Insight on the News - World
Al-Qaeda's Links in the Balkans
By Jamie Dettmer
Since Sept. 11 the U.S. intelligence services have been working hard to uncover links between Osama bin Laden's al-Qaeda terrorist network and other Islamic groups throughout the world. And the Bush administration has not been slow to advertise connections once discovered or to demand cooperation from local authorities in order to disrupt the links.
According to President George W. Bush, the war on terror should be seamless and Washington expects all countries to assist in fighting the scourge of terrorism. In return, Bush has promised the United States will "support and reward governments" that, in his words, "make the right choices."
But when it comes to Kosovo and Macedonia the seamless approach appears to be at risk of unraveling. The Balkans is one area where the United States apparently would prefer to step lightly for fear of upsetting the tenuous peace. U.S. and NATO intervention was required to establish — and now to enforce — that peace in the republics of the former Yugoslavia.
Or so claim Macedonian officials, who argue they are not receiving the rewards they deserve. They maintain that the United States and the European Union (EU) were wrong to push for concessions to be granted last year to ethnic Albanians and their guerrilla army, which mainly is composed of fighters from the former Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA).
The Macedonians say the Bush administration has shown little interest in pursuing links they have uncovered between al-Qaeda and groups allied with Albanian separatists, who continue to foment trouble in northern Macedonia with frequent incursions from neighboring Kosovo. Macedonian intelligence has been in regular contact with the CIA and the FBI. Both have been supplied with details of the al-Qaeda relationship with militant Albanian nationalist groups in neighboring Kosovo, which is under U.N. protection, and Macedonia, which was spared a civil war last year following NATO brokering a peace agreement between the majority Macedonians and minority ethnic Albanians.
Intertwined Albanian groups in the region, most of them closely aligned with organized-crime syndicates, have as their objective the carving out of what they call "Greater Albania" — an area that includes 90,000 square kilometers (36,000 square miles) of Kosovo, Greece, Macedonia, Bosnia, Serbia and Montenegro.
In the spring, Macedonian officials provided U.S. National Security Council (NSC) aides with a 79-page report on al-Qaeda activity in the area. The report, which was compiled by Macedonia's Ministry of the Interior, lists the names of al-Qaeda-linked fighters and outlines the roles of two units, one numbering 120 and the other 250, in northern Macedonia.
The Macedonians say the units are based in the Kumanovo-Lipkovo region of their country. As well as being composed of Macedonian and Kosovar Albanians, they say the units also number fighters from Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, Jordan and Chechnya, some of whom were trained in al-Qaeda-run camps in Afghanistan. The Macedonians seized a video made by one of the so-called "mujahideen," a Turk named Ramzi Adem, showing the activities of the foreign fighters. The 120-man unit is led by Selimi Ferit, an Albanian born in the Macedonian capital of Skopje.
Macedonian sources say the presence of dozens of al-Qaeda fighters in the region should be viewed with alarm by Washington and the EU. Private security experts concur that they could pose a threat to U.S. and NATO forces stationed in Kosovo and Macedonia and even in Bosnia, where Afghan veterans are believed to have sought safe haven.
Copies of the Macedonian report, which was leaked to Insight, also were supplied to the FBI and the CIA. "Officials at the NSC and CIA were polite and received the information with thanks, but little else has happened," says a Macedonian official who requested anonymity. There also has been little action on terror-linked money-laundering schemes the Macedonians say they have monitored involving bank accounts in Switzerland and Germany.
U.S. government sources dispute the Macedonian characterization, arguing that indeed they have followed up any information supplied by Skopje, with the names being run through Immigration and Naturalization Service computers to see if any of the listed fighters ever had entered the United States. Some administration officials caution that Macedonian Prime Minister Ljubco Georgievski, a former student revolutionary, and Interior Minister Ljube Boskovski are overplaying the al-Qaeda links with the aim of persuading the West to drop pressure on the Macedonians to implement political reforms agreed to in last year's NATO-brokered cease-fire.
They also worry that the Macedonian prime minister, who heads a coalition government made up of Macedonians and Albanians, risks losing a parliamentary election set for the autumn and is intent on inflaming nationalist sentiments on both sides. One fear is that Georgievski will stoke inter-Albanian rivalries — there recently have been shoot-outs between rival Albanian groups in the town of Tetovo — and use that feuding as a reason for postponing the vote.
Nonetheless, whatever the motives of the current Macedonian government for pushing the al-Qaeda ties now, U.S. and Western intelligence sources acknowledge privately that Albania and Kosovo attracted interest from bin Laden in the late 1990s and that Albania continues to serve as a money-raising center for al-Qaeda.
Apart from sending fighters to aid the KLA during the struggle in Kosovo with the Serbs, al-Qaeda is believed to have contributed funds to Albanian separatists and to have established strong links with Albanian Mafia leaders, who aid the formally disbanded but still existing KLA in schemes to raise money through narco-trafficking, prostitution and gun-running [see "Heroin and Sex Trade Fuel Albanian Nationalism," Aug. 13, 2001].
The Albanian Mafia controls the major Balkans narcotics-smuggling route that runs through Turkey, Bulgaria, Albania, Kosovo and Macedonia. Although evidence remains sketchy of al-Qaeda involvement in narcotics, that isn't the case for the former Taliban regime in Afghanistan that profited from the heroin trade.
According to Fatos Klosi, the head of Albanian intelligence, a major network of bin Laden supporters was established in 1998 in Albania under the cover of various Muslim charities. The network served as a springboard for operations in Europe. Klosi claimed the network had "already infiltrated other parts of Europe from bases in Albania through traffic in illegal immigrants, who have been smuggled by speedboat across the Mediterranean to Italy in large numbers."
Yossef Bodansky, director of the House Task Force on Terrorism and Unconventional Warfare, claimed in his book, Bin Laden: The Man Who Declared War on America, that the Albanian network was headed by Muhammad al-Zawahiri, the engineer brother of Ayman al-Zawahiri, the Egyptian who mentored bin Laden and, according to the United States, was the brains behind Sept. 11 and other attacks.
U.S. intelligence sources have confirmed to Insight that dozens of KLA fighters trained in bin Laden camps in Afghanistan and that some of them returned to fight with al-Qaeda and the Taliban after the Sept. 11 terror attacks against New York City and Washington.
So why the cautious approach in the Balkans? "The murky complexity of Balkan politics makes the Israeli-Palestinian conflict look simple," confides a private-sector security expert influential with the Bush administration. "We backed the KLA in the fight against Serbia and we have to take care not to open up a can of worms."
Macedonian officials maintain that Western governments, including the United States, appear determined to downplay the al-Qaeda links with Albanian separatists because to highlight the ties could provoke public disaffection with NATO's continued presence in Kosovo. It also might prompt questions about why the West isn't taking a harder line with militant Albanians.
James Phillips, a research fellow at the Washington-based Heritage Foundation, takes a more benign view. "Al-Qaeda has a modus operandi of helping Islamic groups such as the KLA and of infiltrating to become a major influence within them. The Bush administration may well not be ignoring the Macedonian information, but it is much more concerned about al-Qaeda threats in the U.S. than in the Balkans. In short, the White House may have opted for the tactical approach of laying off in the short term."
Jamie Dettmer is a senior editor for Insight.