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Italian Security in the MENA and Balkans, Part 4: Albania and Kosovo

By Matteo Albertini and Chris Deliso

This, the fourth installment in our present series, concentrates on the most crucial country in Italy’s Adriatic near-abroad, Albania. It also covers Italian security and intelligence in Kosovo- a country with a much less significant historical relationship with Italy, but nonetheless an increasingly important one since the 1999 NATO intervention.

This analysis will reveal not only the working operations of Italian diplomacy and security in these neighboring countries, but also address how security events in the recent past and near future are affecting the trans-Adriatic relationship- and increasing Italy’s opportunities in the process.

Albania: a Diplomatic and Intelligence Priority for Italy

Italy’s historic relationship with Albania is apparent from its diplomatic relations there. Italy maintains by far the most robust diplomatic and intelligence presence of any outside power in the country.

In addition to the embassy in Tirana, Italy runs a trade agency, development agency and a consulate in Vlora. The total Italian diplomatic presence amounts to 44 persons, with a rather large number of unspecified “attachés.” As we have noted, this gives good opportunity for AISE operatives to lurk under diplomatic cover, while military, police and anti-mafia liaisons are present as well. As we discussed in Part 2 of this series, Tirana is the base for AISE’s crucial station for Albanian-speaking officers, with some coverage of these populations in neighboring countries.

By comparison to Italy’s 44 accredited diplomats in Albania, the only other foreign diplomatic presences that even come close are those of the European Union, with 32 persons (of whom, however, almost one-third are Italian), and Greece, which has 30 diplomats. This discrepancy is particularly remarkable considering that for Greece, Albania is a neighboring state, with a land border (unlike the case with Italy), and has an ethnic Greek minority to go with many common interests, both negative and positive.

Indeed, the United States – the world superpower, and widely considered to be Albania’s ‘best friend’ – has only 26 accredited diplomats. Turkey, which also has major interests in the country, has only 17 representatives, while Russia has just 13 and the UK, merely 10 diplomats.

This is another reason why the massive Italian presence in Albania is so valuable to its key Western allies, from the intelligence perspective. These allies are able to delegate tasks to AISE and related agencies, as they have superior skills and connections locally. The Italian intelligence capacities in Albanian lands indicate to a large extent why Italy is considered by many insiders to have the best HUMINT capacities of any Western power in the Balkans.

The Catholic Church’s Complimentary Role

As with Croatia, Italian power is complimented by Vatican-related entities and individuals, which provide additional benefit in a complex web of Italian interests. The Catholic Church (and especially the Jesuits) played a key role in preparing the ground for Albanian independence in 1912 (as covered in our book, The Vatican’s Challenges in the Balkans). Most recently, Pope Francis visited Albania in summer 2014, reaffirming the Church’s interests in a country made up of Catholic, Orthodox and Muslim populations.

Covert Intelligence Controversies and Internal Albanian Politics

In addition to HUMINT, SIGINT represents one of the most important intelligence methods useful for Italian services abroad, as repeatedly testified during this series. Thanks to its experience, Italy provides technical devices and trainings for many partner services in the Mediterranean and in the Balkans as well.

Italy also has private sector ELINT producers of note, which have been involved in various scandals. The first installment of this series, for example, discussed Milan-based Hacking Team, and its possible role in the diplomatic clash with Egypt over a mysterious murder in Cairo earlier this year.

Today, intrusive cyber and wiretapping instruments are gaining a primary role in intelligence activities, and also make a very profitable business and an asset for diplomatic leverage.

But this kind of commerce always brings some side-scandal with it. One of the most significant in the last months took place in Albania, a country in which the eavesdropping of political enemies had previously hit the headlines of newspapers and newscasts.

It all started in October 2015, when President Bujar Nishani declared on public television that the Rama government had been spying on him and his family. In November 2015, he claimed to have found a bug in his office and officially requested an investigation to be led by the prosecutor general’s office.

More recently, a news report of 17 May 2016 noted President Nishani’s continuing dissatisfaction with the government and prosecutor for allegedly “blocking” an investigation into the case. According to Nishani, the government has been trying to deceive the public about “the cooperation agreement with the Italian authorities and the “excellent cooperation” between the two countries in the fight against organized crime.

Nishani, who also claimed the case of the mysterious listening device was proof of malfeasance within the interior ministry, was himself reacting to a charge made then by Rama’s interior minister, Saimir Tahiri. The latter had accused the president himself of having brought the device in from Italy in 2007.

Nishani, elected in 2012, had been interior minister under Sali Berisha’s Democratic Party government and was nominated by that party. Thus the recent intrigue and war of words with the Social Democrat government of Edi Rama was obviously not simply a ‘technical’ matter.

Later on, as the surveillance scandal was widening in scope, the prosecutor general’s office announced that the Chief of Albanian National Police, Haki Cako, would be suspended from his duties on 7 June 2016. It was announced that he was being investigated for illegally using wiretapping equipment, in an investigation which also involves possible wiretapping of foreign embassies and diplomats, still to be confirmed.

The Catcher Scandal

In all this drama, the role played by Italy remains quite murky. On 11 March 2016, a car with Italian diplomatic plates disembarked at the port of Durres, carrying in its trunk a black suitcase containing an IMSI Catcher, model Vortex Aircube, an electronic short-range wiretapping device. The Catcher is produced in Israel, imported into Europe by French company Ercom, and marketed in Italy by Italarms.

This device was discovered by the Albanian police and was about to be seized by the authorities, when Cako stopped the requisition saying that “any items that leave an embassy or are destined for a diplomatic post have diplomatic immunity, and cannot be inspected.”

This decision led to an inquiry from the Chief Prosecutor in Tirana for abuse of power, since such equipment had never received any proper authorization from the Attorney General’s Office, as is regulated by Albanian law.

As stated by Adriatik Llalla, Albanian Attorney General after three months of investigations in order to find the origins of the black suitcase, the sentence was issued since “this device was illegally introduced into Albania.”

As was reported, the alert was given by the Albanian Intelligence Service (SHISH). The investigation also involved two other top officials from the Albanian Police: Artion Duka, a former director of the Operational Unit, and his deputy, Ention Hhelilaj, allegedly the man who had driven the car with the device out of Durres port to the Italian Embassy.

Embarrassment in Italy

This internal political crisis brought some embarrassment to Italian Police and MOI officials as well. Not by chance, a few weeks after the scandal broke, the (outgoing) Italian Police Chief, Giampaolo Pansa, sent a letter to the Albanian Prosecutor explaining the situation.

The letter explained the features of the device and underlined that it was to be used for “on the job training” in the framework of inter-force actions between Italian and Albanian police: “this device was configured in such a way as to be disabled for eavesdropping activity, both vocal communication and text messages.”

Moreover, according to Panza, the equipment had always remained “under the responsibility of Italian operators and was kept, while not being used for training and formative activities, at the Italian Liaison office in Albania, in the Italian Embassy of Tirana.” That is the reason why Cako avoided the requisition: being a diplomatic item, it should enjoy diplomatic immunity. “The Italian operators’ tasks were directed to formation and assistance for the correct usage of the instruments”, continued the letter.

As explained in this article by Italian newspaper Il Fatto Quotidiano, a question arises. If the device was intended to help train local forces within the framework of police cooperation, why were the Albanian authorities not informed of it?

The answer could lie in the conflict between Albanian political forces, with the opposition Democratic Party contesting the usage of wiretapping instruments by the police to spy on politicians and common people. The former prime minister and DP leader, Sali Berisha, published on the party’s Facebook page the names of 375 people who were allegedly spied on by Albanian forces.

At the time the scandal emerged, other DP figures were speaking out. In comments for on 19 May 2016 (and published now for the first time) DP politician and Security Affairs advisor Avenir Peka stated that “the affair is currently being investigated by prosecution office and many details are shady at best, but a few elements are public: the affair started with a tipping off by the Intelligence Service to the Prosecutor General that an interception device has entered the country illegally and that it was being used by the police. When the scandal became public, and parliament started a hearing on the matter, it became known that the device had really entered the country, not declared at customs service, the prosecutor general was not informed of its existence, and that the police had no authority to use it.”

Peka, who is a lawyer, former deputy interior minister and national security advisor to Berisha, stated that the device “was not bought by the police, but as they claim borrowed from Italian police mission in Albania, Interforce. The police have turned down the prosecutor’s request to have access to the device, with the argument that it was being used merely for training purposes.”

Continuing on with the opposition’s argument, Peka stated that “the police have so far failed to produce any documents proving a legal transfer of such a device. Furthermore, the police’s argument that it was being used only for training purposes is false, because i) police was being trained for a device that it does not possess and use; ii) police is not authorized to conduct interceptions by law; the judicial police officers that are in charge of carrying out interceptions were not actually trained; anything dealing with interceptions has to get approval and be over seen by the prosecutor general (which did not happen).”

In May, at the time of the parliamentary hearings, Minister of Interior Samir Tahiri rejected every accusation. As we have seen, the government claimed that the device’s interception capacities had been disabled, though the opposition has clearly stated otherwise. It remains unknown what actually happened in this curious case, with three exceptions: that it was politicized, damaged Italian interests, and was used as a political catalyst for action.

Reactions to the Scandal- and How It Differs from the Macedonia Case

At first glance, resemblances with the ‘wiretapping scandal’ accusations of Macedonia’s SDSM (which were discussed in Part 3 of this series) seem striking. Yet while it might seem that the latest Balkan ‘wiretap scandal’ was a simple cut-and-paste version of the Macedonian case, this is not exactly true.

One clear indicator of a difference has been media coverage. Whereas the mainstream media jumped immediately on the Macedonia story, and kept it going while the Western powers intervened, the establishment press took only a glancing notice of the Albania scandal. This owes partly to the differences in scale between the two cases, and partly due to political distinctions.

“Rama is pro-Soros, unlike Gruevski in Macedonia,” said one European intelligence official with knowledge of the cases for “In Albania, unlike Macedonia, no one is seeking to overthrow the government- only to use this rumored scandal as a point of pressure, so that they will pass constitutional changes. Albania needs to do this by the end of 2016 to keep the EU momentum. This is the reason for finding advance pressure mechanisms.”

While this claim cannot be proven, it does seem that both the opposition DP and SHISH have been making the same criticisms, that would lend support to the idea that politicization and outside influence is behind the wiretap case’s potential use as a pressure mechanism. Aside from President Nishani’s earlier comments, as Avenir Peka noted, SHISH head Visho Ajazo stated before a parliamentary committee in May that “this device could be a risk for national security if it has the capacity to intercept communications. Then all the heads of the state could be vulnerable to wiretapping.”

“The Constitutional amendments are part of a wider package which aims at a total reform of the judicial system, in efforts to root out corruption in the judiciary and political class,” stated Avenir Peka in further comments for on 19 May 2016. “If and when the reform really materializes, it will constitute the biggest judicial reform in Albania since the fall of communism. International factors in Tirana are strongly behind this reform.”

The judicial reform chapter is key for Albania’s EU membership bid, and it was interesting indeed to hear an opposition politician’s views on the reforms in context of the wiretap device affair. What else emerged is that – unlike in politically divided Macedonia – there was some broad agreement between the Albanian sides, but that the perception that one side would win or lose has slowed passage of a common-interest reform.

“What should have been a consensual reform started off as an initiative of the government, which with very good reason was seen by the opposition as an effort of the government to control the Prosecution and the court system,” stated Peka. “The non-consensual draft was then sent to the Venice Commission for expert opinion twice, and it came back with 100+ amendments and suggestions, which in general satisfied the opposition’s concerns and objections.

Apart from the rhetoric, a few elements are worthy of note: the government having its draft turned down, is not as eager about passing it in the current form; on the other side, having failed to produce better governance, economy, finances, public order, etc, it is likely that the government will use the passing of this reform in next year’s election campaign. On the other side, the opposition in principle supports this reform on the condition that it satisfies judicial and prosecutorial independence and keeps the government from interference.”

From this testimony and other sources, we can thus conclude that the case of the “mysterious device” in Albania will probably remain a mystery- but that its appearance in political discourse has been instrumentalized. However, it still remains unclear (in comparison to the Macedonian case) whether the local parties alone, or some foreign factor, are responsible for stirring up controversy.

For the purposes of the current article, it is more important to assess the extent of potential damage that the affair has caused for Italy, in the larger context of its bilateral interactions with the country.

Rumors, and Results of the Albania Wiretap Scandal for Italian Intelligence

But firstly, it is important to note that this is not the only case in which Italy has subcontracted the selling of wiretapping-capable devices abroad. Since 2013, the Italian Ministry of Interior has issued many public tenders to assign the management and the selling of such items to private companies (as in this case to Italarms srl).

In the background of the Albanian political struggle, the central focus of the investigation is the above-mentioned Interforce Mission between Italian and Albanian police forces. Interforce involves, from the Italian side, the Polizia di Stato, Carabinieri and Guardia di Finanza.

The current Chief of Mission is Michele Grillo. On 10 June 2016 Albanian news site wrote about the possible involvement of Grillo’s wife in the selling of the Aircube Vortex device to the Albanian Interior Ministry. This was also reported as a rumor by Il Fatto Quotidiano, in an article by Lorenzo Bagnoli on 26 June. The same sources from Tirana also claimed that Michele Grillo was recalled back to Rome by the Italian government, but this claim was not confirmed by any Italian official or journalistic source.

One interesting historical feature, however, is that before Grillo the role of Head of Mission in Tirana was held by Anna Poggi. An inspector at the Polizia di Stato, Poggi had been amongst those condemned for alleged police violence against demonstrators in Genoa, during the G8 in 2001. Italian media later reported that Poggi was sent to Albania after that, as a promotion to a ‘quieter place.’

Her departure from the office in 2015 (to Slovenia) coincided with another major spy-story between Italy and Albania. Last year, a policeman from Vlore, Dritan Zagani, applied for political asylum in Switzerland, where he arrived clandestinely. In his words, Zagani was fleeing from possible attempts on his life.

However, after spending his career as Chief Officer at Vlore border control, he had been accused by Albanian officials of corruption involving mobster and traffickers, marketing drugs and selling information to Italian Guardia di Finanza.

Zagani’s version of events was completely different. He claimed that he discovered a new drug trafficking route between Albania and Italy by plane, which was managed by an Albanian cartel. The problem was, in his words, that this organization involved also some of the Albanian Interior Minister’s cousins and was allowed to use state vehicles to hide the shipments. In October 2015, Zagani told Italian newspaper il Secolo XIX, that Italian police had also confirmed the allegation against him, through a letter sent to Albanian inquirers that raised doubts on Zagani’s activities.

The story was disclosed by journalist Basir Collaku and had some consequences also in Italy, even though the Italian Interior Ministry quickly underlined that Anna Poggi’s transfer to Slovenia was “routine”, and that her substitution with Michele Grillo had been decided months before.

But whatever the case, both the stories need answers from Italian officials: on the Albanian officials’ side, why should the Italian Guardia di Finanza have bought undercover information from Zagani? Is there mistrust between them and their Albanian counterparts? On the other side, if Zagani is right, why should Anna Poggi have been removed, if he was just lying about Rome’s involvement?

Military and Police Cooperation between Italy and Albania

Despite such occasional affairs, Italy maintains good cooperation with Albania both in the defense and in the police sector. Since 1997 – the year in which Albania fell temporarily into anarchy – Italy has led “Italian Delegations of Experts” (DIE) whose goal has been to assist the Albanian Armed Forces in achieving NATO standards. The Italian delegation, composed of 27 officials and non-commissioned officials, conducts peacekeeping trainings for Albanian Army units deployed a

In the last few years, the improvement of Albanian operative capacities has allowed a steady and progressive decrease of the Italian military presence. For example, in February 2009, the Italian 28th Naval Group, based in Vlora, was recalled and replaced by local forces in fighting smuggling across the Adriatic.

As reported in the 2015 Italian financial law, the total economic involvement of Italy in these mission amounts to almost 25.6mn euros.

Bilateral police cooperation has a long history as well. Most recently, soon after President Nishani’s initial complaints of his office being bugged, Italian police officials paid a visit to Tirana. In December 2015, Minister of Justice Andrea Orlando and National Anti-mafia and Anti-terrorism Prosecutor Franco Roberti visited the Albanian capital to participate in a meeting with Albanian government and security officials.

The purpose of this meeting was to reinforce judicial cooperation between Italy and Albania. The fact that two top representatives of Italian institutions took the trip to Albania shows quite well the strategic importance Italy recognizes in Albania. Italy’s historic role in Albanian affairs would also help explain why their officials are taking the lead on justice reforms- which, as we have discussed above, remain crucial to Albania’s EU hopes and may have some relation with this year’s ‘’mysterious device” scandal.

Albania’s Role in the Future of Balkan Counter-terrorism

Two subjects were on the table in the December visit: counter-terrorism and the fight against illegal trafficking. Here we must remember that a notable number of Albanians have fought in the Syria conflict in recent years while, by December, European leaders were already trying to make plans for possible deterioration along the ‘Balkan Route’ that had begun operating six months earlier.

The two Italian officials met with Prime Minister Edi Rama and some members of his government, such as Minister of Justice Ylli Manjani and Minister of Interior Saimir Tahiri. They noted the central role Albania should play in counter-radicalization in the Balkans: a cooperation that will not only involve the exchange of information and investigative experiences, but also the activities of prevention of the radicalism in prisons, which is frequently the place where jihadists enter into contact with potential recruits.

“The radicalization phenomenon”, said the Italian Minister of Justice in a press conference at the end of the talks, “is more and more connected with jails: that is the reason why we decided to work on the prevention of similar events that could happen in Italian and Albanian institutions. The Web itself, also an important place of radicalization, will be monitored. […]. We need to face this eventuality as if we were a single state,” declared Orlando.

He added that “these are shared enemies and our ability to react must also be shared. In order to make our connections faster and more effective, we decided to nominate a liaison magistrate with experience in similar inquiries, to support the cooperation on the ground. […] Moreover, we offered to Albanian authorities our willingness to help the formation of magistrates and detectives on the matter, and to provide technologies for the databases.”

Specific attention was also given to the theme of human trafficking and to the prevention of the phenomenon from reaching the Albanian coast. As has frequently reported in the past, Italian national security depends on the ability to divert the migrant flow from Greece, Albania and other Adriatic ports, seeing that it already has more than enough to deal with in terms of the North Africa migration patterns.

From all of this, we can conclude that Italy is proving ‘useful’ again to its trans-Atlantic partners in its own Adriatic near-abroad. As has reported, Albania was chosen by the Obama Administration for hosting a regional center against countering extremism. Part of this is due to the fact that, numerically speaking, most of the ISIS and Al Nusra fighters from the Balkans are ethnically Albanian. But there is also a political element.

Essentially, for ideological and other interests, Edi Rama was selected as ‘the chosen one’ among Balkan leaders, even getting to meet Obama and Biden together in the White House, in April 2016. Two months earlier, John Kerry had visited Tirana to press for – you guessed it – judicial reforms. Few other Balkan leaders could get such a lavish reception as Rama did.

However, the latter’s claim from Washington that the counter-radicalization center plan was only a few months old is untrue. has known since 2014 that Albania would be given this honor over other interested regional countries, as part of the general US strategy of using Albania as its bulwark and base of power projection in the Balkans. This attention naturally benefits Italy and will enhance the Italian role in all security matters in Albania in coming years.

Still, while Washington favors and uses the Rama government, the “mystery device” scandal erupted into a full parliamentary and media issue barely a month after he returned from Washington. We would bet on the possibility that the US and EU have seen in the affair a way of keeping the Albanian leader on a short leash, and push through the reforms before the end of 2016 and subsequent elections.

Kosovo: a New Diplomatic and Intelligence Area of Interest for Italy

In comparison to Italy’s centuries-old relationship with Albania, its more recent one with Albanian-dominated Kosovo has quite different characteristics. The legal status of the province-turned-country and the multi-national institutional aspect of governance there since 1999 have influenced the operations of Italy in Kosovo.

For example, whereas Italy has a massive diplomatic presence in Tirana, diplomatic sources note that the Italians had “to build the embassy from the ground up” in Pristina. The relative lack of personnel and the uncertainty of overlapping competencies with UN, EU and NATO missions there has meant the Italian state has had to rely, more so than in other regional countries, on members in these bodies as well as NGOs and international cooperation bodies.

Further, as in Albania, the Catholic Church is playing a major role, though there are relatively fewer Catholics. But the Church is presently gearing up for major celebrations in barely over a month’s time, with the canonization of Mother Theresa to occur on 4 September at the Vatican. Catholic leaders have announced that this will be followed by weeks of events in Kosovo and, while it is likely that they will pass peacefully, certainly Vatican and Italian security officials are keeping watch for any Islamic terrorists or others who might try and damage the national events. There is already a religiously-inspired debate going on over Mother Theresa’s rightful place in history and national consciousness among Albanians, as we will discuss at a future time.

Italy’s Diplomatic Role in EULEX and Other Multinational Institutions

In Kosovo, Italian efforts are also relevant in the EU mission. With almost 36 units, Italy participates to the European Union Rule of Law Mission in Kosovo (EULEX), which began on 16 February 2008 and was confirmed until the end of 2016.

Following the long-running UNMIK, EULEX is the most important civilian mission between those inserted in the European Security Policy and Common Defense agenda; it underwent a strategic revision in Spring 2014, and is now divided in three different sectors: Police, Justice and Customs.

Since 15 October 2014 and until the end of June 2016, the Commander of the mission was Italian Diplomat Gabriele Meucci. He has since been replaced as acting Head of Mission by German Police Brigadier General Bernd Thran. Meucci is an expert in the area: he was Italian Consul to Croatia from 1995-1999, legation counselor in Albania from 2001-2003 and later, the first Italian Ambassador to Montenegro in the period 2006-2009.

When Meucci was appointed, many commentators saw in him an expert diplomat chosen to “liquidate” the mission. The perception was confirmed a few days later, when EULEX was involved in a corruption scandal. Even if it resulted in nothing, the scandal undermined the credibility of the entire mission for a while. For the details, one can read this brilliant article from the Osservatorio Balcani e Caucaso. The case involved another Italian official of the Mission, Francesco Florit, who has been the President of EULEX Judges Assembly.

Meucci steered the mission out of troubled waters, and managed, just a few days before leaving, to convince the EU Commission that it should be extended for the period June 2016-June 2018. As he told Prishtina Insight, “until last summer, in 2015, we were all working for a definitive handover, final conclusion of the mission and a handover of all cases to Kosovo’s judicial system, […] Then, in the summer and autumn of 2015, there were many incidents. All these came alight and the member states started to rethink if it’s premature [to leave].”

Meucci referred to five incidents. One involved three people in prison serving a definitive sentence for many years for war crimes, who were set free for humanitarian reasons by the Ministry of Justice. Amongst them was Sabit Geci, put on home arrests by EULEX and then granted a three-month release for medical treatment abroad.

The second incident regarded the mayor of Skenderaj, Sami Lushtaku, who had been jailed for war crimes and was temporarily released for health reasons also, before being arrested by EULEX in an alleged attempt to flee. The third involved two former KLA fighters, Rrustem Mustafa and Latif Gashi, who were serving in parliament, despite their jail sentences for war crimes.

Interestingly enough, KLA-related power players like Geci and Lushtaku had long been on the international authorities’ radar, though in the early days of UN administration, there was considerable disagreement over whether to arrest them or not (see’s January 2006 interview with the first UNMIK Serious Crimes Unit chief, Canadian detective Stu Kellock for much enlightening details on these cases).

Then there were Lutfi and Arban Dervishi, who had been sentenced to eight years each for organized crime and people trafficking. Yet they fled Kosovo by passing the border with their passports the day after the sentencing, and remain at large.

These cases were highlighted to emphasize that rule of law in Kosovo is far from matching the EULEX goals. Thus was its mandate renewed.

Aside from Meucci and Florit, another Italian Judge, Silvio Bonfigli, has served as head of the Justice sector of EULEX. Italy had since the beginning been very active in UNMIK, which was led between 2008-2011 by a career Italian diplomat, Lamberto Zannier. The latter’s unanimous election in 2011 to his present post – OSCE Secretary General – can also be considered a victory for Italian diplomacy, with a Balkan connection.

Military and Police Aspects of the Italian Role in Kosovo

The strong military presence of Italy in the region includes being a major contributor to the EULEX and EUFOR missions in Kosovo and Bosnia. That participation began during the NATO 1999 intervention, when Aviano Air Force Base was the crucial base used for bombing runs, and continued in the immediate aftermath of the war, when Italy was given its own chunk of Western Kosovo to overlook as part of the general KFOR division of powers.

Although the international missions have dramatically scaled down since then, Italy retains a position. As reported on the Italian Defense Ministry website, Italy has a forward military role in Kosovo. In 2014 (the last year with official data), Italy was the third-largest contributor country to KFOR, with almost 600 operative units. Since September 2013, Italy has also held the position of Mission Commander (COMKFOR). The current commander, appointed in September 2014, is Lieutenant General Francesco Paolo Figliulo.

The presence of KFOR entailed a progressive diminution of violent episodes and its work is officially recognized by both Pristina and Belgrade. The Brussels Agreement, signed after trilateral talks between the EU, Serbia and Kosovo in Spring 2013, identifies KFOR as a crucial guarantor of security in the country and a deterrent against possible violence.

According to Italian security expert and Il Caffè Geopolitico columnist Marco Gulio Barone, Italian military intelligence has been tasked in 2016 with new duties by the government. “A few months ago, the Italian parliament issued a request for a SITREP from the military in the Balkans,” Barone stated for “Our units went and provided the reports. KFOR and EUFOR are reshaping, and some of our mission capability is going to be more about supporting local governments in countering radicalism.”

This reconfiguration is occurring as the threat matrix changes and Kosovo is less at risk of inter-ethnic conflict, and more at risk of religious violence. With their dedicated presence, the Italians have a better view than most countries of the situation on the ground, from the military intelligence perspective. As we have reported in past, the US has long since outsourced some of its capacities to allies like Romania, and only 600-800 soldiers are believed to remain at Camp Bondsteel.

It is thus likely that Italy – with its strong foothold on the Eastern Adriatic shores – will play a larger role in assessing security risks in future. But, we must always remember that Kosovo is a place where German interests remain strong. Indeed, it is not surprising that despite the plethora of Italian Catholic charities in Kosovo, the German Jesuits have made a strong competition with schools and NGOs here.

This is resulting in a complex division-of-labor between the Quint countries, based in Kosovo, by which the Germans believe they are trading up at the expense of the British, who intelligence sources confirm are moving their focus towards Sofia and the key Istanbul station. The German perception is likely to heighten the opportunities for Italy’s AISE to compete in Kosovo.

As with the changing tenor of bilateral military relations that experts like Barone point out in Kosovo, law enforcement too is moving away from traditional threats and towards unconventional ones, like identifying terrorist networks. The existing police cooperation between Kosovo, Albania and Italy is also attested by the results of Italian investigations of jihadist networks in the country. has covered such operations in November 2015 and again in December 2015.


Italy’s diplomatic, security and intelligence relations with Albania and Kosovo are crucial for the country’s perspective on all Balkan affairs. Rome and Tirana share many commercial and security concerns, and we are at a fortuitous time in which the stars seem to have aligned for a stronger Italian role in Albania.

At the same time, the perceived failings in the judiciaries of both Albania and Kosovo seem to be key issues for EU membership. So, we can expect Italy to share its experience, sending many more experts over the next few years to bring these countries closer to the EU orbit.

Finally, the risk of violence from Kosovo (and to a lesser extent, Albania) has been attested in the recent past and will remain a concern for Italian intelligence, as some of the threats (such as jihadist ones) are proved to have roots among the Albanian diaspora in Italy. Since much of the underlying reasons for radicalism seem to involve poor economies and low educational standards, Italy will also likely complement its ‘soft power’ role through bringing investment, training and cooperation assistance to these countries. This will involve international cooperation with the existing frameworks, as well as synergies with the Catholic Church.

Book Review of Catholic Kosovo: a Visitor’s Guide

Catholic Kosovo: A Visitor’s Guide to Her People, Churches, Historical Sites, and Her 1,900 Year Journey

Available in paperback format or in e-book format).
By Marilyn Kott

Reviewed by Chris Deliso

This very useful and illustrated book, published in November 2015, represents the most comprehensive guide (in English, at least) on all historical and modern sites associated with the Catholic Church in Kosovo. As such, it should prove a very handy asset both for those wishing to visit tourist attractions in Kosovo, or learn more about the historic and socio-religious aspects of life there.

Catholic Kosovo is divided into 17 chapters and four appendices. Most of the chapters are devoted to individual churches/Catholic sites in areas throughout Kosovo. The book includes an eclectic selection of factual descriptions and logistical data, bits of personal experience, historical episodes and interviews, including with Kosovo Bishop Dodë Gjergji.

The book starts with an overview of Kosovo’s Catholic sites, and offers handy tips on attending Mass there. An overview of the history of Catholicism in Kosovo is given, but this is enhanced further in the remainder of the book and visits to specific sites. While not every existing church is visited, an appendix provides details of 24 additional ones. Other appendices discuss historical Catholic personalities associated with Kosovo and provide helpful linguistic tips.

The churches and other Catholic-related sites discussed are treated more or less geographically. Pristina sites are discussed first, followed by those of Janjevo and Ferizaj. The southeast route along the northern edges of the Skopska Crna Gorna, is also covered, including Viti, Stublla and the important pilgrimage site of Letnica.

The remainder of the book picks up in the southwest, at the Catholic sites of Prizren and then up to Gjakova, Peja and Klina, before concluding with the sites at Kravasaria and Mitrovica to the northeast. The in-depth discussion of the churches and their histories are complemented by important facts like feast days and patron saints.

The helpful logistical information provided includes maps, directions, Mass schedules, church contact information and online resources.

One of the unique aspects of this book is its collective production process and ultimate beneficiaries. The author and her husband, a former US defense attaché in Kosovo, did not immediately plan to write the book when arriving in 2012. But as practicing Catholics, they quickly found like-minded local and international Catholics who introduced them to local practices and sites, and were thus able to compile a lot of experience and data into something useful for future visitors.

Kott emphasizes that the book was indeed a team effort and developed over time. In her acknowledgements section, the author thanks Msgr. Dodë Gjergji, who provided “access to essential records and photographs,” as well as to several individuals and NGO members who helped with research, translation and writing- people who, in the author’s words, “provided material for this book that only people who live and worship in Kosovo can.” She notes that income from book sales will go to the NGO AYA Pjetër Bogdani, Caritas Kosovo, and the Bishop of Kosovo’s building fund.

European Security, Intelligence and Migration: Interview with Philip Ingram

In this exclusive interview, Director Chris Deliso gets the insights and security assessments of former British military intelligence officer Philip Ingram, MBE. A 27-year veteran of the UK Army Intelligence Corps, Ingram worked in hostile environments including Iraq, Northern Ireland, Bosnia and Kosovo, where he was involved with intelligence and liaison during and after the 1999 NATO bombing. Mr Ingram now works in the private sector, focusing on counter-terrorism and security issues for the press, governmental and corporate clients.

Current Investigations

Chris Deliso: Thanks for speaking with us today, Philip. First of all, before we get into the details, I would be keen to learn more about your company and what you are working on now.

Philip Ingram: Thank you. Actually, we operate two companies. I am the managing director of Security Media Publishing, which among other things produces, which has a newsfeed for the global security industry- covering ISIS activity to the latest in new CCTV camera technology, and everything in between.

Philip Ingram Interview with Balkanalysis

According to Mr Ingram, “the pattern of traffic we’re seeing in the Dark Web and some social media and other communications channels” indicates advanced planning for a major terrorist attack is now underway.

I’m also the chairman of Global Risk Awareness, a company providing cyber intelligence. This is different from most cyber security companies, as we monitor Darkweb activity through use of sophisticated tools, to see who’s doing what, for example, ISIS members interacting with each other on different forums clandestinely. We have the capabilities to sit there unknown, and monitor their movements.

CD: That is very interesting. This software, I assume, is proprietary and your own.

PI: Yes, our own bespoke software. No more than six or seven organizations in the world have software similar to ours- they are mostly the ones with three- or four-letter abbreviations, you know.

CD: Aha, so does the software have some government origin?

PI: No, it is not created from a governmental basis. It is original corporate software for monitoring the dark web, and we have developed additional tools and scripts in order to not just gather intel, but also to analyse it through a process called social network analysis.

CD: This is a fascinating topic, but I am no expert in technology. I had thought the problem governments find with monitoring users of the onion router is that there is specifically no way of tracking them, the only visible points there are the entry and exit relays. But again I’m certainly no expert.

PI: Well, the web in general is quite interesting, as it has three layers. The surface layer includes anything findable by search engines. Then the Deep Web operates within it, like your banking online details, the local library index or an association with a members-only area to their website. Then there’s the Dark Web. This is the layer of the internet requiring special software to enter, where websites are hidden and often where in order to find certain websites people have to be invited. It is where a lot of illicit activity takes place like the former Silk Road. And of course, extremists and terrorists also use the Dark Web. That is our focus.

CD: Can you give some examples of the kind of terrorist activity you monitor there? And their capabilities and interests?

PI: There are many ways that groups like ISIS or Al Qaeda are using the Dark Web in very sophisticated ways. We see them creating and interacting, for example, on forums where they will tell people how to build bombs, or give tactical instructions or otherwise what to do. They might post training videos for terrorists on how to set up covert communications channels. These include accounts through new internet communications media, like whatsapp- a lot of it is very secure and scaring intelligence agencies.

CD: So, in your assessment, what is the current activity level of Islamist supporters from the Southeast Europe area?

PI: Regarding the Balkans, a quick recent search of forums showed something interesting. When we searched for users from individual places, like Kosovo, I expected to see a lot of traffic, but there were surprisingly few hits from there and other Balkan areas.

CD: But that doesn’t necessarily mean there are not local supporters, no?

PI: Indeed, what that says to me is that the security being taken to access the Dark Net in the Balkans is really sophisticated. We can track people who are using proxy servers, but probably what they’re doing is going through initial web hosting not based in the Balkans. We can pick up proxy servers and TOR relays, but if someone using a foreign-based server as primary link, it is impossible to tell their true location.

Background Experience

CD: So, if you could share a bit about your background, and what drew you to this line of work- I mean before you retired, when you were working in the military intelligence.

PI: I was an engineering officer for 12 years, then I went into the planning side. I was asked to join the NATO planning team at the time when there was the UN takeover in Bosnia. And then having done the planning side of things, I had no desire to go back to the engineering side.

The one thing that tickled me most was every planning activity started with an intelligence briefing. I thought it would be good to be part of an organization that studied, analyzed and predicted what would happen. So I got transferred over, to the British Army Intelligence Corps.

CD: Where did you serve during your career, and when did you retire?

PI: Oh, all over the place. My first posting from training was to Northern Ireland. I also served in Germany, Croatia, Bosnia, Kosovo, Macedonia, Iraq, Cyprus and of course, the UK. I retired in 2010.

CD: What was your most dangerous mission?

PI: Depends how you define danger! In 1985, the IRA tried to get me, in Northern Ireland. People forget the intensity of different operations, but the fact is that the British lost more soldiers in Northern Ireland than in Afghanistan and Iraq combined. We lost over 200 soldiers in one year alone in Northern Ireland. Operations there were in a much smaller area- people forget the intensity that comes with having to work in such conditions.

But Iraq, where I was in 2005 and 2006, that was the scariest because you just didn’t know what the insurgents would do- they were always one step ahead of us, very sophisticated fighters. It was scary because there was no value in human life- at least within Europe, whether in the Balkans or Northern Ireland, there was a code. There were certain limits. But once you get into places like Iraq and Afghanistan, there is no code. In such a place it complicates the situation for operations, and especially how to work within an agreed legal framework, to be effective against those kinds of terrorists.

Kosovo Operations and Transitional Justice

CD: Very interesting perspective. Now, if we can return to the Balkans, and some recent events. You are probably aware that war crimes trials are coming up for Kosovo, and conceivably involve some of the people you had to work with during that time. What do you expect from this process?

PI: I find it fascinating, as the ICTY had tried to carry out war crime trials without success in the past. For example, Ramush Haradinaj was indicted twice and the charges were dropped twice.

The interesting thing from the war in Kosovo was that, looking at in a balanced way, from a human perspective, it was very simple- atrocities were carried out by all sides, and most of the people affected were civilians in that tiny area. This happened in a dramatic way, initially, with huge amounts of refugees into Macedonia and then when the Serb paramilitaries and regular forces and the KLA were fighting each other.

So intense was this fighting that huge numbers of innocent people were being killed. As NATO was negotiating with Serbia primarily to stop the fighting so that humanitarian relief could get in, the negotiations were stalling-

CD: Were you in Kosovo at this time?

PI: No- we were sitting in Macedonia with sophisticated intelligence equipment, listening and watching for the time being. I was later within Kosovo, after the fighting had stopped.

CD: What was the value for military intelligence of being placed in Macedonia, when the war was happening in Kosovo, and then in Kosovo, after the war had finished?

PI: There was activity we had to continue, to make sure that our lines of communication were constantly open to all sides, all the different groups, especially important before the fighting stops. We needed to make sure the backdoors are open, and get a feeling for what was going to happen.

For negotiations to happen successfully, you need good intelligence. The initial negotiations were between NATO and Milosevic, but when they were signed – the formal negotiations – only then could we get a leadership together, and continue further negotiations between the parties on the ground, a long process.

CD: Very interesting. Again, related to the court- have you or any of your former colleagues been called as potential character witnesses in these trials? Do you expect this could happen, or is there some kind of legal immunity?

PI: No, there’s certainly no legal immunity that applicable for us. But I’m sure that if the war crimes trials wanted to look at war records they could request them, and any other information that could give further details about events. Everything was carefully recorded.

CD: Interesting. But anyway, we understand that present senior Kosovo officials are not worried about the result of any future trials. Even if they are from rival political parties or groups, the Kosovo government will hire top lawyers and they expect the trials will finish without a single conviction. What is your view on whether the lawyers will get them off? Is it going to be just a short of show trial?

PI: I don’t know the details, as I haven’t seen specific indictments. But in general, there is a real difficulty with any war after it’s conclusion, because you are left with winning and losing sides. Then, when they prosecute the latter for war crimes, it is hard enough- it becomes much harder when they go after the winning side. There is naturally a lot of resistance to that.

Regarding Kosovo, I can’t see how they will easily build cases. I don’t see what good it will do, either. If you look at history, and compared how Israel grew, or South Africa or Northern Ireland and the Balkans after conflicts, the one place that got it right was South Africa, with its Truth and Reconciliation Commission. That made some positive achievements for the whole country to forward.

However in Northern Ireland, after the conflict finished, the ex-members of the two fighting sides are all in the Northern Ireland government now- but the British taxpayer is still being paralyzed with paying for inquiries that all seem to focus on British and not IRA activity. Millions of pounds are being wasted trying to get to the bottom of various incidents that happened long ago, and where there is little or no evidence.

So unless you’re on the ground at the time, you are not in a position to comment and look back… remember, a lot comes down to judgment calls that are made in quickly changing circumstances, on any given day. Also, laws change over the years- can a certain law still be applicable retroactively, if it differs from the one in place at the time of an event?

So in my opinion, all this kind of court does is undermine good efforts to build communities for the future. I expect it will appease some people, but I also suspect it will just undermine what they need to do to move forward after the conflict.

CD: That is a compelling argument. It leads to something else I wanted to mention, which is related. The Kosovo officials who are confident [about acquittals] specifically compare their cases as similar to that of Ante Gotovina, the Croatian wartime general who was acquitted by the Hague. When he was finally tracked down, wherever it was – I think the Canary Islands – it was due to the help of British intelligence, which had been persistently tracking him and other alleged war criminals for years. Were you still involved in the Balkans in that period, and did they request support?

PI: I remember this, and I know the ICTY if they needed could request information from the British government and this could include military intelligence information, I am sure they got full cooperation. In fact, the head of security for the ICTY at one point was an ex-British military intelligence officer-

CD: Really!

PI: Yes. And for the Kosovo conflict, all the pre-war and post-war intelligence and other information was handed over to NATO forces. It stayed within Kosovo. Later, decisions were made about what to do with it- it was then handed to the EU, some things were passed on, some not.

CD: What is the typical cooperation practice for the British, between the military and civilian intelligence services?

PI: In any operations, they work together closely. The value of cooperation in intelligence is in trying to build up a total picture from lots of jigsaw pieces. To do this, there is formal, and informal cooperation with various intelligence agencies, both military and civilian, both your own and those of different countries as well.

And this can be mutually beneficial, not only within your own services, but for your partners. Because in many cases you help them to add other jigsaw puzzles, to clarify their own picture as well.

Behind the Migration Crisis: Crime, Political Error and European Security

CD: So now we move on to migration, the current big topic in the Balkans and in European politics. We have been covering the migration crisis for years and now, in the last year, particularly the so-called Balkan route.

Our initial assessment, before the summer 2015 crisis even started, was that the migrant numbers would intensify, leading to a greater EU participation. But even into the summer, no one from out of the region seemed very bothered to do something about it. To what do you attribute this attitude? Who benefits from it?

PI: These are indeed both good questions, with a lot of history. If we go back to the traditional Balkan route for smuggling, this has long been used by people smuggling contraband drugs, weapons, other items and of course human trafficking. That route has always been used.

One vignette I remember well occurred inside Kosovo, after the war. I was talking to one of the senior leaders on one of the opposing sides, who just had gotten a nice new car. I asked his driver if it came from Tirana, where a lot of stolen luxury cars are sold for only a few thousand euros. The driver said ‘no, we paid cash- it wasn’t him [the senior leader] who bought it, it was his wives.’ And by ‘wives’ the driver was referring to prostitution rings in Holland and Germany controlled by that person. So Kosovar criminal organisations are moving people and goods for years. It doesn’t surprise me that refugees are-

CD: Yes, I agree about the organized crime, but in the current period migrants are not going through Kosovo, so I don’t know if their criminals are involved.

PI: Yes, true- the main reason the refugees are not going through Kosovo is the geography. The fastest route is through Serbia and Macedonia. Still I suspect the same people who have been making money over the years through smuggling in the region have at least some role in the current trade.

Now, regarding the lethargy in Europe about the crisis, I believe this was because many of the more northern countries had not yet felt the presence of the refugees, and underestimated their numbers, at that time. And the countries affected, like Greece, Macedonia and Serbia, obviously wanted the refugees to go through as quickly as possible. And also, Angela Merkel was badly advised, when she decided to welcome so many people. She now regrets it.

CD: Well, this is the biggest mystery to me and many other people. I can’t believe that she didn’t know what would happen. Our research indicates that the BND knew everything the whole time, about the situation on the ground, and what could happen later. So how do we explain that Merkel chose to invite so many refugees?

PI: There’s no reason why the Germans would want all these people- I have been racking my brain trying to find some logic behind it.

About genuine refugees, there is of course a legal right they have to protection, and requirements of states to fulfill that, and they are using it. But at the time when Merkel was first commenting on the situation, there was debate about what countries should take leading roles and nobody stepped forward. So she nominated Germany as leader of Europe in this situation, thinking others would follow their lead.

There has since then been a lot of debate about all this in Europe- and especially in the last week, as things have come to a head here in the UK, with Cameron’s negotiations in Brussels and announcement of the June 23 referendum date.

Merkel was probably trying to make a statement to other European leaders: if Germany could accept a certain amount of refugees, she was hoping others would follow suit. She just got that one wrong.

The Upcoming Migrant Surge: Security Assessments for the Balkans and Europe

CD: I still can’t believe she was that naïve or uninformed. This whole thing has to be in someone’s interest.

PI: Well, I don’t think the whole situation was well communicated at a political level, regarding who these refugees were. An awful lot of economic migrants have been among them, and are continuing to be. By effectively opening the European borders to these people, Angela Merkel opened the floodgates.

If it is in someone’s interest to have this crisis, there might be many parties, but most concerning for me is that mixed in with the refugees are a lot of ISIS members and supporters.

CD: Do you have any estimate regarding how many have already entered Europe?

PI: Well, mixed in with ISIS, probably this includes Al Qaeda members too, the numbers vary. But recent international press reports say about 5,000 so far. What’s clear is that they can get people in and out at will- look at the Paris attacks in November. Some attackers came up through Greece, and followed the route to Brussels. They bypassed everything, even though they were known to authorities.

CD: What is your assessment for a spring surge in migrants, as we have recently reported on, and how it will affect the EU? What are your thoughts on the situation and how it will be by May or June, say, by UK referendum time?

PI: I think we will see, as the weather gets better and the seas are calmer, just such a surge, as then it will be easier for migrants to try and make the journey. The other thing we see that can aggravate the migrant flow is the increased military activity now going on in Aleppo, which is forcing people out of their homes. ISIS is also pushing from other sides. There is a bursting point. And the people have to get somewhere.

CD: Looking at this issue in regard to your companies’ focus, do you see any evidence of migrant traffickers using the Dark Web for logistical or tactical purposes in this trade?

PI: We haven’t watched for migrant organizers there. It is unlikely they would need to use the Dark Web, though- they would be operating easily through closed social channels.

What is more worrying, in fact, is that right now we are seeing on Dark Web surveillance clear activity from everywhere in world among ISIS and Al Qaeda channels. These levels and patterns of activity match those that are noted right before big terrorist attacks happen. What these terrorists do is extremely well planned.

CD: Malaysia, is that one of the countries where an attack is expected? We noted the British government very recently issued a travel alert for that country, citing terrorism threats against foreign tourist destinations there.

PI: We haven’t looked at things in detail there recently, though we have historically looked at it quite a bit. And it seems that, yes, ISIS is increasingly recruiting from countries in Southeast Asia, as they find they are stronger fighters, willing to be more extreme and more brutal than European counterparts, and that is particularly worrying.

CD: We have recently reported on Macedonia’s plan to close the border with Greece to migrants. If the border with Greece is closed, what risk scenarios do you see for migrants trapped in northern Greece, and their smugglers, given the differentiated geography of the northern Greek border with four states, Albania, Macedonia, Bulgaria and Turkey?

PI: The biggest thing is there could become larger and larger camps of increasingly desperate groups of people situated alongside relatively small rural communities in Northern Greece. These could easily turn into flashpoints and then the security risk will grow.

You will see, like elsewhere in Europe in that situation, an increase of locals protesting against the presence of refugees and migrants, and the latter who can’t stand being stuck there. There is thus a potential for rioting and violent altercations with locals, police and military.

At the same time, criminal gangs will be involved- and when they aren’t moving people they aren’t making money, so they will try to find ways to move the people. Even terrorist gangs can emerge in such a climate and will exploit the unrest. But we have already seen from Hungary, where they are having trouble with refugees- they can’t keep them from cutting the fences to get through. So smugglers will keep trying to find ways to get people out of Greece.

CD: We have most recently reported that, in this case, a new Albanian-Adriatic route could develop, as Bulgaria has moved army units to its border with Greece, making it harder there, and anyway Albania is closer to Western Europe and has a history of people-smuggling by boat to Italy. Do you see this as a possible scenario, if Macedonia manages to keep its border sealed?

PI: All traditional routes will come into increased use in the Balkans. It is like when you squeeze a balloon between your fingers; you don’t know where it will pop out. But if you squeeze a bit too hard in one place, the air will move off to somewhere else. The balloon can’t stay still. The refugees and migrants don’t want to sit still, and the people who are profiting from moving them certainly don’t want them to sit still either.

Provided smugglers can make money – and they do it in very ingenuous ways – people will find a way. Yes, one likely way is to get into boats again, the Adriatic coast from Albania to Italy, and the long coast in Croatia, are all possible points of activity.

What we’re starting to see now with the EU, that the Schengen Zone is almost suspended, and without a central EU decision possible, countries can’t afford to have open borders-

CD: It will make it more expensive for migrants all down the line, and thus more profitable for smugglers-

PI: Yes, and we’re now seeing Austria only accepting 80 a day, and similar reductions will happen and worsen the situation.

CD: Indeed. Also, regarding the Eastern Mediterranean, we are aware that several ‘suspicious’ NGOs run by Islamic groups, including British ones, have been operating from the Greek islands near Turkey for the past year, for migrant facilitation and surveillance purposes. Do you have any further info? Given that there are British citizens involved, is this something British intelligence is concerned about?

PI: The presence of such groups is not surprising. It’s a standard method historically used, to employ front NGOs- if you go back to Al Qaeda’s earliest money movements, money changed hands through NGOs and charities.

I don’t know without seeing the specific details if the British government is doing anything or aware of any particular groups. But I can say that some are known about, but some might not be, so it is something to be concerned about.

Libya Assessments: EU Operations, Criminal Activities and Terrorism Risks

CD: It is also worth noting that, at the same time that exactly nothing was being done about the Balkan route last summer, the EEAS already had a very advanced surveillance and interdiction mission called Operation SOPHIA going in Italy. This was recently revealed by Wikileaks and has caused a lot of media coverage. Why the discrepancy? Why was there something big being done in a maritime area with relatively fewer migrants, considering that Greece, like Italy is a EU state, and had many more migrants?

PI:I think to analyze that, one has to look at how these international organizations work. Whenever a military force is put together, they will do it where it is politically acceptable, to maximize the political benefit from it. Thus, it might not necessarily be where the real threat is, but where it is seen to be doing something.

If you look at European public opinion in general, whenever the governments say ‘we are doing something,’ people aren’t going to sit and look at the details and analyze what that means. I have seen that with NATO and the EU as well- even if a mission involves a military component, it’s politics that decides it, ultimately.

Coming back to the Libyan bit… the sea crossing are much more dangerous from there to Europe. The Eastern Aegean routes are much shorter, between Turkey and Greece, and there the seas can be calm. From a humanitarian perspective, the latter is the least worst route.

And from Libya, we could see plenty of cases of migrants traveling with overcrowded boats of 500-700 people, with many deaths at sea. So from a humanitarian point of view, the politics would prioritize a mission there. And the criminal networks are more globalized in Libya, because they’re taking economic migrants primarily- the ones out of Libya in particular have been doing this for years.

CD: But from Turkey there are many economic migrants coming, just from other parts of the world- and Libya had fewer when Gaddafi was alive to honor his deal with Berlusconi and restrict migration…

PI: Yes indeed, ever since Gaddafi was kicked out, Libya has been a free-for-all for organized crime. Presently we have very good intelligence to suggest ISIS was sending a lot of people on boats from there, even though it was more dangerous than the Turkey-Greece route.

CD: Really.

PI: Yes, and they have pretty well-equipped boats, separate from the large and overcrowded ones that might not make it, so that they can get smaller numbers of their trusted people into Europe. That is ongoing for over a year now.

CD: Part of what was shown in the EU document put out by Wikileaks is that regular smugglers would give the boats just enough fuel to get, say, 30 miles out to sea and give them a satellite phone and a number to call when they got there- ‘here, call the police and they will save you.’ The smugglers didn’t care if the people or the boat made it to the destination.

PI: Yes, some people smugglers would do exactly what you’re saying, but particularly the unscrupulous ones. The scrupulous ones – if you can have scrupulous people smugglers – on the other hand would make sure that passengers arrived, because word trickles back, and it is not good for business to have people know that you might not survive the trip if you go with a certain guy.

But the more serious aspect of the ISIS infiltration from Libya is that it’s a different model- it isn’t, say, 500 people at once, and they’re charging a lot less. This is primarily for the purpose of building up support and logistics networks all over the place in Europe, by getting these supporters into Italy and even into Greece.

The majority of such traffic has been coming out of Sirte. Possibly, that’s another reason why the EU military mission concentrated around that part of the Mediterranean. Possibly that was the biggest threat that the major intelligence determined at the time of planning.

CD: You spoke with us one year ago for an article about the ISIS expansion in Libya. Again, at that time we were practically alone in making the assessment that the ISIS presence would grow. Now, the US suddenly bombed an ISIS safehouse there last week, which was preceded by a sudden flurry of big media reports on the alleged ISIS threat in Libya. So was the media reacting to an actual buildup, or was it scheduled around and anticipated attack?

PI: ISIS is growing rapidly, so I believe they have been reporting on this because it is happening. And if you look at what the ISIS leaders have done, they sent their mufti into Libya, which is very significant. He is called Sheikh Turki al-Binali, AKA Abu Sufyan al-Sulami, and is 30 years old, a hardline extremist.

So putting in this cleric as ISIS commander in Libya has effectively shown that with their territory in Libya, Islamic State sees it as a third territory, after Syria and Iraq. Among the reasons for that is if they get squeezed out of the Middle East – which is a prospect that will still take many years to happen – then Libya will be the next place to move to. Also, from there they can work on the neighboring countries, and with oilfields in Libya and migrant and other smuggling as two profitable trades, Libya becomes a natural place to focus on and to tap into.

CD: When the US did attack last week, why did their fighter jet take off from England, given that there are much closer NATO bases to choose from? Is there something in their military procedure to explain this?

PI: There are indeed NATO bases closer to Libya, but the things to look at is do those bases have access to the right intelligence at the right time. Further, were the right weapons systems available in those places? Were they committed to the right activities? For example, commanders won’t say to the fighter pilots, ‘okay, you two are going tonight to Syria, then you’ll come back and go to Libya.’ Each base might be geared up for different purposes and missions.

The US has used UK bases in the past. The RAF Lakenheath base in Suffolk, which is where the Sabratha attack was launched, has been used for operations in many countries in the past. So, it is not particularly unusual that it was used in this case. One thing that had to happen, of course, was that the British government had to sanction use of the base for that mission. But that is a routine procedure.

CD: When we spoke with you this time last year, you were highlighting the danger of ISIS possessing radioactive material from hospitals and other facilities they controlled in the Middle East, which could be used as a weapon. I have seen again a sudden flurry of articles on this topic lately. So where do we stand on that now?

PI: The threat remains the same. Yes, some recent reporting on isotopes stolen from hospitals has appeared that suggested that they fell into ISIS’ hands, but there’s nothing specific we have seen to suggest there is some imminently planned operation to use dirty bombs.

But that’s not to say they’re not planning to use it. There is one thing that is clear from ISIS covert discussions we have picked up recently. This is that they have a number of different spectacular attacks being planned.

CD: Really? What kind of targets?

PI: The pattern of traffic we’re seeing in the Dark Web and some social media and other communications channels all suggest this. And the kind of language used suggests advanced planning is now taking place.

The target list is quite interesting- there are some statements specifying Lisbon in Portugal, which is not usually considered a big target. Paris and London, of course remain top targets. And a lot of planning for such attacks seems to be happening inside Germany- whether they want to attack Germany itself, or just use it as planning base and keep quite there, remains to be seen.

Clandestine Cooperation, Media Standards, Brexit, and ‘Going Rogue’

CD: Now finally for some loose ends. I’d love to get your views on some related matters that have a British perspective. First, regarding Syria, Seymour Hersh wrote in the London Review of Books in April 2014 that Obama had at one point averted air strikes against Assad at the last minute, thanks to military intelligence received from British military intelligence which got it from the Russians, samples that showed it was not in fact Syria’s army that launched the Ghouta chemical weapons attacks. Any insights?

PI: The only thing I can say about this case, having read a number of reports about the issue, is that it is still not 100 percent clear who launched the chemical weapons. There is good analysis that both sides [Assad or the rebels] could have done it.

CD: Fine, I just thought the interesting part was about Russian, British and American covert cooperation, since the surface-level political rhetoric is so hostile between Russia and the West.

PI: The services do indeed cooperate- there’s a fantastic phrase security agencies use in reports, when noting that certain information has come from a particular source – when one knows he is dealing with another security agency – at the bottom of the report they will write that the information might be ‘designed to influence as much as inform.’ Often, it just happens to follow what that country wants to do politically.

CD: Fantastic. Another issue we have observed in this region is again with the British, that there is some confusion or uncertainty because of the handling or approach to events, about whether this reflects British central planning and policy, or whether someone in the middle of the intelligence hierarchy is interfering for personal or other motives… in your experience, what is the likelihood of someone ‘going rogue’ within the British intelligence apparatus at present?

PI: What I can say is that there are carefully controlled mechanisms to stop people from going rogue. But in the end of the day, intelligence officers are individuals. They can have personal motivations. In fact, I know of one case during Kosovo, not involving a British operative-

CD: But Western?

PI: Yes, it was a particular Western intelligence agent who went rogue, and it had very bad consequences. It cost a number of people their lives.

CD: What happened?

PI: Well, this individual had a direct line to a senior commander in Kosovo. And he convinced the commander to believe something would happen, contrary to other information from direct channels. At the time, I was still in Macedonia, while the bombing was still going on. It was just an example of bad practice. But the agent was never punished for this. It was a regrettable example of an operator having far too much influence over what senior decision-makers were doing, and a number of people died because of that.

CD: That is a fascinating case. Now, to speak of wrong information and get back to the Syria war: to me, the British military intelligence approach there seems to have shown new strategies- like they are trying to be more ‘hip’ or modern about how to interact. I am thinking of examples like the increased use of ‘citizen journalism’ and ‘outside groups,’ as was seen with ‘regular guys’ analyzing Youtube videos of fighting for making military judgments and putting it in the media. And of course there is that guy they’re always making fun of who is running this ‘Syrian Observatory for Human Rights’ from his house in Coventry.

To me, this seems to be a new low, but the media has repeated comments and opinions by such people verbatim. Are standards slipping? Does the government and the media just assume people are stupid, or don’t have much of an interest, or what?

PI: I think the increasing use of so-called citizen journalists, and more of the mainstream press using them, shows a huge slipping of standards.

What it does do, which is very sad to see, is a lot of mainstream media are going for sensationalism rather than well-researched and accurate analysis and good sources. It is definitely taking journalism to a new low.

But it’s not essentially a military thing. If you work in military intelligence, you will take information from everywhere, and then assess it. But I think it’s just some of these individual people doing it, getting their name and information out there- I am not aware of any evidence of someone in the UK cabinet directing them. In the end of the day, it’s a free country, you can’t stop them from giving their view. And that’s why so many military have died- for keeping it a free country. Free speech is a fundamental right of a free and liberal democracy.

CD: Thanks, that is very interesting. So then, what are your thoughts on Brexit and Cameron’s deal with the EU, speaking as a British citizen? He says it is in the security interest of the country to be in the EU. Is this the case? And especially given Scottish leaders’ recent retort that if the UK leaves the EU, Scotland will declare independence and join the EU.

PI: As a British citizen, I have to say that realistically the risk is none- leaving the EU will have no effect on British security. The whole Brexit thing is political noise.

The one thing that is certain is that if it leaves, Britain will have to renegotiate all agreements currently in place and it will take a lot of effort and time and you can’t guarantee content- it could be worse. But it is not likely to affect security. It will affect economy, of course- though in a positive or negative way, is still unknown.

CD: Indeed. Philip, I want to thank you very much for taking the time to speak with us today. It is much appreciated.

PI: And thank you as well.

Italy and Kosovo Intensify Actions against another ISIS-linked Group

By Matteo Albertini editor’s note: the present article follows the developments that have occurred since the 12 November arrests of ISIS-linked suspects across Europe, and led by Italy. These events have been documented already in our analyses by Elisa Sguaitamatti on 18 November and by Chris Deliso and Matteo Albertini on 23 November. The current developments indicate the continued manifestation of jihadist activity in the Balkans we have predicted over the past 13 years- while most media was ignoring or discrediting the possibility of a security problem with which Europe is unfortunately now grappling.

Four Kosovo citizens have been arrested by the Italian Police after the so-called “Van Damme” investigation that sought to end the activities of an organization allegedly involved in jihadist propaganda in Italy and abroad.

According to the inquiry, the group had “direct links with Syrian jihadist networks, and worked under the guidance of the notorious kosovar terrorist Lavdrim Muhaxheri,” according to the Brescia Procura’s statement at a 30 November press conference.

A Focus on Social Media and Extremism

The investigation began in 2014, after the discovery on Facebook of a group titled “With you or without you the Caliphate has returned.” Its members were assumed to be mostly in Syria. According to Giovanni De Stavola of DIGOS, the Italian police’s division for general investigations and special operations, “the group was directing its Daesh propaganda towards people coming from the Balkan region and residing in Italy. The four arrested were member of the group and have documented contacts with jihadist networks in the Balkans guided by Lavdrim Muhaxheri,” who has become the main point of reference for the foreign fighters coming from this geographic area. “We intervened in a phase of propaganda before problems could appear on the territory“ concluded De Stavola.

How the Jihadists Named the Police Investigation, and Who They Threatened

Amusingly enough, the name of the police operation derives from a conversational anecdote recorded by a phone tap of the suspects: “we are not Rambo neither Van Damme, we do the real thing,” one of the suspects reportedly boasted.

Most of the investigation was focused on Samet Imishti, allegedly the head of the group, and arrested in the eastern Kosovo village of Hani I Helezit. He took part in “armed conflict outside of Kosovo’s borders,” and reportedly specifically threatened on Facebook the former US ambassador to Kosovo, Tracy Ann Jacobson, whose term expired in August 2015. She had been in Kosovo during the time when it (and other Balkan countries) were drafting laws against foreign fighters, and starting to make large-scale roundups of radicalized locals.

According to the investigation, the aspiring jihadist referred to the US diplomat as “the American Jew” who “says that the new government will fight corruption (…) I say to this lady that as long as they stay in Kosovo there will be no justice (…) this unfaithful [woman] deserves the punishment of the sharia.”

The Rural Italian Bases of the Kosovar Cell

According to Italian police, Imishti used for his Italian headquarter the little town of Chiari, in the province of Brescia. In this house police also captured the second of the arrested men, his brother Ismail, who was later expelled under the charge of international terrorism. Along with him was arrested a third Kosovar, in the Italian province of Savona. This man was expelled following a decision from the Brescia public prosecutor.

The last Albanian Islamist arrested is a native of Macedonian Albanian residing in Vicenza province.

The Significance of the Special Surveillance Order

Very interestingly, this last individual had been subject of a special surveillance order: in fact, the decision to use this specific measure tells us that Italian investigators are now considering the members of international jihadist networks as similar to members of organized crime groups. Indeed, it was not by chance that this order was directly promulgated by Franco Roberti, Italy’s national anti-mafia prosecutor.

The special surveillance order is a debated and very specific kind of detention order envisaged in the Italian Penal Code, in Law 1423/56 and following modifications. It lays out the rules for pre-trial arrests, and it has frequently been called before the European Commission; lawyers have argued that it violates the European Convention on Human Rights, since it can be applied on the basis of sole suspects and without concrete proof of actual crime.

It is worth noting that this is hardly the first time a DIGOS investigation of suspected Balkan Islamic radicals has employed wiretapping techniques. For example, as reported back in February 2007, a long-term DIGOS surveillance operation resulted in 29 arrests of Balkan Muslims in the Trento-Treviso area (the episode is discussed in detail in Chris Deliso’s The Coming Balkan Caliphate, also from 2007).

Other Aspects of the Investigation

The police commissioner in Brescia, Carmine Esposito, also ordered searches of the homes and workplaces of other people connected with the network in Brescia, Vicenza and Perugia, as well as in Kosovo with the cooperation of the police there. The commissioner also gave an order to check the web material confiscated during the investigation.

As he recalled during the political talk show Agorà on RaiTre last Monday, “in the houses searched in Kosovo we also found arms during a police operation, jointly organized by Italian and Kosovar police, which began contemporaneously in some Italian and Kosovar towns. [The arrested] represent profiles of high risk according to the characterization of Islamic terrorism, and specifically for their action of propaganda, recruitment, and financing of the so-called Islamic State. The crimes these people are charged with… are thus support for terrorism and incitement to racial hatred.”

Most of the investigation was conducted on the web, after the arrested men published on their social profiles photos of themselves holding guns. They also made comments supporting the propaganda of the Islamic State. In their chat groups were also found written threats to the Pope who, in their words, would soon “be visited by terrorists coming from the Middle East.” They warned that Francis would be “the last Pope.”

Balkan Jihadists Provide a New Media Fascination in Italy

As seems evident after last week’s arrests, Italy’s north-eastern regions show the recurring presence of foreign jihadists, as has been documented in coverage of the investigations in recent years. Among them we recall the case of the Bosnian Imam Bosnić, who reportedly enrolled fighters for the jihad in Pordenone and Belluno, and more recently that of the Rawti Shax members in Merano and Trento in November of this year.

The last month of Balkan-related arrests has been covered extensively by Italian media, which seems to be getting more and more interested in international terrorist networks existing in Kosovo, and their possible relations with the Balkan migration route.

The Italian media attention has also been fuelled by reports in the Kosovo press. For example, the Pristina daily Koha Ditore – quoting anonymous sources – recently reported that seven Kosovar Muslims, allegedly supporters of the Islamic State and currently in villages near the Macedonian capital of Skopje, may be planning terrorist attacks against Kosovo. Similarly, a different Kosovar daily, Zeri, also wrote that in the northern section of Kosovska Mitrovica – inhabited by Orthodox Serb minority – threatening graffiti praising the Islamic State has been noticed.

Incidents like this and increasing media attention indicate that ISIS-related activities involving the Balkans in some way are unfortunately going to become more regularly noted in European media in the new year.

Italy Targets Kosovo-linked ISIS Network- But Laws Lag behind the Online Jihad Era

By Chris Deliso and Matteo Albertini

The sustained and ongoing anti-terrorist operations by police across Europe before and after the ISIS Paris attacks are indicative of just how well established and dangerous Islamist radical networks on the continent have become.

The new state of the war on terror must be appreciated- as must the fact that the Balkans (and the ‘Balkan Route’ of migration) are already becoming of much greater interest to the European authorities, as a recent Italian operation dramatically showed. However, the relative novelty of the internet jihad also means that even countries well versed in countering terrorism and organized crime, like Italy, are lagging behind, as we shall see below.

The Paris Attacks and the New State of War

As many analysts have pointed out, the Paris attacks of 13 November can be seen as a turning point in the strategy of the Islamic State, which is now evolving from traditional terrorist attacks by small cells, conducted chiefly in its own geographical area, to more organized and complex paramilitary actions conducted on the territory of a Western state. A new phase in what the Bush administration called the ‘long war’ thus appears to be upon us.

These paramilitary attacks in France represent a serious step up from the January attacks in the same country, against the editorial office of Charlie Hebdo, when the Al-Qaeda branch in Yemen killed 17 persons (12 in Charlie Hebdo’s office, and five in Paris and Montrouge). The recent attacks caused vastly more casualties, and were marked by even more precise actions, with three different teams and three different targets involved, and a considerable logistics network believed to be behind it.

Paris was the third attack Islamic State claimed this month, after an explosive device brought down Russian Metrojet Flight 9268 on November 3 in Sinai and the Beirut attacks on November 11, framing a scenario of extremely high concern about the future operations of the self-proclaimed Caliphate in Middle East and abroad.

Given the Islamic State’s media reach and international support network, threats to other Western cities like Rome, London and Washington must be taken seriously. This has been seen vividly in the Belgian authorities’ recent lockdown of Brussels and continued arrests related to the Paris attacks and possible planned attacks in Belgium. At the same time, pro-migration protesters defied a ban on public gatherings in Paris, an ominous sign of how the terrorism and migration issues are going to converge in future challenges to the authorities’ role.

We consider it highly likely that more attacks will occur, especially considering the growing potential for a possible Western military intervention on the ground in Syria. This is precisely what ISIS wants, not because it expects to win back territory (it will eventually be defeated) but because it can help fire up supporters elsewhere in the world to act in their own countries.

Needless to say, the work of international security agencies and national intelligences is becoming more and more crucial, and especially in Europe, which risks becoming one large (and generally defenseless) theater in an unpredictable war with an evasive enemy.

The Italian-led Operation as Indicator of European Cooperation- and Balkan Focus recently covered a story which passed almost without notice when it was soon eclipsed by the massive media coverage of the Paris attacks: the Italian-led operation against an ISIS group seeking to overthrow the Iraqi Kurdistan government. While the Paris attacks have been depicted as an example of intelligence failure and poor cooperation, the Italian operation can help us to understand how security agencies are actually cooperating to oppose terrorist networks active on the continent.

To recap, on 12 November some 15 people were arrested in four European countries following a five-year Italian investigation, conducted in coordination with Eurojust: they were members of a terrorist network that not only wanted to attack the Kurdish government in northern Iraq, but also to recruit militants for ISIS in Europe.

The network was called Rawti Shax (“New Course”), and is the European offshoot of Ansar al-Islam, a terrorist group affiliated with Al Qaeda. It was founded in 2001 by Najmuddin Faraj Ahmad, known as Mullah Krekar. He had already been detained in Norway and jailed as a consequence of this new investigation.

Notwithstanding his confined situation, Mullah Krekar was still able to manage from jail a well-functioning international web of terrorist recruitment, which was invigorated after the rise of the Islamic State in Syria and Iraq.

In the strategy of Ansar Al-Islam, the role of Rawti Shax was to recruit and train possible foreign fighters to be sent to Syria to fight under the banner of the Caliphate against the Iraqi Kurdish Republic. The Kurds are not just the main enemy of Islamic State in the contest for new national state creation, their fighters are also well known as being the most effective military force against ISIS on the battlefield. Therefore, any terrorist attack against the Kurdish authorities would be motivated by both revenge and a desire to destabilize Kurdistan for the terrorists’ benefit.

This organization was until now based in Merano, a little town in Northern Italy where the investigation (conducted by the Italian Carabinieri), tracked the movements of the two main suspects: Abdul Rahman Nauroz, a Kurdish Iraqi citizen, and Eldin Hodza, an Albanian from Kosovo.

The former, allegedly the successor of Mullah Krekar at the head of the organization, was particularly active in online recruitment: as Giuseppe Pignatone, public prosecutor in Rome, stated, “the investigation developed out of computer evidence, as their operating base was mostly the web, the world of the Internet.” In fact, internet cummunication allowed this group to connect small cells spanning Europe, from Greece to Norway. This assisted in, and later promoted, the “jihad lessons” Nauroz gave from his home in Merano.

The latter cell member, Hodza, was a typical ‘foreign fighter,’ who had already been sent to Syria by Nauroz in January 2014. According to the investigation, there he visited an IS training camp, but came back to Italy a month later through Switzerland.

This development is not surprising. As has covered in depth, Albania and Kosovo (and their diasporas) have made sizable contributions to the European jihadist brigades fighting for ISIS. The caliphate even made Albanian one of the chosen languages for translations when it developed its propaganda arm, a truly notable decision considering the relatively small usage of the language globally. And there have been allegations of recruitment centers on their territory, with more than 600 Albanian fighters having visited Syria in the last two years. The Al Nusra Front has also imported Albanian fighters since the beginning of the conflict in Syria, owing to specific local historical and personal connections with Syria.

The Italy-Kosovo Connection

One of these “starting points” on the route to Syria is the small southwestern Kosovo town of Restelica, south of Dragas. Although had isolated this region as a potential center of future radicalization over 10 years ago, it has never been mentioned by the media in general. In the Italian media, Restelica came up in Panorama’s interview on March 15, 2015 with the Italian ambassador to Pristina, Andreas Ferrarese.

Interestingly, in this little town almost everybody speaks Italian and a third of all citizens have worked in Italy; this connection has much to do with how Italian security officials became aware that parts of the Dragas area now represent a major center of ISIS recruitment for Albanians in Kosovo.

The reported jihadist leader for Restelica, the imam Sead Bajraktar, lives near Siena in Italy, where he founded an Islamic center in the town of Monteroni d’Arbia. He frequently travels back to Kosovo, intelligence sources say, to visit his collaborators and to participate in military training. He was once arrested near Dragas (and soon set free) along with a member of the same Monteroni center.

Bajraktar is an important figure in this story as he is considered the man responsible for Eldin Hodza’s radicalization. Already in March, Panorama underlined how Hodza went to Syria and later came back upon payment by a relative who allegedly “ransomed” him from his participation in the jihad. Apparently, the intervention of this relative did not diminish his will to join the ranks of Islamic State, since when he was arrested on 12 November he was still planning to return through Rawti Shax.

Ambassador Ferrarese had already stated in March that “there’s great attention [being paid to] the uninterrupted channel of human trafficking through the Balkans, with a primary role held by Kosovo organized crime. We immediately considered the hypothesis that this route could be used by volunteers going to fight in Syria and Iraq- a route which could furthermore be used by those who are coming back to Europe.”

International security agents working in Kosovo also confirm that some foreign fighters have made it back to Europe along the routes of clandestine immigration through Southeastern Europe, mostly entering Italy at Trieste, from Slovenia. Their transit along the ‘Balkan Route’ from Greece has been expedited by the sheer volumes of persons following this route, which has made it impossible for authorities in the countries along the way to properly identify them.

All too often, advocates of “migrant rights” have succeeded in making their arguments in the media that all migrants are being racially or religiously profiled, when in fact the main problem is simply a logistical one: there have simply been too many people coming in too short of a time. This problem has been exacerbated by poor communication (or no communication) between Greek authorities and those of their ‘northern neighbor,’ Macedonia regarding timing and numbers of arrivals. ISIS would be foolish not to exploit this vulnerability.

Aspects of the Evolving Security Threat Revealed by the Italian Investigation

The story behind these arrests helps us to underline some features of undercover terrorist action in the time of the Islamic State. The first thing that emerges is that many terrorist cells once affiliated with specific jihadist groups (Al Qaeda, Al-Nusra Front, etc.) are now working as recruitment and financing agents under the Islamic State umbrella.

This is not surprising, considering that Islamic State derives great wealth from the territory it controls, and can thus heavily finance outside operations, whereas Al Qaeda is nowhere near as well off, and seeks to survive by participating in operations of lower profile such us recruitment and logistical support. This is however a very important function for the Caliphate, which looks for fighters living in Europe, who can operate with less travel restrictions, and thus have the capacity to act in different regions.

Secondly, Italy is becoming a crossroad of international terrorist networks linked to Syria and the Balkans, as the outcomes of recent investigations show. Some persons of interest have already appeared in previous coverage of Italy-Balkan jihadist networks: these include the Bosniak imam Bosnić, arrested with 15 others in September 2014; the imam Idriz Idrizovic, active in Salafi centers in Lombardy; the Prizren imam Mazzlam Mazzlami; Shefqet Krasniqi, imam of the Great Mosque in Pristina: and Idriz Billibani, first arrested in 2010 and allegedly linked to a Kosovar-Italian web of radicalization and recruiting. Kosovo, Macedonia, Albania and Bosnia have all since 2014 made many arrests under new foreign fighters laws.

Italian Concerns over the Stepped-up War and the Vatican’s Imminent Jubilee Year

After the attacks in Paris, the attention of Italian secret services towards the role of the Balkans in linking the country and the Caliphate has become even more acute than usual. This is particularly noteworthy considering that December 8 marks the opening of the “Jubilee Year” that Pope Francis announced on March 13, 2015.

This symbolic event, which occurs every 20-30 years on Papal decree, will start on the Catholic feast of the Immaculate Conception, celebrated December 8, 2015. It will close on November 20, 2016.

At the time of the pope’s announcement in March, the National Catholic Reporter noted that the celebration of the jubilee year will formally begin “with the opening of the Holy Door of St. Peter’s Basilica at the Vatican. The other holy doors of basilicas around the world will then be opened as a sign of God’s opening a new pathway to salvation.”

Considering that Islamic State has pledged to eventually overthrow the Church of Rome and to raise its own banner over St Peter’s, an attack timed to coincide with this symbolic event – and, perhaps, timed to coincide with others at churches in different locations – would be highly tempting for the terrorists.

Of course, as we have noted in The Vatican’s Challenges in the Balkans, the Church does have its own sophisticated defenses and global intelligence networks. However, the recent Paris attacks reveal that ISIS’ affiliates can also be highly dangerous and agile and this, in addition to the migrant crisis, has forced the Vatican to tap into its international intelligence networks as it hastily tries to identify potential arrivals of terrorists among migrant groups, and in general get any useful information at all about looming threats. The Vatican also has well developed intelligence-gathering networks in Montenegro. Croatia, Bosnia, Albania and Kosovo, as does the Italian state, though it is impossible to show how these overlap in specific cases.

New Developments: Shortcomings in the Penal Code Reduce Investigation’s Success

On 23 November, new developments in the Italian courts affected the outcome of the case. It was announced that five of the 17 arrested in the Jweb investigation in Merano are going to be set free, following a decision of the Procura della Repubblica- in effect, the public prosecutor’s office in Trento. Further, while 14 persons were arrested, two of them were already in jail on charges, and three other claimed accomplices were nowhere to be found.

As already reported, the prosecutor, Giancarlo Capaldo (an expert in terrorism working at the Procura in Rome) conducted the investigation with public prosecutor Pignatone; they identified 17 alleged suspects. But since the jihadist organization was in Merano, officials in Rome had assigned the investigations to Trento, where the Provincial Procura (led by prosecutor Giuseppe Amato) was tasked with conducting the trial.

Amato, therefore, had to ask the Judge for Preliminary Inquiry (GIP) in Trento, Francesco Florenza, to co-validate the arrests. But in their following request they reported just 10 names (among them, Nauroz and Hodza). As they wrote in their comments, they considered as insufficient the charges against Hama Mahmoud Kaml and Mohamad Fatah Goran, both living in Trentino Alto-Adige. At the same, the Trento prosecutors also refused to persecute the three untraceable investigated people.

Therefore, the GIP had no choice but to release both Fatah and Goran, and to order any tracking of the other three vanished cell members stopped. This decision fwas based on the argument that “contact [through communication, ie., internet] does not imply participation in a terroristic association.”

Moreover, a recent change in the Italian Code of Criminal Procedure states that a person can be jailed only on solid proof, and not just according to circumstantial evidence. In this case, some of the people investigated had, in Mr. Florenza’s words, “vanished a long time ago from the horizon of the investigation.”

This development, as related to Il Fatto Quotidiano by Prosecutor Amato himself, seems to be due to the shortcomings in the Italian Penal Code regarding international terrorism. It was also due to the most recent laws about the rules of arrests (art. 274 of the code of criminal procedure, changed by Law 47 of 16 April 2015).

Thus, the largely online nature of the international jihadist network seems to be causing a lot of problems for Italy’s outdated penal codes. This is interesting, since because of all of its long experience fighting the mafia, Italy is usually among the most advanced countries in terms of drafting laws about fighting criminal organizations and terrorism.

Conclusion: Vulnerabilities in Fighting Online Jihad in Europe Will Continue, Enhancing Presence of Non-State Actors

The legislative shortcomings in Italy and other European countries regarding jihad in the internet era are likely to remain a significant vulnerability, especially where they intersect with the ‘civil liberties’ lobbies, thus hampering future investigations from achieving maximal results.

In this state of affairs, it is ironic that pro-civil liberties activist groups unchecked by legal restrictions, such as Anonymous, may have greater capacity to fight against the online jihad than do regular states. The “hacktivist” group, which declared “war” on ISIS following the Paris attacks, now seems to be acting as an intel source with predictions of its own. While some major governments have stated that the group – usually acting against Western governmental and corporate interests – should stay out of the fight, no doubt they are grateful for any disruption it can cause to the terrorist group’s online infrastructure.

There is not even a hypothetical scenario, of course, of how any European court would handle an anti-terrorism case in which official police resources and activities ended up mixed up with the activities of unknown hackers. It is becoming a strange new world indeed.

Italy Takes the Lead in a European Anti-terrorism Operation

By Elisa Sguaitamatti

At least 15 suspected members of an Islamist militant group called Rawti Shax were arrested by Italian police on Thursday 12 November. Italian authorities declared that Rawti Shax, which means “the New Course,” is a Kurdish-Sunni Muslim group that seeks to topple the government in the Kurdistan province of Iraq.

Further, the group had Europe-based “sleeper” and active terrorist cells with radicalized militants based in Britain, Norway, Finland, Germany, Italy, Greece and Switzerland as well as in Iran, Iraq and Syria. All of its members were either willing to become suicide bombers, or to volunteers to be trained for the anticipated future conflict in Kurdistan.

Background: A Five-Year Investigation of Web-based Jihadism

The multiple police raids were based on 17 European warrants (16 Kurds and one Kosovar). The police raids and subsequent investigations confirmed that the radical movement was allegedly planning to target and to take European diplomats hostage, whether in Europe or the Middle East. The group was also said to be responsible for logistical and financial support to fighters in Syria.

In a statement, Italian police said the arrests were the “result of complex and protracted investigations” that began in 2010 following the discovery of a “jihadi” website ideologically affiliated with al-Qaeda in the middle of Europe.

This Italian intelligence-led investigation called “JWeb” had been monitoring the group’s communications via the Internet for five years. The use of the internet allowed the suspects to erase the distance between members, who were residents of several European countries. This enabled them to maintain strong cohesion, reinforced by periodic online chats.

Italy’s national ROS Carabinieri took the lead in collaboration with security forces in Britain, Norway, Finland, Germany and Switzerland, finding out both the structure and the operations of the terrorist organization. Moreover, Italian investigators have claimed to possess documented evidence of the radical and violent ideology of Rawti Shax, which was purchasing weapons in the Netherlands and at the same time trying to establish other “sleeper cells” in Italy and the Netherlands. These were to recruit, proselytize and radicalize militants online.

Events in Norway and a Kosovo Connection

At the same time, in Norway a major role was played by the radical Iraqi preacher Najmuddin Faraj Ahmad, known as Mullah Krekar. Besides being the founder of another extremist group called Ansar Al-Islam, he was serving an 18-month term in prison after having praised the murder of the Charlie Hebdo cartoonists in January 2015, and for encouraging Muslims to commit criminal acts during a television interview.

This would seem to prove that, in spite of the major rivalries between al Qaeda and the Islamic State on the Syrian and Libyan battlefields, the silent actions of small-scale “entrepreneurs of terror” like Mullah Krekar are what seem to be so alarming in Europe today. Krekar was recorded on a wiretap in November 2012 saying that “death for us is martyrdom…and we are ready against anyone who occupies Kurdistan…Americans, Russians or others.” Krekar also said that “for these (people) who have burned the Koran, at least 100 people are ready to do justice in Europe and Kurdistan.”

The final arrest warrant in the recent police operation was for a Kosovar citizen, Eldin Hodza, the only non-Kurdish involved in the terrorist network. The Italian police did not clarify immediately whether he had been arrested. All the militants were charged with fostering criminal association for international terrorism.

Italian Coordination of a Joint European Security Operation

Thanks to the constant cooperation between European police authorities, simultaneous raids in Italy, the UK and Norway were coordinated by the Italian public prosecutor, Franco Roberti, head of Italy’s anti-mafia and anti-terrorism unit. During a press conference following the police action, he praised “the professionalism of the lawyers and ROS investigators” who had to face this very complex issue by utilizing the best technological strategies to acquire all necessary information.

Additionally, Roberti underlined that “international cooperation worked really well this time,” with a series of meetings organized by the Italian investigators with their European colleagues held at Eurojust, the EU’s Judicial Cooperation Unit located in The Hague.

The success of the joint counter-terrorism operation was also confirmed by Giancarlo Pignatone, Rome’s Public Prosecutor, who explained later that the Kosovar suspect was planning to move from Switzerland (where he was stopped) to Turkey and then to Syria.

Further, Giancarlo Capaldo, Rome’s Special Public Prosecutor, clarified that the international team had been following recent geopolitical events and the movements of the suspects, who had chosen to affiliate themselves with the Islamic State: “We saw some fighters leave for Syria and die in the conflict,” he said.

For his part, the General Commander in Chief of ROS Carabinieri, Giuseppe Governale, remarked that this “JWeb” operation came to an end on 12 November- the same date that in 2003 some Italian journalists, members of the police and soldiers died in a terrorist attack in Nassiriya. He also maintained that “it is the most important police operation that has ever been achieved in Europe over the last twenty years.”

Finally, the Minister of Interior, Angelino Alfano, commented on the event. “It is a wonderful day for the Italian state and the Italian team,” he said. “In one day, ROS Carabinieri carried out one of the most important counter-terrorism operations, which shows how strong the state is and how essential the international cooperation is. We are a country exposed to the international risk of terrorism because we are part of that great international coalition that is opposed to the caliphate. Italy’s preventive measures worked, but no country is immune.”

These comments were tragically illustrated just a day after the Italian-led operations, with the massive terrorist attacks in Paris claimed by Islamic State. All of these turbulent events indicate that enhanced police cooperation across Europe is going to be more prominent – and necessary – as the struggle against terrorism continues.

Despite Trouble in Northern Municipalities, Kosovo Elections Mark Historic Step Forward

By Anita McKinna

Western media coverage of the recent municipal elections in Kosovo largely preferred to focus on disturbances at polling stations in the north, with the majority of media using the word ‘violence’ in headlines. Such headlines include ‘Kosovo violence leaves elections in tatters’ (BBC), ‘Violence on Election Day’ (Economist), ‘Violence mars Kosovo Elections’ (Guardian), ‘Masked gang’s attack on polling station in Kosovo threatens elections’ (Independent).

These headlines refer to the events of Sunday afternoon, in which masked intruders entered a polling station in north Mitrovicë/Mitrovica, with the aim of damaging election material and removing election officials, monitors and voters, thus disrupting the electoral process. As a precaution, all polling stations in northern Kosovo were closed early.

Such disruption is unsurprising for observers of Kosovo’s transition from a war-torn society towards democracy and independence. Indeed this election campaign period saw intimidation of candidates, and widespread anti-election protests in the north. Krstimir Pantić and the wife of Oliver Ivanović were attacked in the run-up to the elections in apparent attempts to dissuade them from participating in the elections. It would be naïve to believe, whatever the support for the elections from political entities in Kosovo or Serbia, that those who would benefit, either financially or politically from failed elections would simply allow events to unfold peacefully and successfully.

But even despite such disruptions, looking back only a relatively short time reveals just how much these elections can be considered a symbol of progress for Kosovo. Fourteen years ago Kosovo’s ethnic communities were at war. And nine years ago the country experienced extremely violent riots that saw people killed, people forced from their houses, and homes and churches destroyed.

Two years ago, following unilateral action by Kosovo Police to take control of border points in the north, road blockades and violent protests erupted. Ethnically-motivated incidents and violence are still not uncommon in Kosovo. So while Sunday’s events should be strongly condemned by proponents of democracy, these events should be put into context and whatever the media headlines imply, noone was killed or seriously injured on Sunday, and the incidents at the polling station did not incite widespread violence.

Furthermore, it should be noted that the electoral process in the south of Kosovo, including municipalities with a Serb majority, was praised by election monitors. It has been announced that a re-run will be held on 17November in north Mitrovicë/Mitrovica.

More importantly, these elections represent historic progress for Kosovo, even despite the disruptions, as they are the first Kosovo elections since the end of the war that have been actively promoted by Serbia’s political establishment and the Serbian Orthodox Church. Past elections saw vehement opposition from these two groups to Kosovo Serbs participation in Kosovo’s political system and elections. Their approval currently illustrates just how far things have come in a relatively short period of time.

For example, in August 2004, Bishop Artemije declared that ‘there is no single reason’ why Serbs should vote… participation in these elections would mean our ruin’. On election day that year it was also reported that a Serb priest blocked the opening of a polling station in Viti/Vitina. In October 2007 UNMIK Spokesman Alexander Ivanko acknowledged that ‘UNMIK has received concerning reports that both Belgrade and part of the Serb leadership in Kosovo have not only discouraged Kosovo Serbs from participating in the elections but have also intimidated registered voters’. Bishop Artemije again urged Kosovo’s Serbs to boycott the November 2009 municipal elections.

In contrast, last week Sava Janjic from Dečani Monastery, Serbian Patriarch Irinej and Serbian Prime Minister Ivica Dačić were among those who called on Serbs to participate in the elections. Whatever the motives behind this support, it would have been unbelievable just two years ago.

Of course, the attempts to disrupt the election process should not be condoned or belittled, and it cannot be ignored that Kosovo still has a long way to go before Kosovo’s Serbs embrace its institutions, but to focus solely on these problems ignores the significant progress that has been made in Kosovo since 1999.

The following data on election turnout, while admittedly not comprehensive, indicates the participation of Serbs in the southern parts of Kosovo. Indeed, when comparing the situations in some municipalities, it is interesting to note that Serbian turnout was actually higher proportionally than was the case with some Albanian municipalities.

Appendix: Turnout by municipality

Municipality *Turnout %
Ferizaj/ Uroševac


Gjakova/ Djakovica


Gjilan/ Gnjilane


Graçanica/ Gračanica**


Leposaviq/ Leposavić**


Lipjan/ Lipljan


North Mitrovicë/ Mitrovica**


South Mitrovicë/ Mitrovica


Novo Brdo/Novobërdë**




Prishtina/ Priština






Shtërpcë/ Štrpce**


Zubin Potok/ Zubin Potok**


Zveçan/ Zvečan**


Central Election Commission*

Majority or significant Serb population**

Kosovo after Supervised Independence: Interview with Petrit Selimi Editor’s note: September marked the end of the four-year period of supervised independence that followed Kosovo’s 2008 declaration of independence. The transition was met with fanfare by Kosovo Albanians, with trepidation by Serbs, and with some amount of relief from the oft-beleaguered international overseers charged with overcoming the many challenges of Kosovo state-building and multi-ethnic relations.

In this new interview, Director Chris Deliso gets the insights of Petrit Selimi, the Deputy Foreign Minister in Prishtina and an active participant in outreach efforts of a government that is trying to move Kosovo forward towards modernization and greater acceptance by international bodies and countries that have thus far not recognized its independence. The wide-ranging interview covers not only these topics but broader issues of political, social, economic and other factors affecting the lives of everyday people and what they might mean for the future.

Petrit Selimi is not the most typical of Balkan diplomats. He was a youth activist before the war of 1999 and, after studying social anthropology in Oslo, he was among a new wave of young Kosovans who launched several diverse civic initiatives. A decade ago, Selimi opened a small comic-strips shop and café, still popular among both artists and politicians. He convinced a Western telecom operator to bring the American performer 50Cent to Prishtina, and organized the star’s concert in a memorable night that put Kosovo on MTV a year before the declaration of independence.

At the same time, he wrote for a host of publications, and was one of the founders and publishers of a daily newspaper called Express. In the whirlwind of post-independence transition, Selimi was picked by Kosovo PM Hashim Thaci as Deputy Foreign Minister of the government created after the 2010 elections. There, he currently works with Foreign Minister Enver Hoxhaj, a prominent member of Kosovo’s post-war academia. Traces of Selimi’s past engagement remain in his new position, in the form of public diplomacy as a favorite tool; this has included establishing partnerships with the Aspen Institute, the European Council of Foreign Relations and even ecumenical organizations and art galleries. We talked with Selimi on the margins of the Aspen Institute’s recent conference on security in SE Europe, in Durres, Albania.

Strategic Diplomatic Goals

Chris Deliso: Could you give us a short recap of diplomatic achievements your government has made during 2012, including new recognitions by foreign states, and what led to these decisions?

Petrit Selimi: There are still a few intense months to go in 2012, but I hope to be able to report a very intensive and successful year for Kosovo’s diplomacy.

The Prime Minister had official visits with Prime Ministers or heads of royal families of Norway, Sweden, Austria, Saudi Arabia, Japan, Hungary, most of our neighbors and many more, while the MFA has quadrupled the number of bilateral agreements from all walks of life with over 90 countries.

According to Deputy Minister Selimi, the Kosovo MFA has “launched a massive public diplomacy effort, and we have worked with top foreign policy institutions to facilitate a greater understanding of Kosovo in the global processes, and vice versa.”

The Kosovar passport is acknowledged as an official document by over 150 countries, including China. And President Jahjaga is among the few heads of state to have met President Obama three times in over a year. She is currently organizing a global gathering of women dedicated to women empowerment, with [former US Secretary of State Madeleine] Albright as a keynote speaker.

Minister Hoxhaj has also had a record number of visits, and cooperation agreements and recognitions have not abated. It has been a great experience seeing him in action. Deputy Prime Minister Pacolli has also contributed, particularly with Kosovo’s increased interaction with all of Africa.

Further, our Europe Minister, Vlora Citaku can report on several big milestones reached on Kosovo’s long path to EU membership. Never forget that this is the year we received both a visa roadmap, as well as the Feasibility Study for an SAA. In dialogue, Kosovo has proven to be an exporter of peace, and a reliable partner in efforts to implement the Copenhagen criteria for the Balkans. This has included good-neighborly relations.

Kosovo sports and culture had a great year, adding power to our fight for a place under the sun. The MFA launched a massive public diplomacy effort, and we have worked with top foreign policy institutions to facilitate a greater understanding of Kosovo in the global processes, and vice versa. So all in all, I was proud to have made a small contribution to this enormous team effort.

CD: You have said that in 2012-13 the Kosovo government plans to put new focus on the EU member states that currently do not recognize it to change their policy. Can you describe what tactics you will be using, if they are different for different countries, and to what degree of success you estimate you will have by this time next year?

PS: I’ll have to go into this one a bit in depth. We have met all our ambassadors abroad, and the Minister has brought in some top experts, even statisticians, since we needed to understand where are the gaps and what are the priorities.

A new strategic approach was thus initiated, and Minister Hoxhaj has increased the portfolio of geographic coverage. Listen- Kosovo is independent because it’s a principled cause. We can get confused in the noise, especially in this Internet age, of relativization of the wars and the principles. The people of Kosovo had an undeniable right to choose where they wanted to live after the fall of the Ottoman Empire, as well as after the Second World War, and at both times were snubbed and forced into relationships of constant ill-treatment by the successive Belgrade regimes. We declared independence after every path was researched and every rock was turned.

The peaceful movement was harassed by Milosevic, and the armed resistance was crushed by a cruel and inhuman genocidal attempt. Serbia lost every right to Kosovo, and sovereignty was granted to the UN, until a UN envoy could propose a solution.

Then, [Former Finnish President Martii] Ahtisaari – who has high credentials in peace-making – came up with a plan based on the principles of the Contact Group, which included Russia. It gave Kosovo independence, conditioning it with a long list of reforms to be implemented, not least of which was the protection of the Serbian minority. Serbia said it would object to this declaration of independence legally, and it lost heavily in a landmark decision from the International Court of Justice.

Kosovo is already a member of two UN Bretton Woods institutions, namely the World Bank and IMF. We are the least-indebted country in all of Europe, and in 2011 we had the third-highest growth rate in Europe, after Turkey and Estonia. So why would countries not recognize Kosovo?

We must just explain the context, and we have to alleviate fears that were either inflamed by Serbia, or which are a genuine part of the internal debate in some countries. The European Commission declared, a day after the coordinated Declaration of Independence, that Kosovo’s independence is a “sui generis” case due to a truly unique set of legal circumstances, with references to Rambouillet documents, UN resolutions and the history of crime in Kosovo.

When we tell the real story, backed up by records from the Hague, by the documents and evidence, we don’t need to come up with any tactics, to lie to anyone or to spin a PR narrative. We will have over half of UN members formally recognizing Kosovo as a sovereign state soon. Later we will have two-thirds, and then three-fourths. We will be a part of weather maps and sporting events. We will be in the Olympics- and we will win medals in the Olympics. We will take our seat in the UN, because we are a successful UN story.

CD:  Turkey is an important actor in the Balkans, but seems to be less active in Kosovo in certain areas, such as education. Is there any reason for this? In general, to what extent and in what ways is the Erdogan government helping Kosovo abroad- whether in terms of political support, economic assistance, or other means of building connections?

PS: We have a very long relationship with Turkey. [Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet] Davutoğlu remarked some weeks ago that over 25 Ottoman Prime Ministers were Albanian. There are tens of thousands of family ties and an old connection between the two countries. It wasn’t always easy to define the relationship in the past – there were many painful moments too, but now it’s a really close connection.

Today, Turkey is responsible for 300 million euros of FDI over the last year or so, while the total value of contracted works has surpassed one billion euros since independence. Turkey does have a presence in Kosovo’s health care and private education. The Turkish republic has also provided essential support in diplomatic lobbying, as a member of the International Steering Group, and on a bilateral basis.

CD: What is Kosovo’s relationship with the African states? Is this something you see as being useful in future? I understand that there are certain food processing companies run by ethnic Albanians in the Balkans, for example, that use certain vegetable oils from these countries. Do you see any specific economic or other benefits from African countries, or are relations with them more or less being done to get more recognitions?

PS: We’ve had a good majority of the last 15-20 recognitions from Africa. And we have had real movement there, as more African countries get the proper information and engage us bilaterally. We have had many visits.

Several African countries that had been fully behind the Serbian interpretation have now visited Kosovo, and promptly recognized, basing their decision on seeing the facts, and following documents such as the ICJ opinion and the UN General Assembly resolution on dialogue. The Organization of the Islamic Conferences has also invited all of its members to recognize Kosovo, which strengthen the multilateral dimension.

CD: In addition to the above, what would you consider to be Kosovo’s top strategic diplomatic goals for the next two years? And how will a possible eventual integration with Albania be managed in this light?

PS: Our top strategic goals are to enmesh Kosovo in the web of [international’ connections so that our independence confirms our place as a true component of the regional and European family of nations. Progress in EU integration, progress in NATO relations, membership in an increased number of multilateral agreements, and good-neighborly relations are the immediate objectives.

Improving Kosovo’s overall image and making sure our message is clear, via public diplomacy efforts, is also essential for more recognitions and more investments. I don’t think Kosovo has to re-invent the wheel- we must just heed the good advice of the many friends we have been lucky to gather since our liberation efforts began. As for uniting with Albania, though there are some circles that seek that solution, it’s clear and beyond doubt that the focus of the entire mainstream of Kosovo society and politics is EU integrations. We will cherish increased trade, cultural and human links with all our neighbors.

Political Pressures and Unresolved Issues

CD: The issue of the Serbian-majority north of Kosovo is constantly brought up in every discussion of Kosovo’s unresolved issues by local and foreign observers. Strictly from the political angle, how does the stand-off benefit the Kosovo Albanian political parties currently in the opposition, in trying to put pressure on your government to be tough on the Serbs? Are they winning points on this issue among the public at large, or increasing their base? If so, has this pressure forced the Thaci government to make certain concessions in other areas or on other issues?

PS: I will be honest – there are parties in opposition, even among the so-called ‘liberal’ circles, who argue that the Kosovo government must use force and “return the north back to the fold.” Some of it is nationalism of the worst kind, some of it is just frustration with over a decade of blockades by illegal parallel structures, and some of it is just plain partisan politicking,.

Nevertheless, it’s clear that a problem that has existed for 14 years can’t be solved in 14 days. No amount of force can solve political challenges of this type. Serbs in the north are citizens of Kosovo. According to Ahtisaari, they are entitled to very wide decentralization and the power to run the health and education system, local policing, etcetera.

We have used robust power to establish a presence at the border posts, in order to implement measures of reciprocity. KFOR and EULEX help to keep the clarity of the Kosovo as a single legal zone. The EU is mandated by the UN General Assembly to facilitate dialogue on non-status issues. Kosovo must be confident, and the Thaci government is very much so, in believing that nothing bad comes out of dialogue, out of discussions, out of increased outreach.

After all, we have proved that animosities can be reduced in the southern enclaves, and we can reach this aim in the north as well. The people there are also tired of criminals, as you may have seen from the last episodes of Serbian B92 TV series on the hundreds of millions of euros that have disappeared in the north.

CD: People are constantly bringing up all sorts of creative solutions and conjectures for how to ‘solve’ the problem of the north. What I wonder is whether time will actually take care of the problem- if you look at cases like Northern Ireland or Northern Cyprus, or Abkhazia, these are stalemate situations that have been managed peacefully. Why not follow the same approach in Kosovo? For the past few years have shown beyond doubt that whenever KP or KFOR goes in with force, they are met by force. It does not seem likely that this will change. So is it more a chronic issue of pride among the Albanians to take the north, or something else? What should be done?

PS: The northern municipalities are six times smaller than Abkhazia, and seven times smaller than Northern Cyprus. Lichtenstein has more inhabitants [than the north]. So we have to keep a realistic perspective.

Three problems in the north can be solved: EU and members states have conditioned Serbia’s EU path with full closure of illegal security apparatus, which have been operating in violation of UNSCR 1244 for nine years, and against the Kosovo constitution for another five years. Another condition for Serbia was to allow EULEX to operate without hindrance and to establish a system of European integrated border management with Kosovo. These are now sine qua non for Serbia.

A second challenge is ensuring democratic representation, which can be arranged easily and we have the good will to enable such a process without meddling in the local landscape, as we have shown with the OSCE facilitation of the Serbian elections in Mitrovica for dual citizens. The third problem is economic, and herein lie the alpha and omega of integration. If people see a profit in turning to Prishtina for services, this will be a natural progression. However, as I have said, we must solve the two initial problems first- crime and parallel structures, and the lack of legitimate interlocutors.

CD: Another issue about the northern municipalities is that there is an ethnic Albanian minority in various parts of it, which seem to get along without problems. On the other hand, there were another two elderly Serb returnees in the south who were murdered just a few months ago. I don’t know the exact figures, but I would estimate that since 1999 few if any of the many murders of Serb civilians have been solved. So the Serbs would argue that while they cannot live safely in areas with an Albanian majority, an Albanian minority can generally safely in areas where there is a Serb (or any other) majority. What do you have to say about these issues?

PS: I don’t think you have the correct information. There are numerous incidents in northern municipalities [against Albanians]. Over 10 killings in the last few years were committed in the area. Radical Serbs have killed or maimed other Serbs who work for the Kosovo government, including sitting MP’s in the Kosovo parliament, such as Petar Miletic. Radicals have bombed and burned Kosovo-Albanian property. Hundreds of attacks are recorded against NATO forces and EULEX. These are well documented attacks, which add to the tension.

All of the most wanted criminals of Serbia and Kosovo are hiding in the north. Neo-Nazi Serbian football hooligans are also based there. These are facts known by our own security service, but also from KFOR data and Serbian reports too. In the south, on the other hand, one now can find a progress not seen in the last 10 years. Serbs are participating [with the state] at the municipal and central levels, economic benefits are slowly trickling down- too slowly, one might add, but still progress is being marked. Investments in skiing tourism in the very south, and investments in mining in the north, will bring even more ethnically Serbian] people closer to Kosovo’s legal framework.

CD: I had an interesting conversation with a Pentagon official who disagreed with the possibility that Kosovo might solve its problems with neighbors, and appear less of a threat, if it were to just declare neutrality as a state policy. But this military official said that after analysis they were sure that with the paramilitary tradition among Albanians, there were no way that this would work, and that without a properly overseen army paramilitaries would emerge anyway. What do you have to see about this assertion, and about the concept in general?

PS: I think Albanians don’t have a more paramilitary tradition than any of our neighbors. We also cannot declare neutrality, as the political consensus among all parties is NATO membership for Kosovo. At the MFA, we are dedicated to Euro-Atlantic integration, as this constitutes the backbone of our foreign policy. Neither can any “paramilitaries emerge,” as the Kosovo police is more than sufficient for our internal security apparatus.

The [Kosovo Security Forces] is also undergoing a positive evolution, following the close cooperation and support of NATO countries. The KSF has also entered into a productive state-partnership program with the Iowa National Guard.

So I must say that I have a problem with the general concept of ‘feisty Albanians in their little clans, always ready to take up arms.’ It follows a somewhat old narrative, one never really reflective of the real life of the wretched and oppressed inhabitants of these lands. That being said, Kosovo is becoming rapidly a modern and sustainable state – in some respects far more advanced then even our supporters expected – as was proven by the decision of the ISG to end the supervised period of independence.

CD: To what extent is youth unemployment causing frustration among ordinary citizens that can reflected in violent means or protests, or support the opposition? Are there any concrete steps your government is making to fix this problem, whether through work assistance or job training programs?

PS: This is the crux of the current conundrum. We have the lowest debt in Europe, and registered the biggest growth in the Euro-zone, but we are in the midst of a region that is going through painful economic crisis. Our economic model is essentially Keynesian, and that was supported by the ability to increase the tax base by eliminating gray economy. But we will soon reach the limits of efficiency.

This is why we need more FDI, in direct but friendly competition with our neighbors. We at the MFA are working to increase the overall promotion of investment opportunities. Luckily, we still haven’t privatized our crown jewels, such as the telecom, mining or energy generation sectors. This means we can sustain a prolonged cycle of investments to reach an increased numbers of employment and substantial growth of the middle class.

The government is thus engaged in directly investing in infrastructure project that enhance competitiveness, including major highways. We have built a major artery to the Adriatic coast eight months ahead of schedule, with zero cents of debt. We are also facilitating investors in critical industries. Education is essential in this forthcoming phase.

CD: A few months ago, there were unconfirmed reports that certain Syrian opposition militant groups were receiving training or at least some kind of support within Kosovo itself. Is this true? If so, what kind of details can you provide?

PS: There were no unconfirmed reports, just complete fabrications. The only time Kosovo officials ever met any Syrians was in a single meeting between the MFA and two members of a Syrian liberal civil society diaspora [group]. They came as part of a tour to Europe supported by the Open Society Foundation, so there was no militant element to this visit.

Unfortunately, a spin put forth by a Serbian tabloid took on a life on its own in this era of Internet reporting. I will repeat it again though, just for the record: Kosovo doesn’t train any militants. We are committed to the EU’s joint foreign policy with regards to events in the Middle East, and always in close coordination with the [position of the] USA.

Religion and Governance

CD: In May, you held an event marking the 1700th anniversary of Byzantine Emperor Constantine the Great’s conversion to Orthodox Christianity. This was somewhat creative, in any case, it was not one of the Balkan anniversaries that we had put on the calendar. And as far as I understand the pitch was to 1700 years of “monotheism” in the Balkans, which would presumably include Islam as well. So can you tell us who came up with this idea to celebrate such an event, and present it in this way?

PS: Well, Kosovo is a very diverse country in terms of religion, and this is our collective wealth. The vast majority of people declare themselves Sunni Muslims, but you have a very dynamic Catholic community, an old Orthodox and Byzantine heritage, a famous and tradition-rich Sufi community, and traces of a Jewish presence. The Sunni Islam is also rooted in local traditions and practices.

Saint Paul the Apostle passed through our lands on his third mission. Constantine was also from Dardania, and he was critical for the major shift from polytheism to monotheism. So, I’m not surprised that Kosovo would host meetings, workshops and projects dedicated to cherishing this richness. We must help the inter-faith dialogue to alleviate any fears about the important role that the Serbian Orthodox Church plays in our religious and societal landscape. The MFA of Kosovo has indeed supported several important initiates in this regards.

CD: Related to this was the visit to Prishtina in May of UNESCO representatives and Tony Blair, in his new incarnation as an inter-faith dialogue expert. So can you comment on this diplomatic dilemma, how your government handles these different outside parties who of course have their own interests, and goals, and whether you see an intensification or suppression of these kind of activities in future? In short, what is best for Kosovo’s long-term interests in this regard?

PS: The MFA and Ministry of Education are cooperating with the Tony Blair Faith Foundation to openly discuss the ideas of religion in a time of globalization. We must not shy away from debating and supporting critical thinking in today’s world. Mr Blair has played a very positive role in fostering the tolerance agenda. He is an icon of Kosovo liberation and we are proud to be able to work with his Foundation. UNESCO on the other hand was [in Kosovo on] a private visit. We have welcomed hundreds of guests from around the world this year. This has helped improved understanding.

CD: You have made a point of noting that Prizren is a case of co-existence wherein you have Serbian Orthodox, Albanian Catholic, and Albanian and Turkish Muslim houses of worship all in close proximity. Do you think this is more or less a historical accident, or something that can be replicated in other parts of Kosovo? Also, there is still (or at least was) some form of KFOR protection for the Serbian church. Is there still a concern that it will be attacked if that protection is removed?

PS: Most of the churches are now being protected by the local police. There are no attacks on churches, except for theft and occasional vandalism- nothing more serious than theft and vandalism of churches in Serbia. Prizren is a symbol of tolerance because the vast majority of the population is tolerant. It’s an old Albanian city, but it has a centuries-old Serbian, Turkish, Jewish, Roma and Gorani heritage also. It is also one of the cities which luckily escaped the full brute force of the Serbian military offensive of 1998-99. Cities such as Peja or Gjakova, and regions such as Drenica, were hit very hard and lost thousands of members from different families. Reconciliation will go slower there, especially in the absence of any sign of regret from the present Serbian government.

CD: We have good information that on the local level mayors and other municipal officials are in some cases coming under pressure from Islamic leaders and interests. Do you have any comments?


PS: Kosovo is a secular state. As many Westerners note, one sees fewer hijabs in Prishtina than in any other European city. The overwhelming majority of people in our society is respectful of other faiths, but are not particularly religious. Some of the best mojitos in Balkans are made in Prishtina bars.

I have not heard of problems in municipalities but I know that in a few mosques, less than one percent of the total [number of mosques], the state has had to intervene to expel figures unwanted by the local community due to extremist discourse. I don’t think we should sugar-coat the reality. Kosovo must dispel some of the prejudices. In the most dangerous form, these prejudices have inspired [people like] Norwegian mass murderer Anders Breivik, who mentions Kosovo as an Islamic threat over 80 times in his vile “manifesto.” In a more benign manner, they still instill a dose of unhealthy skepticism. Islam in Kosovo has always been a force of tolerance and love. The wars and conflicts in the modern Balkans were ethnic and political, not religious. Framing the conflict in religious terms is intentionally done by some circles.

CD: What is the role of the Vatican in Kosovo currently? We understand there is a nuncio appointed by no information about how active he is, whether there any plans for developing a clergy so that one day there might be a Kosovar cardinal, etcetera.

PS: The Holy See has always been with the people of Kosovo. We have frequently been in the prayers and thoughts of Pope John Paul II, and Pope Benedict XVI has a proven track record as an instigator of dialogue and peaceful resolution. And Mother Theresa’s father comes from Prizren.

Many cardinals came for the inauguration of the works on the  new cathedral built in the centre of the capital. And the Community of St Eggidio has been an early facilitator of dialogue between Kosovo and Serbia. So there are multiple and strong bonds between the Holy See and Kosovo. These will only strengthen over time.

Good Housekeeping and Infrastructure

CD: One achievement of which you are most proud is the completion of the highway linking Kosovo with Albania, done by Bechtel, which you have said finally gives Kosovo a ‘port’ with the city of Durres. Have you been able to assess yet any changes in volume of imports or exports due to this more rapid connection? Are there any other quantifiable indicators of the economic benefit of this impressive bit of engineering?

PS: It’s easy arithmetic – Kosovo citizens previously needed over eight hours of driving time to arrive at Podgorica, and more than six hours to reach Tirana. The geographic distances are not that great, but there were no major road arteries connecting Kosovo with neighboring states.

The new highway to the Adriatic connects the Kosovo borders with Serbia and Albania, and continues via the longest tunnel in the Balkans to the fork where one can choose to continue to Montenegro or to southern Albania. The highway was constructed in record time by US giant Bechtel. And we have not taken a cent in credit for its construction.

And so, nowadays the travel time to Montenegro and Albania has been cut by half- four hours to Montenegro,  and four hours to Tirana. Multiply that by 650,000 border crossings on this new highway during last 12 months. Need I say more? Plus, both Macedonians and inhabitants of southern Serbia are now using this new link to reach Montenegro.

CD: Any visitor to Kosovo immediately notices the main roadways ringed by gas stations, stacked materials for construction, random small motels, and other structures that make it look essentially like some sprawling industrial zone.

Two questions arise from this. The first is whether there is or could there be any sort of aesthetic development plan – on a national or municipal level, or both – that would make Kosovo look less like an industrial zone and more attractive?

PS: It’s funny you asked me that. In my past life I loved studies of urban anthropology. The gas stations in Kosovo, some resembling Star Trek buildings, the others more like Victorian houses, I called them Gas Vegas in a lecture I had in Zagreb and Amsterdam. They leave quite an impact on the physical and urban landscape. I wish our mayors were more updated regarding the latest methodology and best practices in urban planning- alas, this is not yet happening. Yet there is some charm in the grit of Kosovo. Prishtina is ugly, but full of surprises.

CD: The second, more pragmatic question concerns the industrial sprawl so close to the roadside, particularly in the case of the Prishtina-Skopje road. You have said that the government plans to build a modern highway on this route next year. Will the existing structures that block the widening process be relocated? Is the land owned by the state or private individuals? How problematic will the construction process be because of these factors?

PS: The Kosovo government is now considering the second highway project to Skopje, an important trade artery and connection to Greece. Highway plans are well underway. I think a portion of it may be built in different trajectories, because the cost of land in some of these urban zones is prohibitively high. The Ministries of Transport and Finance are hammering out the last details, always in consultation with the IMF. These rounds of investment cycles in road infrastructure were essential for us to even have a chance at a competitive free economy.

CD: Finally, in your opinion what sort of infrastructure is most urgently needed for the modernization of Kosovo and to increase its viability as a business destination? Is the government working on any such projects in a concerted way and what are the prioritizing?

PS: Personally, I think energy generation is an urgent and fundamental need. We have increased energy usage, and we will increase it further, but no new plants have been built since the 1970’s. We sit on coal, which is a dirty word in some circles, but then again new capacities in coal energy will speed up closure of the old 1950’s plants, which are the cause of 80% of particle pollution. So we need to provide long-term solution for energy independence.

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Lingering Security Concerns in Kosovo, as Imam Attacked by Radical Islamists

By Christopher Deliso

Despite several recent reports suggesting that radical Islam in Kosovo no longer represents a significant security threat, the beating of a prominent Albanian imam by Drenica-area Wahhabi Muslims indicates that the challenge within the Muslim community – the real target of the foreign-funded extremists – persists. The disproportional yet unexplained influence of these extremists in the fledgling state’s judicial and law enforcement institutions, cited by Islamic Community officials themselves, represents a challenge for the EU’s nascent law-and-order mission, EULEX.

The Latest Incident

On 12 January, Radio-Television Kosova (RTK) reported that Mullah Osman Musliu, chairman of the Islamic Community in Drenas in central Kosovo had been attacked and beaten by nine Wahhabi extremists. These men were arrested, though four were soon released. The other five remain in police custody.

The imam was reportedly a major funder of the former Kosovo Liberation Army that fought Yugoslav security forces throughout the late 1990s. The area involved, and indeed the whole Drenica region, was a hotbed for ethnic Albanian nationalism during the war. Indeed, considering that extremist impulses anywhere can be redirected according to the goal at hand, it is not surprising that the major foreign Muslim donors and lending institutions sought to strengthen their position here from the beginning.

According to a transcript, the incident occurred when Musliu visited a mosque in the village of Zabel in order to elect a new local imam. Across the Balkans, religious-based violence has often centered on issue of candidates for such positions, with the Wahhabis often disagreeing, violently so, with the candidate supported by the mainstream Islamic community. Along with ideology, control over Islamic Community funds and properties is often the main reason for dispute.

The attack on Musliu represented the second time in recent months in which Islamic Community members were attacked by extremists, who take their inspiration, and funding, from the austere Wahhabi sect of Islam, official state religion of Saudi Arabia. This and other Muslim states were leading donors to post-war Kosovo, building hundreds of mosques in the process, though their contributions are said to have dried up considerably due to much of the population’s disinterest in Islamic activities. Following Kosovo’s independence declaration in February of 2008, the reticence of many Muslim states to recognize this status led to widespread speculation that an element of revenge was justly playing out.

Calling the attack against him “an attack against the institution,” Musliu added: “this was not an accident. This was well-organized. Everyone involved in that attack passed at least by two mosques to come and pray in the mosque I was in,” according to the RTK transcript. Identifying his attackers as known extremists from the villages of Gllobar, Krajsmirovc, Nekoc, Preteshtica, and Llapushnik, the imam summed it up thus: “all the bearded-men of Drenica were involved in this attack.” Also condemning the attack was Kosovo’s Islamic Community representative, Resul Rexhepi.

A Question of Internal Influence?

A very interesting detail that emerged from this event was Musliu’s comment that authorities should react- “if they are not scared, because there is no security for our judges and police,” reported RTK. Rexhepi echoed this concern by stating that he wanted “to believe in the justice of our authorities.”

Considering that the number of radical Islamists among Kosovo’s Albanian population is relatively small, and that their appeal has been successfully repelled by secular consumerism and increasingly, Catholic conversion, the question of intimidation and other hostile tactics being exerted on judiciary and law enforcement officials in Kosovo becomes more acute. If the forces of radical Islam are indeed weak, then what could possibly inspire fear among such officials?

In the author’s past interviews with numerous American and European security professionals in Kosovo, the issue of intimidation of local authorities and the locals in general has been cited. Most significant, however, was a report that mid- to upper-level judicial appointments in certain regions of Kosovo, as well as other civil sector positions, were being given to fundamentalist sympathizers. If such practices are continuing, the European Union may encounter friction in the operations of its new judicial oversight security body, EULEX.

The 1,900-strong law-and-order component of the EU civilian mission replacing the long-running UN mission in Kosovo, EULEX will provide foreign judges to hear cases together with local judges, ideally, enhancing the latter’s professionalism and local validity, while taking some of the pressure off of them in controversial cases.

According to a senior representative, EULEX also contains a 35-person counterterrorism unit, of which two or three will be Americans. (A few American judges are also slated to be in the mix there, though EULEX primarily draws on nationals of EU countries, plus Croatia, Turkey, Switzerland and Norway).

A more concentrated and capable security unit will indeed be a welcome improvement on the UNMIK’s often shoddy efforts. Nevertheless, the disorganized and competitive nature of intelligence-gathering between in Kosovo will remain, with important countries continuing to run their own operations from ever-larger and more sophisticated diplomatic headquarters, and NATO forces continuing to operate their own.

Owing to its all-pervasive former role, UNMIK was frequently scapegoated by locals of different ethnicities in Kosovo. However, the EU claims that its own new venture will be a ‘technical’ mission only, thus giving local authorities more responsibilities and control. This also means that pressure on law enforcement and the judiciary from ‘pressure groups’ such as Islamic radicals and organized crime syndicates will increasingly target local institutions, rather than foreign ones, though this pressure may well be exerted subtly, and in ways invisible to the casual outside observer.

To keep abreast of the situation, the EULEX will thus depend largely on the relative capabilities and testimony of its own on-site local judicial (and other) advisors. Their objectivity and the character of local pressures they endure will play important roles in the quality and quantity of information they receive. As with all other issues, that of fundamentalist Islam will be influenced by this test.

Foreign Support Continues

On December 30, 2008, Croatia’s Javno reported that a Kosovo Helsinki Committee study recently came to the “shocking revelation” that local Wahhabi leaders have been receiving “millions of euros” from Austria and other European countries, and that these funds are being used to pay Kosovo Muslims around 200 euros monthly to adopt the mores of Wahhabism. Of course, this is neither shocking, nor much of a revelation, considering that it has been standard procedure for foreign Islamic funders ever since NATO dislodged Yugoslav governance of the province in 1999.

The central role of Austria as a hub for Wahhabism in Europe dates back to the Bosnian conflict in the early 1990s, when it was the base for the Third World Relief Agency (TWRA), a major al Qaeda funding conduit for the Bosnian mujahedin. During the war, it laundered approximately $2.5 billion for the Bosnian Muslim government of President Alija Izetbegovic.

The agency had been opened in Vienna in February 1987, by a Sudanese doctor and jihad apologist, Fatih al-Hasanayn. As former NSA analyst John R. Schindler wrote in his engrossing study Unholy Terror, “no person can claim greater responsibility for the achievements of the Bosnian jihad [than al-Hasanayn], who handled the Muslim money that was the lifeblood of Sarajevo’s war effort.” Calling the Austrian capital a “spy’s paradise,” Schindler notes that the state police there “had a well-deserved reputation as a security service that looked the other way, particularly if the questionable activities were aimed outside Austria.”

After the Bosnian war, and especially after September 11, 2001, much effort was made by Western governments to dislodge radical Islamic networks and agencies such as the TWRA in Europe’s capitals. However, the foundations such groups established have survived in immigrant communities centered around radical mosques in places like Vienna and Graz, as well as cities in Germany and northern Italy, as has reported.

Although much reduced in financial strength and overall reach, these groups continue to operate in some capacity and tend to be the ones with most links to the Balkans, chiefly through the Bosnian, Albanian and small Macedonian Muslim diaspora communities. Two intelligence documents from Western European security services, recently reviewed by, harmonize with open-source information indicating the continued importance of Austria as the main intermediary for disseminating funds and propaganda from foreign Wahhabi sponsors to the Balkans.

Fluid Alliances?

In the Croatian article, one Kosovar imam in particular is cited as responsible for the growth of radical Islam- Shefqet Krasniqi, “the only [imam] who can attract more than ten thousand believers to his prayers.” The article provides an image of this Albanian preacher at one of his gatherings). Krasniqi denies being a radical, and accuses Kosovar leaders of having ‘strayed from their faith.’

As reported in October 2008, the Vatican’s increasing (if subtle) attempts to convert as many Albanians as possible ‘back’ to Catholicism are bound to inspire fierce opposition from the most committed among Kosovo’s Islamists. Thus, even if the total number of the latter is relatively few, their future reactions may become more extreme as Catholic efforts become more aggressive.

Nevertheless, Catholicism as a social mobility option has its rivals. And, for Kosovars, it seems almost as if a bidding war for their loyalties is on. In the Croatian report, Besqim Hisari, head of the Kosovo Helsinki Committee is quoted as saying that ‘you can only imagine how easy it is to get people to be recruited. The Wahhabists perfidiously exploited the difficult situation in Kosovo. And once they get the taste of the money, all these people will, without doubt, identify themselves with Wahhabism.’

This frank admission of pecuniary motive contrasts with depictions of Kosovars given in articles such as a recent Wall Street Journal op-ed touting Kosovo as a “model of tolerance.” According to pieces such as this one, the Kosovars are not dangerous Muslims, because they are hardly Muslim at all, and undyingly pro-American (plus, in a creative new addition to the national brand, they are apparently great admirers of Israel as well).

Nevertheless, as is the case elsewhere in the Balkans, the people of Kosovo are motivated primarily by perceived self-interest. Were America to change its foreign policy on Kosovo, such a change could not fail to register in various ways among large segments of the population.

There are instructive examples. Take Germany, which has gone to great lengths to earn its highly positive perception amongst Kosovo Albanians. Nevertheless, the arrest of three alleged BND officials at a bombing site in Pristina in November 2008 spread suspicion and doubts amidst a rumor-prone populace. The event quickly died down, but if misused by the (politically controlled) local media, could have resulted in demonstrations or worse. (The power of sensationalist media to marshal street mobs was vividly attested during the March 2004 riots, which targeted Serbs across the province).

Of course, change we can believe in is not to be expected from the incoming Obama administration, as the United States has made great political, military and financial investment in keeping Kosovars on its side. Both parties realize this, and have adapted their behavior and ambitions accordingly.

Analysts sometimes forget, even willingly so, that the primary reason for this lavish American attention is not altruism, but rather a security concern: that is, to prevent Kosovo from going down a different path. The attested continuing activity of Islamic extremists in the province represents just one of the potential paths that outside powers are still trying to usher the Kosovars down.

For present policy-making concerns, the Islamists’ relative chance of success is not particularly important. What is important to note is that they do remain a security threat which represents an unneeded distraction for Western nation-building processes, one which will have to be handled by Kosovo’s new EU security mission over the months ahead. The EU’s capability to understand, assess and eliminate this threat, one which was inexcusably allowed to happen by the previous UN administration, will have great ramifications for future Balkan security.

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Greater and Lesser

By David Binder*

Talk of a “Greater” this or that Balkan nation-state has subsided in recent years as the region experienced the creation of ever more mini-republics – a total of eight on the territory of the former Yugoslavia.

The trend toward fragmentation was initiated by petty nationalists and fostered by the United States and those European powers that found it convenient and desirable to dominate and exploit small fiefdoms rather than confront the relatively large and independent-minded federal state that Yugoslavia had represented.

The outside powers reinforced the new system of mini-republics by inviting candidacy in their continental economic organization, the European Union, and their now global security organization, NATO. (At the moment both groupings appear to be losing rather than gaining strength.)

But is “Greater” gone forever from the Balkan vocabulary?

Beginning in the 19th century and for most of the 20th century Balkan nations entertained ambitions for “greater” – even much greater – territory at the expense of neighbors. Much blood was shed to realize dreams of a Greater Romania, a Greater Albania, a Greater Bulgaria, a Greater Greece, a Greater Croatia, a Greater Serbia – even of a Greater Montenegro and a Greater Macedonia. Some succeeded.

It might be prudent not to banish the concept altogether although the likelihood of planting this or that flag some distance beyond currently defined frontiers seems rather dim at the moment.

Think of the phrase of the late Willy Brandt spoken in 1989 when the Berlin Wall collapsed and with it the four decades of Germany ‘s East-West division:  Jetzt wachst zusammen was zusammen gehort – “Now grows together what belongs together.”

There are 7 million ethnic Albanians living in adjacent lands (Albania, Kosovo, southern Montenegro, western Macedonia, Northern Greece and a small pocket of southwestern Serbia around Presevo). There are 9 million ethnic Serbs living in Serbia and the Republic of Srpska (in adjacent Bosnia-Hercegovina) as well as some scattered beyond in Croatia, Macedonia and Montenegro.

The question this poses – in the sense of Willy Brandt’s phrase – is:

Whether in coming decades those ethnic Albanians now living in at least five Balkan states and those ethnic Serbs living in five states as well may sense a growing kinship with their fellow nationals beyond the current frontiers and local allegiances that now separate them? Further, would an enhanced kinship act as a form of “soft power” (to borrow the 2004 coinage of Joseph Nye) tending to erase at least some borders. For instance, in a “soft” way  the spreading usage of the Euro helps simplify currency transactions across Balkan borders.

The same cannot be said of the father of the Euro currency, the European Union. Rather, the community has proven to be a divisive force in the Balkans, and well beyond.

Romania, Bulgaria and Slovenia became members. Croatia and Macedonia have gained candidate status. The rest are in limbo. Altogether this is a far cry from what the EU promised the Balkans when it declared that borders would be “irrelevant” in the Europe of the future because the countries would “belong together” in the community paradise – “reattaching” Kosovo to Serbia for instance and, in a sense “recreating” Yugoslavia. The mere prospect of joining drew “wildly varying reactions among citizens of the western Balkan nations” according to a Gallup poll published November 18 – from overwhelming approval in Kosovo and Montenegro to only 29 percent in Croatia and little more in Bosnia-Hercegovina. (Douglas Muir, who often comments on Balkan affairs in his blog, wrote last April: “By the  end of the next decade most if not all of the Albanians will be in the EU. And the prospect of EU membership will be a major engine for change”). Already, the black double-eagle of Skenderbeg is unfurled wherever Albanians are clustered.

Judging from the second-class citizenship treatment accorded Poland and some other newer EU members, the prospect of full membership may become less enticing for would-be candidates including that are currently in limbo. (With apprehension of  Ratko Mladic being a principal condition for consideration of Serbia for entry one may imagine that if he were found dead, The Netherlands, as the reigning anti-Serb member of the EU, would conduct a forensic investigation commensurate to the examination of the Shroud of Turin).

In fact the European Union, like its predecessor, the European Community, has badly botched its role in the Balkans – which the senior European members tend to regard with scarcely disguised contempt of wealthy householders for vagabonds. Given the mediocrity and lack of vision of its principal leaders, the EU may never succeed in repairing the damage it has done in the region. (It is all but forgotten that before it began to disintegrate Yugoslavia was considered a possible candidate for EC membership!)

Regardless of the EU, during the last nine years in the absence of armed conflict, the Balkan region has seen a dramatic thinning of frontiers. Transmigration and piercing of the borders is taking place on a large scale – from long distance truck traffic in the TIR system to satellite television transmissions, cell telephone calls, text messages, Internet sites, including Facebook. Balkan businessmen have not hesitated to expand their enterprises beyond state borders (a practice pioneered by Slovenians in Serbia).

In addition, there is increased traffic of ordinary people as well as widespread criminal traffic of humans (2,000 to Macedonia alone for the sex trade), not to mention smuggling of drugs, weapons and other goods. (An example of the great mobility in organized crime in the Balkans is the case of an ethnic Albanian, Dilaver Bojku. A sex trafficker charged with enslaving dozens of girls from Ukraine, Romania and Moldova, Bojku operated for years with impunity in his native western Macedonia. He was convicted and jailed in June 2003. But he soon escaped, crossed into and out of nearby Albania and then north to the Montenegrin port of Ulcinj where he was apprehended after two weeks at large as he prepared to travel to Brazil).

In the category of a soft-power-dissolution of the borders separating Serbs one should consider:

*Republika Srpska Telekom, purchased by Serbia’s Telekom for about 1 billion Euro.

*A Russian gas pipeline set to transit Serbia will have a Republika Srbska branch.

*New highways are planned to connect the two Serbian republics.

*Miroslav Miskovic, a Serbian entrepreneur, is building a mall in Banja Luka.

*Bijelina on Serbia’s northwestern border has grown to be the second city of RS.

*Several joint energy projects on the Drina River are in planning stages.

At this time the Albanian space in the Balkans would probably not be able match this Serbian set of connections. But one should not discount the potential of road construction on the path of the Via Egnatia of Roman vintage, connecting the Adriatic  port of Durres to Istanbul – to be followed perhaps by a pipeline. Consider also the new highway under construction along a tortuous route crossing the Prokletia Mountains from Kosovo southward to the Adriatic, opening Kosovo industry and agriculture to quick transport to the sea. Meanwhile Kosovo Albanians are investing in Montenegro, buying land on a large scale in the southern region of the country known in Albanian as Malesia and Madhe, which has always been inhabited by Albanians.

Might an old Balkan hand speculate that Republika Srpska on the one hand and Kosovo on the other might serve as the vital springboards for unification of the Serbs here and the Albanians there, as Piedmont did for Italy in 1859-1861?

Would these developments in two decades or so augur something resembling what David Kanin, a Central Intelligence Agency analyst, said he believed in 1993: “that we are moving toward a Greater Serbia” and “a Greater Albania”? Or is Martin Sletzinger, the Balkan specialist of the Woodrow Wilson Center in Washington consulting the right oracle in predicting in October 2008 that “Balkan borders will change, perhaps not in 6 or 7 months, but in 6 or 7 years.”   (In an even more drastic vein, Sletzinger said: “Macedonia can very well disappear as a country as a result of Kosovo’s independence while the whole Balkan region can enter a phase of major border shifts.”)

Having spent half a century reporting on what just happened in the world, I am reluctant to engage in the unfamiliar sport of predicting what will happen in a decade or so, especially in the Balkans. However I have taken note of an Associated Press dispatch datelined Tetovo, Macedonia, a hotbed of Albanian chauvinism, reporting about the concept of a Greater Albania in the environs on February 21, 2008, and finding that there was “little public enthusiasm for it.”

Yet by my count the longest period between Balkan border changes since the Ottoman period was 37 years. There have been three in the last three years involving Montenegro, Kosovo and Macedonia. Should I start counting again?


*David Binder (born 1931) was a correspondent for The New York Times from 1961 until 2004. He specialized in coverage of central and eastern Europe, based in Berlin, Belgrade and Bonn. The current piece was published in Belgrade’s Politika December 1, 2008.

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