Skip to comments.In Albania, where almost anything goes, the hunt for al-Qaida intensifies
Posted on 08/12/2002 7:16:48 AM PDT by Destro
In Albania, where almost anything goes, the hunt for al-Qaida intensifies
Sun Aug 11, 8:17 PM ET
By WILLIAM J. KOLE, Associated Press Writer
TIRANA, Albania - They could hear him moving around the house, but when Albanian commandos stormed in, the suspected Iranian terrorist was nowhere to be found.
Exasperated after a room-to-room search, an officer flung open the lid on a washing machine. Gunfire exploded from inside. The suspect wounded the officer, only to die in a hail of police bullets.
The little known 1998 raid on the gritty outskirts of Tirana points up long-standing suspicions about the presence of terrorist elements in Albania, a predominantly Muslim nation that is among 34 countries listed in a post-Sept. 11 U.S. congressional report as having al-Qaida cells.
A decade after emerging from communist isolation, this impoverished nation has slid into a shadowy chaos rife with corruption, weapons trafficking and human smuggling. It's an almost-anything-goes atmosphere one with plenty of shadows in which terrorists can hide.
While Albanian authorities say they're doing what they can to crack down on terrorists, "you can't cook eggs in the middle of a hurricane," said Genc Pollo, a member of parliament and a former adviser to ex-President Sali Berisha.
The unpaved street outside his office is a typical Tirana scene: Mud puddles the size of small ponds conceal axle-crunching potholes, and the neighborhood is darkened by frequent power outages.
Albania, Pollo concedes, "needs to get itself in order so it can't be used by terrorists."
Their presence has come to be symbolized by the "Twin Towers," an ironically named high-rise project at the center of an investigation into al-Qaida operations in Albania.
Authorities seized the construction site in January and froze the assets of one of the high-rise project's main partners: Yasin al-Qadi, a fugitive Saudi businessman suspected of laundering money for Osama bin Laden ( news - web sites)'s terror network through extensive business dealings in Albania.
Al-Qadi, 46, heads the Saudi-based Muwafaq Foundation, or Blessed Relief, which U.S. investigators suspect took in millions from wealthy Saudis and funneled it to bin Laden. Al-Qadi was among 39 individuals and organizations designated in October by the Bush administration to have their assets frozen.
Authorities also are investigating at least nine other cases of alleged money laundering tied to suspected terrorist operatives. Earlier this year, they expelled five Arab charity workers suspected of ties to al-Qaida and ordered 223 other people without proper residency papers to leave.
Al-Qadi set up eight different companies in Albania since 1992, said Agim Neza, an official with the General Prosecutor's Office. He said his agency has asked the U.S. Department of Justice ( news - web sites) for bank account numbers and anything else it has on al-Qadi.
"It's very difficult for us to prove he supported terrorists," Neza said. "If we're going to continue investigating him, we must have proof."
Al-Qadi, who has vehemently denied any ties to terrorism or bin Laden, told The Associated Press that he and 30 other Saudi investors were taking legal action to regain access to their investments.
"It is unfortunate that the Albanian authorities are leveling such accusations against me now when they used to send delegations to urge me to invest in Albania," he said.
As recently as 1998, Albania served as a key staging ground for al-Qaida, Egyptian Jihad and other terrorist organizations, an official with the Albanian secret service, known as SHISH, told AP on condition of anonymity.
It was in 1998 that the U.S. Embassy in Tirana tightened security and evacuated some personnel after receiving what it called credible evidence of a Jihad plot to attack the compound.
That same year, a shadowy connection emerged between Albania and the August 1998 terrorist bombings of the U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania. The day before the attacks, an Arabic-language newspaper published a letter purportedly from Jihad threatening reprisals against the United States for its role in the arrests of Jihad operatives in Albania.
Shortly after it took office in 1998, Albania's Socialist-led coalition government launched a campaign with the help of the FBI ( news - web sites) and the CIA ( news - web sites) to rid the country of suspected Islamic terrorists. About a dozen were arrested and later extradited to other countries; at least two were convicted and later executed in Egypt. Many others were expelled.
"Until 1998, al-Qaida had a good base here. That base has eroded," Neza said.
Recently, Albanian intelligence has investigated Arabs and Islamic humanitarian groups so aggressively that some indignant Arabs have begun to complain, the SHISH official said.
The heavy Arab presence in Albania is a legacy of Berisha, who reached out to the Islamic world in the early 1990s, seeking financial support for his country as it emerged from a half century of communism and international isolation.
Without parliamentary approval, Berisha took Albania into the Organization of the Islamic Conference, triggering strong criticism from some Albanians; the country is about 60 percent Muslim and 40 percent Christian (Mostly Greeks). Western governments also criticized his government for lax security that allowed scores of Islamic terrorists to infiltrate the country.
A Western official credits the Albanians with being "enormously cooperative" in the U.S.-led war on terror, and the SHISH agent declares that any al-Qaida members still in the country "fear for their day-to-day existence."
Yet in this country where top prosecutors earn just dlrs 300 a month and allegations of obstruction of justice are commonplace, there are doubts about the authorities' resolve.
Ervin Hatibi, a soft-spoken Muslim community leader with long blond hair and a flowing red beard, gets fired up when the talk turns to Arabs who have imported extremism along with their wealth.
"We need to launch investigations and throw these guys out of Albania," he said. "As a Muslim, I feel threatened by these people."