Book by Cristopher Deliso
Chapter 2 discusses the recent past of Albania, mainly the exploits of various Islamic radicals and groups like Egyptian Islamic Jihad in the 1990s. However, I also argue that while those actors have left the stage, the danger in Albania is by no means over- actually, it has changed shape, as I explain in my book.
Basically, what happened? In 1990, Albania was emerging from Communism after the death of dictator Enver Hoxha five years before. The US was naturally very eager to bring it out of Communism and nurture the ‘pro-democratic’ political elements. This involved supporting the campaign of Sali Berisha of the Democratic Party, and even parading him around America at events with William Ryerson, who would become the first American ambassador to Albania since the Communists took over after Berisha won, and who is now an Albanian lobbyist.
Berisha, who is again in power right now, was a classic opportunist, presiding over a very poor country that obviously needed all the help it could get. He got aid from the West, the US, the EU and NATO, but also from the Islamic world. In fact, under his initiative Albania even joined the Organization of Islamic Conferences (OIC), the only country in Europe to have done so, and without parliamentary approval. Iran, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and other countries started making major investments, setting up banks, etc, but also building hundreds of mosques and inviting Albanian students to study Islamic theology in their countries.
At the same time, the US was training the Albanian secret service, the SHIK, which was headed by a hardcore Islamist, Bashkim Gazidede, who had been the president of an Islamic group in Tirana previously. Gazidede was very sympathetic to the Islamist cause and under his tenure extremist and terrorist groups related to bin Laden and Ayman al-Zawahiri were allowed to enter Albania and flourish. So at the same time the CIA was training its Albanian colleagues and modernizing their service, it was also allowing anti-American forces to set up shop. Because of Albania’s lawlessness and poverty, the jihadists, many of whom were on the run from authorities in countries like Egypt, considered the country a ‘safe hotel’ where they could plot undisturbed. The CIA actually ordered various operations against these characters, but it was somewhat self-defeating, since important figures in the Albanian leadership were supporting the same people the US was trying to take action against.
On this note it’s interesting to point out that, though the Bush administration is frequently accused of being the creator of the ‘rendition’ program by which terrorists suspects are kidnapped and flown off to undisclosed locations where they are interrogated and sometimes tortured, this program was actually pioneered in Albania in the mid-1990’s. And maybe you recall Abu Omar, the unfortunate Muslim cleric kidnapped by the CIA off of a Milan street in 2004. He had actually been part of these Islamic groups in Albania during the period when that program was being set up.