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Globalizing, Terrorist-Linked Mafia Thrives in the Balkans

June 18, 2004


By Christopher Deliso

As if organized crime wasn’t already pervasive enough in the Balkans, there is now news that Colombian drug lords have established a beachhead in the region for their exports to Eastern European mafias.

Channel News Asia today quoted executive director of UN Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) Antonio Maria Costa, who said that “…we have found settlements of Colombians in the Balkans, in Albania, in particular, for penetration through the Balkans into Ukraine, Eastern Europe and Russia.”

According to Costa, the “worrisome” thing about this phenomenon is that it reflects a major shift: the Colombians once used Spain as their point of import to Western Europe, but the new shift to the Balkans “…should be taken as an important signal that the market itself is changing.”

Naming cocaine as a rich man’s drug, Costa alludes to one of the reason for this shift: new pockets of wealth. With its increasing affluence (17 billionaires since the year 2000, whereas none had existed previous to that), Russia has become a great market for such fashionable narcotics.

From a smuggler’s point of view, the shift makes sense from another aspect. Borders are more amorphous in the east than in the west, the mafia more pervasive, crooked officials more easily bought.

It is not the global drug trade in and of itself that presents the most serious security problem, of course. It is rather the intersection of that industry with the terrorist one. And a key link in the chain remains the Balkans.

Earlier this month, the Italian police seized more than 100kg of explosives from the Calabrian mafia in a raid that also resulted in 12 arrests. The authorities “…believe the explosives to have come from the Balkans due to the cyrillic labels.”

Agenzia Giornalistica Italia last month quoted Italian Senator Maurizio Calvi on the “Colombian syndrome” in the Balkans. “The most worrying situation is [in] the Balkan area,” said Calvi, who described it as a “…transit corridor for sleeping terrorists, but above all crossroads for all the main illegal trafficking, from drugs to weapons, passing to human beings.”

The globalization of the trade was alluded to by magistrate Rosario Priore, who spoke of something called the “transmafia”- that is, a “…new trans-national mafia active in Europe and Italy.”

A year ago, respected military analyst Jane’s reported that “…organised criminals in the service of international terrorism are taking over the illicit trade in nuclear materials along the traditional Balkan smuggling route.”

Citing Russian, Serbian and US sources, Jane’s mentioned “…increased activity in the area by Islamic terrorists,” including Bosnia and (a bit further east) Moldova.

Jane’s cited an expert on arms trafficking, Scott Parrish of the Monterey Institute of International Studies, as saying the “traditional” east-west smuggling routes cross Central Asia, the Caucasus and the Balkans, as well as Vladimir Orlov, a senior figure at Moscow’s Centre for Policy Studies, “…who at a specialist conference recently described an unsuccessful attempt by the Russian mafia to obtain weapons of mass destruction for foreign interests.”

“…What is at stake here? There are an estimated 1,350 metric tons of plutonium and highly enriched uranium, enough for 40,000 nuclear weapons, stockpiled in Russia as well as in Kazakhstan, Belarus, Ukraine and Uzbekistan – in addition to potentially lethal material suitable for use in ‘dirty bombs’.

Several criminal-controlled Russian companies operate transport companies, say Phil Williams and Paul Woessner of the Ridgway Centre for International Security Studies. They argue in a discussion paper (published by the Royal Institute of International Affairs in London) that the familiarity of criminal enterprises with export licensing and their ability to corrupt officials and hide illicit cargo in legal consignments could all assist nuclear smuggling.”

The US government has voiced concern over the possibility of terrorists and mafia groups collaborating. This week’s announcement that the FBI will open a branch office in Bulgaria is only the latest in a series of actions reflecting this concern. FBI attache in Athens, Robert Clifford, told Reuters that the new Sofia office will focus on “…terrorism, the trafficking of humans and weapons” besides more traditional types of organized crime.

While the Americans may indeed like to counter the threat, “non-state elements” in organized crime are pervasive in this part of the world. And, according to some informed sources, they have even infiltrated the bureaucracy of the most powerful nation on earth. In a recent interview with an FBI whistleblower, the Turkish-born Sibel Edmonds, repeated charges that her former department (translations) has been penetrated by an “intelligence group not linked to any government.” Her testimony conjures up a dizzying world of governmental intrigue and organized crime straight out of the pages of a Tom Clancy novel:

“…you have [a] network of people who obtain certain information and they take it out and sell it to… whomever would be the highest bidder. Then you have people who would be bringing into the country narcotics from the East, and their connections. [It] is only then that you really see the big picture.”

According to Ms. Edmonds, the complex and multi-faceted nature of the phenomenon is what makes it so intractable. “…There are certain points… where you have your drug related activities combined with money laundering and information laundering, converging with your terrorist activities.”

Indeed, just as the old state structures of the Cold War era have disintegrated, so to have the institutions that once presented relative safeguards against the proliferation of weapons technologies and security know-how. Nowadays, former KGB spies rent out their formidable talents and access to high-level governmental connections to “the highest bidder.”

The Washington Times, in alleging cooperation between bin Laden and the Russian mafia, added that former Soviet scientists might also be bought. “…At its height during the Cold War, the Soviet biological weapons program employed some 65,000 persons,” the newspaper reported. “U.S. officials have feared for years that some of the out-of-work biological weapons scientists would sell their expertise to terrorists like Bin Laden.”

The death of Albania’s Enver Hoxha opened up the country to the outside world, but also resulted in a new freedom of movement and operations for mafia operations that have, as in Russia and many other places, developed extensive ties with paramilitary and terrorist organizations. Back in 1999, George Szamuely quoted Jane’s and the German Federal Criminal Agency as attesting to the increasing control of the Albanian mafia, which at the time was believed to control up to 70 percent of Europe’s heroin trade. Three years later, KLA ties with Afghan and Pakistan poppy cultivators were still helping the Albanian mafia fund a “new arms race in the Balkans,” reported the Telegraph’s Christian Jennings.

Today, there are no guarantees that the US can even defend its own best interests, given the compromises it’s forced to make with “allies” of convenience. Sponsor the KLA in Kosovo, and be prepared to tolerate their mafia ties. Embellish a Muslim army in Bosnia with imported mujahedin, and allow states with questionable interests, such as Saudi Arabia and Iran, to develop a covert regional presence. Until 9/11, out of sight meant out of mind for Americans. Nowadays, fighting terrorism in the Balkans simultaneously means trying to reverse the damage caused by some of Bill Clinton’s more brilliant ideas.

In 2000, the Center for Peace in the Balkans cited one Michael Levine, a 25-year veteran of the DEA as declaring that there is “no question” about the CIA’s knowledge of the Albanian KLA’s drug ties. “…They (the CIA) protected them (the KLA) in every way they could. As long as the CIA is protecting the KLA, you’ve got major drug pipelines protected from any police investigation”

This detailed article, which goes on to detail the operations of Islamic terrorists in Albania and Kosovo during the 1990’s, quotes an anonymous congressional expert on drug trafficking issues as saying, “…there is no doubt that the KLA is a major trafficking organization… but we have a relationship with the KLA, and the administration doesn’t want to damage (its) reputation. We are partners.”

This unflattering reality has not gone away, despite the new realities of the post-9/11 world. As Sibel Edmonds attests, “…certain investigations were being quashed, let’s say per State Department’s request, because it would have affected certain foreign relations [or] affected certain business relations with foreign organizations.”

“…Intelligence is also gathered by certain semi-legitimate organizations –to be used for their activities,” continued Ms. Edmonds. “It really does not boil down to countries anymore… When you have activities involving a lot of money, you have people from different nations involved…. It can be categorized under organized crime, but on a very large scale.”

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