATO member, has deployed over 1,500 armed security forces to ensure safety in public spaces and adopted a new national strategy against terrorism (Ora News, November 18).  In the wake of the Paris events, Albania’s security level has also been increased to “red,” following several alerts from state agencies and a note from the U.S. Embassy in Tirana that credible intelligence suggested that the capital city is among the Islamic State’s targets (Lapsi, November 20). Serbia’s security forces are similarly “showing off” their regional military might in the face of potential terrorist threats and deadly attacks (Balkan Insight, November 20). These examples show how regional governments are demonstrating their commitment to prevent attacks and building further cooperation between agencies.
However, arrests and increased military capacity do not address the real concerns that have enabled violent extremism and religious radicalism to develop in the Balkans in the first place. These problems include corrupt officials who are involved in organized crime and the drugs trade (Exit, November 13; Balkan Insight, November 10). An additional problem is that moderate Islamic religious authorities that have been ousted by more radical preachers in recent years, leaving Islamic State supporters in the Balkan region, particularly those in Albania and Kosovo, with an open field (Balkan Insight, November 14). There are already indications that this toxic environment is starting to produce attackers; Bosnia-Herzegovina experienced its first violent assault by an alleged Islamist lone wolf, who killed two soldiers and wounded several others in a shooting in the suburbs of Sarajevo on November 18 (Balkan Insight, November 18). Despite the region’s governments’ efforts, however, it is becoming more clear that authorities are also aware of their own relatively limited capacities to carry investigations that involve acts of terrorism, and that the region’s security continues to rely heavily on international intelligence. As threats levels remain high in the midst of the Islamic State’s strong support-base in the Balkans, very few believe that the region’s political elite has the will to confront violent extremism and organized crime. 
Ebi Spahiu is a researcher on Central Asian and Western Balkan Affairs, focusing on gender and religious extremism.
- “Report inquiring into the causes and consequences of Kosovo citizens’ involvement as foreign fighters in Syria and Iraq, Kosovo Center for Security Studies,” April 2015, http://www.qkss.org/repository/docs/Report_inquiring_into_the_causes_and_consequences_of_Kosovo_citizens’_involvement_as_foreign_fighters_in_Syria_and_Iraq_307708.pdf.
- “Europe’s Crime-Terror Nexus: Links Between Terrorist and Organized Crimes Groups in the European Union,” http://www.europarl.europa.eu/document/activities/cont/201211/20121127ATT56707/20121127ATT56707EN.pdf.
- Ibid, pg. 19.
- Interview with Tirana-based security official who wishes to remain anonymous due to security concerns, November 19, 2015.
- National strategy in combating violent extremism, www.qbz.gov.al/botime/fletore_zyrtare/2015/PDF-2015/203-2015.pdf.
- Adriatic Institute, February 2014, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QV4zZ2MAv9Q.
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Photo: This man was recently detained during a raid against alleged Islamic State supporters in Albania (Source: Shqiptarja)