by Anne and Massoud Khodabandeh
“Albania will become a coordination center for fighters returning from ISIS to the Balkans,” announced Bulgaria’s Prime Minister Boyko Borissov during a joint press conference with Albanian Prime Minister Edi Rama during a conference against violent extremism, which took place in Tirana this week.
Neither prime minister offered additional details, such as who is pushing this plan or with whom it is being negotiated. This vagueness generated criticism that Rama had not only failed to consult with parliament on this matter of grave importance to his country but perhaps he himself was not fully consulted.
Albania has been used before to host undesirables. In 2005, the United States sent five inmates from Guantanamo Bay there. Between 2013 and 2016, Washington also relocated 2,901 Mojahedin-e Khalq (MEK) extremists there from Iraq, which had been trying to expel them since 2003.
Now, the Trump administration is telling Albania to host and de-radicalize former Islamic State (ISIS or IS) fighters who originated from the Balkans region. According to Colonel Bardhyl Kollcaku, head of Albania’s Intelligence and Security Agency, “We have the appropriate experience to contribute in the study and addressing the phenomenon of foreign fighters.”
If the MEK had been de-radicalized, Kollcaku’s assertion would be credible. But they weren’t.
In 2013, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton pragmatically removed the MEK from the US terrorism list to allow members to be sent to third countries so that Iraq could be rid of them. European countries would not take them because of their terrorist past. Instead, the Albanian government agreed to take them only on the promise that a de-radicalization institute be established to reintegrate the extremists back into society.
This did not happen. The allocated budget, lodged with the American embassy in Tirana, has not been touched. Instead, after Donald Trump became president and set about dismantling every detail of Barack Obama’s legacy, the MEK were “allowed” to regroup.
Regrouping meant that the MEK would continue to call for violent regime change against Iran, backed by US extremists like Rudi Giuliani and John Bolton who now occupy influential posts in the Trump administration. As a result, Albania has become a front-line enemy state in relation to Iran.
Regrouping also meant re-enslaving members, who are not paid and have no human rights. It also meant building a closed camp in a remote part of the country to which Albanian authorities and security services have no access. As though Albania wasn’t having a hard time already cracking down on criminal and mafia gangs, now the MEK are implicated in criminal activity. Among several individuals arrested for money laundering last month, two Israelis were found to be associated with FARA NGO. This is the same company involved in building the closed military training base in Manez to which rank-and-file MEK fighters were moved last autumn.
At the same time that was happening, word got out that the widows and orphans of killed IS fighters would soon be transferred to the MEK’s deserted buildings in the Albanian capital of Tirana. Such rumors were dismissed at the time. Now it appears that the truth is much worse. Actual IS fighters will be sent to Albania.
It’s possible, however, that the IS fighters will follow a similar trajectory as the MEK in Albania. Western powers have seen Syria and Iraq fall away from their influence. Hezbollah governs Lebanon, and a restive population wrapped up in the politics of Palestine is challenging the stability of Jordan. These are uncertain times in the Middle East. Some individuals in Western power structures have broached the possibility of creating a bespoke covert mercenary force to bring fresh chaos and violence into the mix. Although the MEK has been such a handy tool for aggravating Iran, former IS fighters could, with the right training, constitute a similar force against other countries.
And although John Bolton recently remarked that regime change against Iran is now off the Trump administration’s agenda, continued patronage of the MEK belies that claim. So, this is not just Albania’s problem. The West needs to urgently ask, “What use is the Islamic State now?”
Massoud Khodabandeh is the director of Middle East Strategy Consultants and has worked long-term with the authorities in Iraq to bring about a peaceful solution to the impasse at Camp Liberty and help rescue other victims of the Mojahedin-e Khalq cult. Among other publications, he co-authored the book “The Life of Camp Ashraf: Victims of Many Masters” with his wife Anne Singleton. They also published an academic paper on the MEK’s use of the Internet. Anne Khodabandeh is a UK expert in anti-terrorist activities and a long-standing activist in the field of deradicalization of extremists. She has written several articles and books on this subject, along with her husband, who is of Iranian origin.