The search by militant Kosovar Albanians for a means to guarantee Kosovo's independence may draw them into the political struggle in Albania. This could enflame an already volatile situation, removing Albania as a partner in the Kosovo peace process and destabilizing the region. But the situation could worsen if Saudi terrorist Osama bin Laden exploits the unrest to re-establish his network there. Bin Laden's Albanian operation, important to his European organization, was shattered by the current Albanian government and the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency. He has attempted to retaliate for the breakup at least once. Chaos in Albania would invite an effort from bin Laden, complicating KFOR's mission in Kosovo and undermining regional stability.
A power struggle is under way in Albania, where the Socialist government of President Rexhep Meidani, representing factions predominately from southern Albania, is attempting to crush the political and economic strength of northern Albania's clans, represented by former President Sali Berisha and the Democratic Party.
Recent political setbacks for Berisha and the Democrats are pushing the northern Albanians to more violent tactics in their dispute with the government. Militant Kosovar Albanians, allied with the northern Albanians and seeking to disrupt the process of reconciliation between KFOR, Yugoslavia and Albania, may soon be drawn into the struggle in Albania, enflaming the conflict.
But another party also stands ready to take advantage of chaos in Albania. Saudi terrorist leader Osama bin Laden, eager to re-establish his network in the Balkans, could use or even facilitate the violence in Albania to achieve his goal.
Until 1998, bin Laden had a substantial network in Albania, Bosnia and Kosovo. According to Albania's security chief, cited by the Sunday Times in 1999, bin Laden established his Albanian operations in 1994, disguised initially as a wealthy Saudi humanitarian agency.
Osama bin Laden
The network, run by Egypt's Islamic Jihad organization, according to U.S. officials cited by UPI, was extremely important to bin Laden's operations, particularly in Europe. The Balkan network provided rest and training areas, and most importantly, it served as a transit route for Islamic militants, supplies and funding. According to Albania's State Intelligence Service (ShISh), bin Laden also used Albania as a staging area from which to send fighters into Kosovo.
According to U.S. officials, the Islamic Jihad militants fought as elite units in the Bosnian Army and operated through various Islamic relief organizations throughout the region.
In Dec. 13 testimony before the House Judiciary Committee's Subcommittee on Crime, INTERPOL Criminal Intelligence Directorate Assistant Director Ralf Mutschke stated that not only did the KLA receive financing from heroin trafficking, it also received financial support from bin Laden. Moreover, Mutschke noted that a military commander of bin Laden's organization, who was the brother of an Egyptian Islamic Jihad leader, commanded an elite KLA unit during the Kosovo conflict.
After the Berisha government's collapse in 1997, the new Socialist government in Albania assisted the United States in rolling up bin Laden's network in the region. According to Deutsche Presse Agentur, the Albanian government extradited seven suspected Islamic militants in 1998, and Albanian police killed another Islamic militant in a clash in Tirana the same year. Bin Laden attempted to retaliate by targeting the U.S. embassy in Tirana, a plan that was narrowly thwarted, according to U.S. officials.
Fear of further retaliation attempts remains high among U.S. officials in Albania and Kosovo. In July 1999, U.S. Defense Secretary William Cohen cancelled a planned visit to Albania on intelligence that bin Laden operatives in Albania were in search of a target of opportunity, according to ABC News. At the time, the ShISh reported it had three Islamic fundamentalists - two Iraqis and a Syrian - under surveillance, and that an Egyptian fundamentalist in Tirana had allegedly been ordered to plan assassinations.
In April of last year, KFOR forces went on heightened alert due to fears of an imminent guerrilla attack. According to military and diplomatic sources cited by National Public Radio, members of the Saudi Joint Relief Committee for Kosovo were suspected of monitoring KFOR activities in preparation for an attack.
More than 10 suspected Islamic terrorists, several believed to be working for bin Laden, have been arrested in Albania since the end of the Kosovo war. The most recent reported arrest and deportation occurred Oct. 30, when Egyptian Saber Saliman was stopped on arrival at Tirana airport. According to the Albanian press, Saliman's name was on a list of terrorist suspects given to Albania's intelligence service by the CIA and the Egyptian intelligence service. Saliman was reportedly listed as being employed by Osama bin Laden.
There may even be links between the bombing of the USS Cole in Yemen last October and the crackdown on Islamic militants in Albania. U.S. counterterrorism officials cited in U.S. News and World Report Jan. 8 suggested the Cole bombing, allegedly masterminded by Egyptian Islamic Jihad and bin Laden, could have been payback for shutting down their operations in Albania.
Security personnel patrol past the damaged USS Cole following the
Oct. 12, 2000, terrorist bombing attack on the ship in Aden, Yemen.
Should bin Laden attempt to exploit the growing unrest in Albania, he could do so quickly. KFOR has relied on the Albanian intelligence service to help roll up the terrorist network in Albania. Yet if a Beta news report that said ShISh agents were instructing and supplying the Liberation Army of Presevo, Bujanovac and Medvedja (UCPMB) is correct, underlying loyalties to Berisha make ShISh assistance conditional at best. KFOR also relied on KLA leader Hashim Thaci's personal security service to monitor the suspicious Saudi relief organization. Should the KLA enter the fray in Albania, that conduit of intelligence would dry up as well.
Like northern Albanian clans and Kosovar Albanian militants, Osama bin Laden has a vested interest in striking the Albanian government. Attempted infiltrations by bin Laden supporters into Albania as recently as last October suggest he is still hoping to re-establish his network in the region. As the power struggle in Albania becomes more violent, bin Laden may exploit, if not actively support, the unrest. Albania's descent into violence, compounded by a return of foreign Islamic militants, would undermine KFOR's hopes of stabilizing the Balkans anytime soon and would effectively rule out U.S. military withdrawal from the region.