Friday, October 20, 2006

Mafia, Jihadist Links in Balkan Narcotics

Defense & Foreign Affairs Strategic Policy. Alexandria: 2006.Vol.34, Iss. 7; pg. 13, 1 pgs

IT WAS DURING A UN POLICE SURVEILLANCE OPERATION Conducted in Pristina, the capital of the Albanian-occupied Serbian province of Kosovo, in January 2006 that it was discovered that several French Islamists of Moroccan background, who had fled from the French police following the Autumn 2005 ghetto riots in France, were being protected in a "Wahhabi safe house" in the center of Pristina.

According to the officer in charge of the surveillance operation, the parents of the Albanian Wahhabist who allowed the men to hide there were terrified because of the kind of "responsibilities" with which the son had become involved by joining the "brotherhood".

A couple of months earlier, on October 18, 2005, a Turkish citizen (Erdogan T.) was arrested in his Albanian-licensed leep as he tried to enter the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia (FYROM) at the Kafasan border crossing on Lake Ohrid. He had one kilogram of cocaine, more than four kilos of heroin and a half kilo of hashish, all packed into 19 packages. The man said that the drugs were for the Turkish narco-market, noting: "Macedonia was just a transit zone." But the drug movement in this east-west direction was a notable innovation, say Customs officials, because it represents a new path.

Both incidents showed the changing logistical patterns of two negative forces which are often controlled by the same people: the radical jihadist movement and the mafia business in drugs, firearms and human trafficking. The Balkans is becoming a fertile base for both to flourish, and it is clear that radical Islam and Wahhabist movements have been funded by mafia groups, especially the Albanian and Turkish ones.

First, radical Islamists looking to escape from the European Union by hiding in the Balkans are frequently encountered in all the Muslim-inhabited countries of the region. With EU passports, there is no need for them to acquire visas, and the perennially-corrupt and poorly-enforced borders of Balkan countries in any case make it easy for Islamists to take shelter.

Authorities in Macedonia claim that lslamists in the EU who are in danger of being expelled to their original countries in the Middle East have been using FYROM villages populated by Albanians and Macedonian Muslims (as well as Wahhabi strongholds in the capital, Skopje) to hide for the past two years at least.

And, a former intelligence officer in Skopje who was active during the Yugoslav wars claims that foreign mujahedin who remained in Bosnia following the wars "are being shuffled back and forth" hetween the European countries, now that the US has urged the Bosnian Muslim Government to deport all former foreign fighters. However, jihadi chief Abu Hamza claimed publicly that if the Government did this, the mujahedin would rise up against the Muslim state itself.

This intelligence officer claimed that the movement of mujahedin between the Balkans and other corners of Europe with growing extremist populations was partially being done through the Albanian ports of Drac (Durrës) and Valona (Vlorë), "on lumber ships traveling to and from Norway and Sweden ... in these two countries, there are two centers of Islamic Relief, which are coordinating the movement of Wahhabi extremists from Scandinavia and the Balkans." For the liaison within FYROM, the source claims, the Islamic NGO El Hilal, in Skopje, was involved.

Other routes for transit of mujahedin are through the mountainous areas of Macedonia and Albania, through Montenegro and its port of Bar, across to Ancona, Italy, and up to Milan, which is a major city for global jihadis with a diverse variety of nationalities represented. Milan has also long been a major city for Albanian migrant workers from the Balkans.

Regarding the drugs trade, a very high-ranking official in FYROM's Customs Administration stated privately to a Defense & Foreign Affairs source early in 2006 several interesting developments.

While the traditional heroin route in this part of the Balkans was Turkey-Bulgaria-Macedonia, this continues but is complemented by a new route, 4Albania-FYROM (and in some cases, on to Turkey or Kosovo). Specifically, the drug route is a short stretch of road which straddles the northern edge of Lake Ohrid, coming from Albania at the Kafasan border crossing and passing through Struga (now Albanian-controlled), and along the western road leading north to Gostivar-Tetovo and then Skopje. From there, the highway continues past Kumanovo to Kriva Palanka on the Bulgarian border crossing of Devet Bajer. This has been the scene of several high-profile arrests in the past year implicating the Albanian-Turkish narcomafias.

For example, a Macedonian border police action of November 28, 2005, resulted in the seizure of five kilos of heroin in a Turkish-owned passenger bus making the regular trip from Istanbul-Ohrid. One week earlier, the same bus company had been caught at Devet Bajer with 2,800 liters of hard alcohol. Previously, on November 9, 2005, an Istanbul-Struga bus traveling through Bulgaria was found with four kilos of heroin. A prime suspect in these operations was one specific company, Alpar Turism, which operates numerous buses between Turkey and Macedonia.

These seizures and resulting arrests exposed a network of Albanian drug dealers from Skopje, Kumanovo, and Struga, working together with Turkish citizens. Several months ago, police reported the arrest of two Turkish-origin FYROM citizens from the western village of Vrapciste, in separate cases involving people-trafficking in Tiranë and heroin smuggling from Turkey.

The new drugs route through Albania has aroused concern. The Customs official told us that "last October [2005], at the Kafasan border, we started to see a big trend from Albania-Macedonia-KosovoSerbia, but the media doesn't report this ... In one month 20 kilos of heroin was captured going through there; this is something big."

According to the official, hard drugs like heroin and cocaine as well as synthetics were being supplied through Albania not only for export but now for domestic consumption. "In general, the people involved in the consumption of heroin include a high number of Albanians ... this is because it is a 'status' issue, and users of cocaine are more from the upper-class [Macedonian] circles." Thus, heroin is also cheaper.

The cocaine coming through Albania at Kafasan is South American, smuggled either directly on container ships through Vlorë or else on small vessels with the cooperation of the Southern Italy Calabrian mafia, Ndrangheta, which enjoys close connections with the Albanian mafia according to Italian experts.

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