Albania Denies Terrorist Links

Tirana claims it has done its utmost to root out individuals suspected of having links with extremist organisations.

Albania Denies Terrorist Links

Tirana claims it has done its utmost to root out individuals suspected of having links with extremist organisations.

Wednesday, 26 September, 2001

Following the terrorist attacks in the United States, Albania has been fending off claims that the country has been harbouring terrorists suspected of having links with Osama bin Laden.

The government of Prime Minister Ilir Meta, which has guaranteed its support for the US war on terrorism, has staunchly denied speculation in certain domestic and foreign media that bin Laden - the individual widely suspected to be behind the attacks on the Pentagon and The World Trade Centre - used Albania for his operations.

The interior ministry has released statements in the past week saying that, while the 1992 - 1997 government of former president Sali Berisha may have had a laissez-faire policy towards terrorists, subsequent Socialist governments had done their utmost to root out any individual suspected of having links with extremist organisations.

The interior ministry has been particularly incensed by an article in the Washington Times on September 18, which appeared after several reports of links between Albania and bin Laden in the right-wing Serbian and Macedonian press. The article alleged that Albania might well have served as the springboard for the attacks in Washington and New York.

Albania's interior minister Ilir Gjoni rejected the allegations out of hand. His cause was bolstered by the US ambassador in Tirana, Joseph Limprecht, who commended the Meta administration for its collaboration with anti-terrorist efforts over the past three years. The ambassador also said Washington had neither identified nor located any terrorists cells in Albania.

In attempting to set the record straight, Gjoni as well as ambassador Limprecht have suggested that the former Berisha administration may have had a lax policy towards Islamic extremists.

Gjoni hinted that in the early - to mid - Nineties, the country had been a terrorist's dream, having close ties with Islamic nations and very porous borders.

The Islamic connection can be traced back to 1992, when the Tirana-based Economic Tribune published a letter from Berisha to his prime minister, Aleksander Meksi, in which he said was going to help accept aid from Muslim countries because the West had not lived up to promises of financial assistance.

According to the letter, the only condition for economic support was that Albania join the Organisation of the Islamic Conference, OIC - an umbrella organisation for all Muslim countries. He hoped this would serve a dual purpose: firstly provide much needed money for the country's disastrous economy and also spur West into cranking up the flow of aid. Parliament, however, failed to approve OIC membership.

But help did come in the form of the Arab Albanian Islamic Bank. It became the first foreign bank to set up operations in the country - and money soon began to pour in for the purpose of building mosques and Islamic centres.

In a sort of quid pro quo, a large number of individuals from Islamic countries were granted Albanian nationality. President Rexhep Meidani's adviser on legal affairs, Theodhori Sollaku, who held the same position back in 1992, said citizenship was only conferred after background checks had been made by the interior ministry and secret police.

But the decision to appoint a prominent Islamic intellectual, Bashkim Gazidede, to head the Shik secret police has raised concern that suspected terrorists may have acquired citizenship at the time.

Gazidede, however, is no longer available to shed light on the affair. He fled Albania in 1997 after blaming Washington for the near outbreak of civil war which followed the collapse of pyramid investment schemes. Gazidede accused the CIA in parliament of involvement in the civil unrest which brought down the Berisha government. .

Gazidede is known to have sought asylum in Syria and is believed to be currently residing in Libya.

That existence of terrorists on Albanian soil came to light in 1998 when, as a result of a combined Shik-CIA operation, several Egyptian individuals wanted for plotting atrocities in Egypt were extradited there. They were later brought to trial and executed.

Citizenship laws have been tightened up since, with thorough checks on applicants made in collaboration with international agencies. All Arab citizens in Albania are carefully scrutinised and many Islamic foundations closed.

"In Albania, there is no longer an Islamic threat," said Albanian police chief Bilbil Mema. "This country is no longer a refuge for Islamic terrorists."

Teodor Misha is editor-in-chief of the Albanian Observer magazine.

Albania, Syria
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