The Washington Post
By Joby Warrick
Tirana-Ask Bujar Hysa about the charges that landed him in Tirana’s cramped No. 302 Prison, and he spits furious denials. “I never encouraged terrorism!” declared the Muslim cleric, convicted last month of recruiting young Albanians for ISIS.
But press further and Hysa readily admits to supporting a kind of ISIS – not in Syria, but at home, in Albania, a NATO member and close U.S. ally on Europe’s southern flank.
Reflecting on his country’s future from the prison’s tiny visitor’s room, he predicted that Albanians would inevitably replace Western-style governance with sharia, or Islamic law. Indeed, younger members of his flock were clamoring for it, he said.
“Islam can coexist with other religions, but with democracy? No!” the bearded imam told a reporter as a guard kept an anxious watch just outside the door. “Anyone who says that sharia can coexist with democracy is a hypocrite.”
It is precisely this sentiment that has officials on a war footing in tiny Albania, a country with 2.8 million people, but an outsize problem trickling in from across its rugged eastern border.
The Balkan enclave, nestled between the shimmering Adriatic and the high peaks of the Dinaric Alps, has a majority-Muslim population but a centuries-old tradition of religious tolerance and moderation. Yet even here, 1,200 miles from the fighting in Syria, ISIS has found a small but devoted following.
More than 100 Albanians have traveled to the Middle East to join the terrorist group, and a few have gained prominence, using the Internet to beckon their countrymen. Their call to militancy has been echoed by a handful of ultra-conservative mosques that have sprung up in Albania in recent years, some of them built with help from Islamic charities and missionaries from Turkey and the Arab Gulf region.
Albania’s government is aggressively pushing back. The parliament recently passed laws forbidding participation in ISIS, and the security services have cracked down on recruits making the trek to Iraq and Syria. Bujar Hysa, the imprisoned imam, was one of three clerics and six others sentenced last month to prison terms of up to 18 years for allegedly encouraging young Albanians to embrace violent jihad.
But these efforts are facing strong headwinds, including a current of radicalism welling up from the Levant and spilling through a Balkan neighborhood still scarred from the sectarian warfare of the 1990s. Extremist messages are finding fertile ground in poorer neighborhoods and villages, where official corruption is high and unemployment among young adults often exceeds 40 percent.
Border police are stepping up patrols for Islamist fighters traveling north to central Europe with Syrian refugees, though few of the migrants have dared to attempt Albania’s dangerous alpine passes so far. “We have high mountains to serve as partial barriers to their entry,” Albanian parliament speaker Ilir Meta said during a Washington visit last month, “but even mountains cannot stop this tide.”
Albanian officials acknowledge that their most potent weapon against extremism – economic development – continues to fall short, as do Western promises of increased trade and investment with a country still mired in poverty 25 years after the end of communist rule.
“Religion has never been the problem here; it’s education. It’s the lack of a developed civil society. And it’s poverty, especially in the remote areas,” Ylli Manjani, the country’s justice minister, said in an interview. “When you have a situation where people feel hopeless, extremists can fish in that pool.”
The very idea of radical Islam still sits uneasily in a country that has always worn its religion lightly.
For centuries, Albanians were an amicable mix of Sunni Muslims, Orthodox Christians and Roman Catholics, with a significant minority of Bektashis, a moderate Sufi Muslim sect that has its global headquarters in Albania. For nearly 50 years until the collapse of communism in 1990, the country’s Marxist leaders proclaimed Albania to be the world’s first atheist state, officially banning religious observances and persecuting imams and priests.
Among the persecuted was the Muslim grandfather of Ylli Gurra, a moderate Sunni cleric who today presides over a prominent mosque in Tirana, not far from statues honoring Skanderbeg, Albania’s national hero and a 15th-century convert to Christianity.
Gurra, wearing a tailored suit and sipping coffee in one of Tirana’s fashionable outdoor cafes, credited his grandfather not only for his faith but also for his belief in embracing neighbors from different religions. Such acceptance, he said, has always been a staple of Albanian Islam – at least, until recently.
“We have always been proud of being a country where you can practice your beliefs as you see fit,” Gurra said. “But the people who grew up under communism had little understanding of their religion. And now, after 25 years of democracy and freedom, some have trouble understanding the boundaries.”
Foreign groups have been only too eager to assist in the country’s religious education. Starting in the early 1990s, Islamic charities, some with the backing of oil-rich gulf kingdoms, jetted into Tirana to begin building mosques and madrassas, or religious schools.
In the past decade, Albania’s larger cities have witnessed a proliferation of independent mosques, unaffiliated with the Muslim Community of Albania, the organization that presides over the country’s moderate-Sunni worship centers. New evangelical Christian congregations had cropped up, as well, reinforcing a growing sectarian consciousness that many Albanians say is alien to their culture.
Today, one of the biggest construction projects in Tirana is a huge, $34 million mosque funded in large part by the Turkish government. While few officials would publicly question Turkey’s largesse, some privately expressed exasperation. Why a lavish new mosque in a country with so many critical needs, including schools, highways and infrastructure for Albania’s promising but underdeveloped tourism industry?
“Please,” implored one senior official, “we have needs other than mosques.”
Lately, it is not the mosques themselves that worry Albanian security officials. It is the messages, communicated by a small number of independent imams, many of them trained outside the country.
Fears about radicalization began building two years ago when the first waves of ISIS volunteers began leaving for Syria, urged onward in some cases by local clerics. In some remote villages in southeastern Albania, young Muslims in their teens and 20s left home in clusters, sending word later that they had arrived in Iraq or Syria. Some joined up with all-Balkan combat units made up of Albanian and Kosovar nationals.
One Albanian fighter, Ebu Belkisa, a 32-year-old imam from the tiny eastern village of Leshnica, was promoted to a leadership post and then to Internet stardom, appearing in ISIS videos under the nom de guerre Almir Daci to urge his countrymen to carry out terrorist attacks at home. Belkisa was later killed in fighting, but his widely circulated videos helped spur an unprecedented crackdown by Albanian officials on real and perceived radicals across the country.
Some of the most notorious mosques were closed or forced to change leadership, and many of the more outspoken Islamists were arrested. Among those caught up in the initial sweeps were Bujar Hysa and the eight other Islamists accused of encouraging congregants to support ISIS.