Albania’s CVE battle for ‘hearts and minds’ is not over

Albania’s CVE battle for ‘hearts and minds’ is not over

As the European Commission announced plans to open accession negotiations with Albania, attention has been drawn to political issues, including corruption, organised crime and socio-economic development. However, the sweeping call for reforms diverts attention from a more pressing security issue that is taunting governments globally: the return of Islamic State supporters. Albania’s massive crackdown on violent extremism is yielding positive results, but will the country prove resilient to Caliphate returnees?


Recruiting Albanian nationals

Since the outbreak of the Syrian Civil War in 2011, up to 200 Albanians, including thirteen women and 31 children, have traveled to Syria. At first glimpse, these figures may appear marginal, but they are particularly telling when considering that the vast majority were recruited by a ring consisting of only nine people, including two imams.

The ring was connected to two mosques in Tirana’s suburbs (the Mëzezit and Unaza e Re Mosques), operating outside the control of the Albanian Muslim Community (KMSH), the country’s official governing body responsible for overseeing all Muslim institutions and educating new imams. It took ring leaders less than two years to convince their followers to make hijrah (emigration to an Islamic state), underlying the country’s potential to breed radicalization when state structures are absent, and highlighting the significant ramifications this could have for national and regional security.


Anarchy in Albania’s Muslim Community

After the fall of the communist regime, foreign religious foundations rushed in to rebuild the Muslim Community in Albania. They offered scholarships for religious studies in the Gulf and financed the construction of hundreds of mosques in Albania. Upon return, some clerics failed to comply with the moderate tradition of Islam that is preached in Albania. Instead, they preached Salafism or Wahhabism, refused to be administrated by KMSH, and received funds from questionable sources in the Gulf.

In 2015, the head of the the State Committee on Cults Ilir Dizdari claimed that around 200 of the 727 mosques in Albania “[did] not fulfill at least one of the required legal standards or Muslim Community regulations”. Similarly, during a reporting session to a parliamentary committee in 2015, Albania’s Intelligence Agency claimed that about 89 mosques operated outside KMSH’s jurisdiction.


Countering Extremism

Following the peak of 83 Albanians leaving for Syria in 2013, a large-scale investigation was launched into religious extremism and jihadi networks that led to the arrest of ring members. A parliamentary amendment adopted in July 2014 criminalized recruiting and partaking in foreign wars. Effectively, countering violent extremism (CVE) became a national priority and a comprehensive national action plan to counter extremism was drafted.

A key attribute of the draft is its recognition of socio-economic issues as root causes for radicalization. Given that the country does not have prior experience in tackling religious extremism, the strategy is surprisingly comprehensive and incorporates a wide range of stakeholders, including parents, teachers, social workers, government agencies, and young people from target areas. The strategy has three main target areas: community outreach and engagement, countering extremist propaganda, and developing long-term and comprehensive CVE policies.

KMSH has played an active and important role in support of the counter-extremism strategy, even though it is not officially mentioned in it. The organisation sought state assistance to quell the resistance of uncontrolled mosques, which need to be legalised and brought under the control of KMSH. The construction of new mosques outside of its jurisdiction have been reported, and those responsible have been prosecuted.

Additionally, it launched a one-year pilot program in five of the least developed parts of Tirana to promote democratic values and active citizenship among Muslim youth, which was expanded to other parts of the country a year later. Its cooperation is reflected by its participation in public awareness campaign against radicalisation in association with local politicians and artists.


Positive results

Concerted efforts by KMSH, state institutions, and relevant stakeholders have yielded positive results. Following a two-year trial, all members of the recruitment ring are serving between 4.5 and 18 years in prison. On November 2016, a regional counterterrorism operation averted a planned attack at a football match between the national teams of Albania and Israel in the city of Shkoder. Eight people were convicted for a combined sentence to 35.5 years by a Pristina court on May 18, 2018.

Additionally, all but seven mosques have been acquired by the KMSH and Albanian-language websites promoting jihad have been shut down. Most notably, the flow of people going to Syria has stopped. However, as Albania’s economic development plays catch-up with the developed world, many have fallen behind. This discrepancy is most notable in rural areas where state structures are weakest and economic opportunities and unemployment are worst.



In spite of the national strategy’s tangible results, significant challenges remain to effectively counter violent extremism in the country. Given the encompassing role of KMSH to administer all the mosques in the country and the territorial remoteness of Albania, the lack of mechanisms to ensure the fair distribution of attention and resources to rural and impoverished areas is worrying. Remote and poor youth in these areas are most prone to radicalization.

Aside from bringing “illegal” mosques under KMSH’s fold, the process does not appear to incorporate transformative characteristics such as re-educating imams or imposing monitoring mechanisms to ensure preaching in the mosques is compliant with KMSH standards. Without strict supervision, Salafism could flourish in remote areas. Especially concerning is the potential for returnees to use these areas to regroup and recruit. A large number of communist era weapons remain unaccounted among citizens, which makes the potential for strikes a concern.

There are also still mosques – including the Unaza e Re Mosque – that continue to preach Salafism/Wahhabism and are unwilling to cooperate with KMSH. Given the lack of re-integration or de-radicalisation programmes for returnees from Syria, these mosques could turn into a haven for them and other radicalised Muslims from the region. The recent arrest of an Albanian national at Tirana airport on his way to join the Islamic State highlights this challenge. He could be the first among many to act on their support for the Islamic State.



Albania’s punitive and preventive measures against violent extremism have played an important role in decreasing the number of Albanians traveling to Syria while making it harder for recruitment rings to operate. However, the threat of religious extremism will not cease until its root causes are tackled. Until broader social issues are addressed, the threat of more sophisticated underground cells to infiltrate the country will not go away. Given that its citizens have been able to travel visa-free in the Schengen zone since 2010, this could have security consequences beyond its borders. Violent extremism may have been tackled for now, but violent extremism from Albania could pose a security problem to the European continent in the future.

Categories: Europe, Security

About Author

Leonie Vrugtman

Leonie Vrugtman is an independent researcher in political violence and extremism, with a focus on women in Islamic State. Her research covers home-grown radicalization and security issues in the West (mainly UK/NL/Western Balkans), as well as global and local issues that allow Islamic Extremism to rise in the Middle East. She previously worked at the International Institute for Strategic Studies and the Dickson Poon School of Law. Leonie holds and MA in International Relations at King’s College London, and a BSc and a BA in Journalism and Communications from the Netherlands.