Albanian Jihadist’s Easy Passage to Syria’s Brutal War

Share

Hits: 1005

A former Islamist fighter in Syria recalls why he went to Syria, how easy it was to get there – and why he would go again, if he could.

On his first trip abroad, he left with 400 euros in his pocket, a printed map from the internet and the belief that he was fulfilling his destiny in eyes of Allah. The destination was the frontline of the war in Syria, but his jihad ended faster than it started.

Two years later, in a bar full of people in his hometown in northern Albania, Ebu Merjem stands out with his long beard and his trousers cut short above the ankle.

He does not like the attention he attracts and chooses a half-empty corner of the bar to explain what that pushed him towards a far-away war.

“If I had the chance, I would go even today and fight in Syria,” Ebu Merjem says. “It was God that created jihad and you have to love something that God loves,” he added.

The 37-year-old unemployed father-of-two has been a practicing Muslim for 17 years.

He is one of 90 Albanians who went to Syria between 2012 and 2014 to take part in what they believed was a holy war.

Since the Syrian conflict began, ten Albanian jihadists have lost their lives there. Thirty others returned home before the adoption of a law that criminalizes participation in conflicts abroad.

According to documents obtained by BIRN, nearly 50 Albanian jihadists identified by the security services are still fighting in Syria.

Albania is a Muslim majority country with a long tradition of interfaith coexistence, and few understand why local Muslims like Ebu Merjem have traveled to fight in Syria.

Merjem has lived all his life in Albania, but believes his homeland is wherever there are Muslim believers. If his Muslim brothers are being attacked, even if they are thousands of kilometers away, he feels it his duty to protect them.

“My brother is the American, Syrian or French Muslim. My enemy may even be my brethren,” he says.  “This has nothing to do with nationality or blood. I went there for my faith and my biggest regret is that I couldn’t experience war,” he added.

The road to Syria

Syria was the last country in the Middle East to be engulfed by the wave of anti-government protests in spring 2011 known as the Arab Spring. The conflict there soon took the nuances of a civil war.

The involvement of militant Islamic organizations in this war and its geographical proximity to Europe soon turned Syria into a hub for jihadists from all over the world.

The use of the internet and social networks directly from the battlefield popularized calls for jihad, especially in Europe where a considerable number of second-generation immigrants from the Middle East have embraced religious extremism.

From the beginning of the conflict until now, over 12,000 foreigners from 81 countries have joined militant organizations fighting in Syria. Nearly 3,000 are believed to have come from Western countries.

Ninety of these fighters are Albanian followers of the Salafist brand of Islam, preached on the fringe by imams, often in isolated mosques whose legal standing the official Muslim Community of Albania questions.

These believers started to show up in force at Tirana airport in the autumn of 2012, where they declared they were travelling to Turkey for health reasons. From Turkey, the jihadists jumped the border illegally into Syria and landed in the war.

The head of Albanian League of Imams, Justinian Topulli, lists several reasons for the involvement of Albanian Muslims in the war in Syria.

He says they felt a form of religious solidarity with the Syrian Muslims in their struggle against Bashar al Assad’s dictatorship, but it was also a way of escaping the Albanian reality, in which many Muslims do not feel comfortable.

Another no less important reason, according to Topulli, is the misunderstanding and misinterpretation of religious texts about the Apocalypse, which some preachers mistakenly tie with current events in Syria.

In contrast to Topulli, Ebu Merjem believes that a Muslim’s highest purpose is the sacrifice of jihad.

“A man must seek the eternal. One day we will all die, but to die as a Muslim martyr is the highest death of all,” says Ebu, sounding very convinced.

This is what he was looking for when he went to Syria on November 17, 2012, with three other believers from Albania.

For three months he went from one camp to another, but he never got the opportunity to go to the front even for a day, which disappointed him deeply.

He returned on February 2, 2012, a few days after two of his other comrades also returned home. The fourth member of the group, Denis Jangulli, was killed on the first day he went to fight against the government forces of Assad.

Many things have changed since then, both in Albania and Syria. The Albanian police have either arrested the religious leaders of the Albanian fighters in Syria or they are on the run.

After turning a blind eye to the Albanian jihadists traveling to Syria for a long time, the authorities opened an investigation in December 2013.

On March 11, a joint operation by the Serious Crimes Prosecution Office, the National Intelligence Service, and the police resulted in eight arrests and warrants being issued for five others.

On August 19, Albania passed a law that mandates jail sentences of up to 15 years for anyone who gets involved in the Syrian conflict or who recruits people to take part in the war.

Two of the suspects detained in the joint operation were imams, accused of organizing the recruitment of the jihadists.

Genci Balla and Bujar Hysa used to preach jihad in two mosques; one located in a suburb of Tirana and the other in the village of Mezez, a few kilometres from the capital. Some more isolated cells were identified in Leshnicë, near Pogradec, the city of Elbasan, the town of Cerrik and the village of Dragostunje, near Librazhd.

The third organizer was Gerti Pashaj, a student radicalized in Turkey, who is thought to have acted as a guide for the Albanian jihadists seeking to reach the war front.

Ebu Merjem denies having been recruited or paid by any of them. He says he went to Syria of his own free will and adds that Denis Jangulli helped him only with the details of the trip.

He describes Jangulli, who was killed, as a brother and as a devoted believer who spoke four foreign languages and had strong connections in Kosovo and Macedonia.

Ebu Merjem cannot speak any foreign language and only embraced Islam after getting in touch with two Albanian students who had studied religion in Saudi Arabia.

The cleric Justinian Topulli says a lack of understanding of Islamic text is the main reason why so many Albanians that have gone to fight in Syria, believing they are engaging in holy war.

Topulli explains that while a good Muslim must fulfill the commandments of the Koran, armed jihad is not one of them.

“Armed jihad is not an individual obligation either for Albanians or for the others, but for communities and countries if they have the possibility to do something in this case,” he said. “Our jihad is to help our country and family to deal with the problems of our common home, called Albania,” Topulli added.

Forced oath of allegiance

According to Ebu Merjem, the journey to Syria for jihadists is a simple one. They travel to Istanbul, buy a bus ticket worth 80 euro to the border town of Rehanlia and find a man there to jump the border.

He describes the region between Turkey and Syria as easy terrain for would-be jihadists; dozens of young people from France, Sweden, America or Belgium go in and out from a fence, which is the only barrier between the two countries.

Smuggling jihadists from one side of the border to the other is no different from the other kinds of human smuggling.

Ebu Merjem says he gave a Turkish shepherd a few euros to help him cross the border mostly because he was afraid he would spy on him rather than show him the way.

After they crossed the border, Ebu Merjem and his comrades sought the city of Aleppo, which has been the scene fierce fighting between government forces and rebels since the start of the conflict.

However, the Albanians got stuck for a long time in the camps in Tal Rifat, a town in the Aleppo region controlled by the Al-Nusra front, a branch of al-Qaeda.

The Albanian jihadist were eager to reach the front but underwent a series of background checks by leaders of the foreign jihadists. “They looked at as with suspicion and gathered our passports in order to verify us. We didn’t like this but they were afraid of infiltration,” Merjem says.

The Albanian jihadists stayed for the first 10 days in a house and were then sent to a real training camp. The camp was also in the region of Tal Rifat. This time, they stayed in a luxury home occupied by the radical Islamic group, a phenomenon that the media call the “5-star jihad”.

They spent their days studying the Koran and were trained to use Kalashnikovs or snipers. “We also used to run a little but it was no big deal. The lack of weapons was the main problem and none of us had 1,500 dollars to buy a Kalashnikov,” he said.

According to the Albanian prosecution file obtained by BIRN, the majority of the Albanian jihadists became part of the Jabhat al-Nusra front, a branch of Al-Qaeda. Some arrived there as part of a Turkish extremist group, Murat Gezenler, while the Albanians from Macedonia fought under Chechen fighters.

However, in a chaotic civil war this configuration changed over time. By 2013, most of the Albanians had gathered in a brigade of 45 to 50 persons on the outskirts of Aleppo led by Numan Demolli, from Kosovo, and, after he was killed, by Lavdrim Muhaxheri.

Until ISIS emerged, they stayed under the protection of Al-Nusra. Today, most of the 50 Albanians remaining in Syria are fighting with Islamic State.

In his interview for BIRN, Merjem says they couldn’t stay in the camp unless they swore an oath to Al-Nusra. If they had not done so, their presence there would have become even more suspicious and unwanted.

“The people from Jabhat al-Nusra came and asked us to swear an oath to them but we didn’t do that,” he says.  “We told them that we were sworn to Allah and were there to help the Syrian people,” he added.

During his three months stay in Syria, Merjem had another problem. He had not got his mother’s permission to engage in holy war. This is a big concern for believers, because jihad is seen as invalid if it is undertaken without a parent’s permission.

After his mother refused to give her permission, Ebu Merjem decided to return to Albania. During this period, his fellow Albanian jihadist, Jangulli, was killed in an attack outside Aleppo.

“I was saddened because I would miss a friend; at the same time I was also happy because God received him as a martyr,” Merjem recalled.

Merjem returned to Albania on February 2, 2013. Since then, the authorities have not allowed him to leave the country.

He keeps informed about everything happening in Syria and now question some of the actions of the Islamic State.

Merjem says that the war is causing death on all sides, endless atrocities, including the crimes that “the Muslim brothers” of ISIS are displaying with pride in social media. But still he does not like it when their crimes are judged by non-believers.

“They are shedding a lot of blood in the name of religious misunderstandings and misinterpretation of the Koran,” he says. “Even scholars have talked about this. But we don’t want their mistakes being judged by anyone else except Muslims,” Merjem added.

European Union countries and Europol suspect that former jihadists like Merjem pose a threat to European security.

In the West, the de-radicalization of the jihadists is often compared to the rehabilitation of alcoholics or drug addicts.

Albania’s authorities are uncertain how to best respond to this threat. Since adopting the law that penalizes involvement in the war in Syria, the government has set up a massive antiterrorism structure to monitor its citizens that have returned home.

But Prime Minister Edi Rama believes that Albania is no more exposed to Islamic radicalism than other countries. “This risk is everywhere, just like Ebola,” said Rama in an interview.

The Albanian police told BIRN that jihadist returning from Syria do not pose a particular threat to the country, although their social isolation may become problematic in the future.

Topulli, from the League of Imams, agrees, arguing that the integration of these people back into society is the challenge lying ahead. He urges the authorities to show caution and avoid using repressive measures that could add to tensions.

“The people who returned from Syria are part of us and must be treated like all normal people so that they do not feel like strangers in this society,” Topulli said.

Merjem confirms that he doesn’t quite fit into Albanian society. Because of his faith, he has had to quit one job after another and he often finds it difficult to support his family.

He does not believe in the Muslim Community, the state or the international community. He thinks they collaborate all to interfere with his Muslim brothers in Albania and the world.

He would rather live in a remote land than Albania, if he could find spiritual peace there. “If they established a good Islamic state in future, I would choose to live there. People like us feel despised here,” he concluded.


Originally published on 2015-11-25

Authors: Aleksandra Bogdani & Flamur Vezaj

Note: Ebu Merjem is the religious name of the interviewee after he returned from Syria. Mejrem agreed to give this interview to BIRN in November 2014, without revealing his real identity.

Source: Balkan Insight

Origins of images: Facebook, Twitter, Wikimedia, Wikipedia, Flickr, Google, Imageinjection & Pinterest.

Read our Disclaimer/Legal Statement!

Donate to Support Us

We would like to ask you to consider a small donation to help our team keep working. We accept no advertising and rely only on you, our readers, to keep us digging the truth on history, global politics and international relations.

[wpedon id=”4696″ align=”left”]

READ MORE!
The Bosnian Serb “Death Camp” Fabrication
Serbian emergency shelters for Bosnian refugees sold to the public as a concentration camp to win public support for international intervention.In August 1992, millions of people were shocked to see photographs of a supposed Bosnian Serb death camp. But the death camp story was a lie. The ITN crew had filmed from inside a fenced-in storage area. By shooting through the fence ITN created footage that gave the impression that the Bosnian men were imprisoned. With a little editing, this footage was turned into pictures that gave the impression of a death camp – media manipulation.The death camps were in ...
READ MORE
President of the Alliance for the Future of Kosovo (AAK) Ramush Haradinaj, a Kosovo Albanian former guerilla commander who served briefly as prime minister, speaks during an interview with Reuters at the AAK headquarters in Pristina December 4, 2012. REUTERS/Hazir Reka
The Balkans has always been cursed by a recurring theme: that each entity within it can, at some point, become greater and more consuming in territory than the next neighbour. Each nation has, and in some instances continues, to nurse dreams of enlargement, pecking away at borders and assuming that few will notice.  Strategies of expansion tend to have one problem: they are hard to evaluate in the way of conventional agreement, contract or conspiracy. For decades, historians of various shades would attribute to Imperial Germany a conscious, global goal of conquest, mistaking the plans of contingent invasion with actual policy. In ...
READ MORE
“Islamic State Déjà Vu”
Author’s note: The following article focussing on the jihadist terrorist insurgency in Macedonia was first published by antiwar.com in July 2001, barely two months before the September 11, 2001 attacks on the WTC and the Pentagon.Known and documented, since the Soviet-Afghan war, recruiting Mujahedin (“holy warriors”) to fight covert wars on Washington’s behest had become an integral part of US foreign policy. A report of the US Congress had revealed how the US administration – under advice from the National Security Council headed by Anthony Lake – had “helped turn Bosnia into a militant Islamic base” leading to the recruitment ...
READ MORE
Western Media Propaganda Threatens Peace and Prolongs the Deadly Conflict in Eastern Ukraine
Western media is becoming unhinged as its anti-Russia propaganda struggles to keep a hold on its consumers. Two recent examples provide evidence.Pro-peace conspiracy emanating from MoscowOn August 28, the New York Times published an article by its Moscow bureau chief about the troubling news (from the Times‘ viewpoint) that the people of Sweden are not happy with their government’s wish to join up with the NATO military alliance.The ruling elites in Sweden and Finland have been quietly pushing for NATO membership for years. In May, the Swedish government pushed through the Riksdag a proposal for a ‘cooperation agreement’ with NATO, ...
READ MORE
Parallels Between Israel and 1930s Germany
"Please don’t write about Ya’ir Golan!" a friend begged me, “Anything a leftist like you writes will only harm him!"So I abstained for some weeks. But I can’t keep quiet any longer.General Ya’ir Golan, the deputy Chief of Staff of the Israeli army, made a speech on Holocaust Memorial Day. Wearing his uniform, he read a prepared, well-considered text that triggered an uproar which has not yet died down.Dozens of articles have been published in its wake, some condemning him, some lauding him. Seems that nobody could stay indifferent.The main sentence was: "If there is something that frightens me about ...
READ MORE
The 1939 Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact & Imperialist Propaganda
"If we see that Germany is winning we ought to help Russia and if Russia is winning we ought to help Germany, and that way let them kill as many as possible…”Harry S. Truman, 33rd POTUS, 1941Since the end of the Second World War, the bourgeois historiography has tried to distort various incidents in order to vilify Socialism and the USSR. One of these incidents- which has been a “banner” of imperialism’s apologists and other anticommunists- is the so-called “Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact“* which was signed in 1939. In it’s unscientific, unhistorical effort to equate Communism with Nazism, the bourgeois propaganda presents ...
READ MORE
Gibraltar: A Tax Haven not a Nation
Gibraltar is famous for its 426m high limestone ridge and tax haven status. It is also famous for having Europe’s only wild population of monkeys – all 320 of them. It boasts a total area of just 6.8 square kilometres or 2.6 square miles, a total area approximately one third smaller than Bicester Village Shopping Mall in Oxfordshire. Most of the population of this peninsula live in flats, crammed on land at the base of the rock where around 12% of the workforce is employed by Gibraltar’s big online gaming industry, who are there to evade taxes – quite legally of course. ...
READ MORE
A Refugee Problem in Europe
Origins of images: Facebook, Twitter, Wikimedia, Wikipedia, Flickr, Google, Imageinjection, Public Domain & Pinterest.Read our Disclaimer/Legal Statement!Donate to Support UsWe would like to ask you to consider a small donation to help our team keep working. We accept no advertising and rely only on you, our readers, to keep us digging the truth on history, global politics and international relations.[wpedon id="4696" align="left"]Save
READ MORE
Why the Rise of Fascism is Again the Issue
The recent 70th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz was a reminder of the great crime of fascism, whose Nazis iconography is embedded in our consciousness. Fascism is preserved as history, as flickering footage of goose-stepping blackshirts, their criminality terrible and clear. Yet in the same liberal societies, whose war-making elites urge us never to forget, the accelerating danger of a modern kind of fascism is suppressed; for it is their fascism. “To initiate a war of aggression…,” said the Nuremberg Tribunal judges in 1946, “is not only an international crime, it is the supreme international crime, differing only from other ...
READ MORE
Pompeo the Warmonger Supports Authoritarian Regimes
On January 2 [2019, editor] US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo visited Brazil, and his Department noted that in discussions with Foreign Minister Ernesto Araujo they “highlighted the importance of working together to address regional and global challenges, including supporting the people of Venezuela, Cuba, and Nicaragua in restoring their democratic governance and their human rights.” Pompeo declared that the US and Brazil “have an opportunity to work alongside each other against authoritarian regimes.”From this we gather that Pompeo is a strong advocate of democratic governance and will always make it clear that the United States supports unfortunate people living in countries having “authoritarian ...
READ MORE
The Useful Idiocy of Donald Trump
The problem with Donald Trump is not that he is imbecilic and inept—it is that he has surrendered total power to the oligarchic and military elites. They get what they want. They do what they want. Although the president is a one-man wrecking crew aimed at democratic norms and institutions, although he has turned the United States into a laughingstock around the globe, our national crisis is embodied not in Trump but the corporate state’s now unfettered pillage.Trump, who has no inclination or ability to govern, has handed the machinery of government over to the bankers, corporate executives, right-wing think ...
READ MORE
Dusseldorf Axe Attacker: “Fatmir H.”, Muslim Albanian from Kosovo
If a German had shown up in London in 1944 and opened fire, would police have ruled out any connection to Nazism? Fatmir H. comes from a hotbed of jihad activity. The Islamic State and al-Qaeda have issued repeated calls for Muslims in West to murder civilians. We have seen the perpetrators of numerous jihad terror attacks declared mentally ill, often absurdly. In light of all that, the possibility that this was a jihad terror attack cannot be ruled out. “‘He jumped out of the train and started to strike at people with an AXE’: Horror in Dusseldorf as Kosovan attacker ...
READ MORE
Western Warmongers Killed 1.5 Million Muslims in “War On Terror”
“I believe the perception caused by civilian casualties is one of the most dangerous enemies we face.” – U.S. General Stanley A. McCrystal in his inaugural speech as ISAF Commander in June 2009. The dust had hardly settled on Russian airstrikes on ISIS positions in Syria before Western media reports claimed that ‘civilians’ had been killed “including women and children”. Leaving aside the dubious nature of these allegations – the first of which was made before Russian airstrikes had even begun, according to Putin – Western propaganda outlets and the politicians they serve are in no position to point the finger at Russia ...
READ MORE
Hidden Manipulators: Who is Behind the “Kosova Independence” Campaign?
The Balkans conflicts of the 1990s saw a massive revival and resurgence of US and Western media propaganda and infowar techniques. The “new” advocacy journalists recalled the “yellow journalism” of William Randolph Hearst, who helped induce the US to engage in the imperialistic or colonial war in Cuba in 1898, the Spanish-American War. This marked the emergence of the US as an expansionist global imperial and colonial power, like Britain, France, Spain, and Germany had been. Hearst was credited with manufacturing or “furnishing” the war in Cuba. Frederic Remington, his correspondent in Cuba, reported that nothing was happening in Cuba, that ...
READ MORE
Renaming the 1948 War against Palestine: Partition, Dispossession, and Fragmentation
Controlling the DiscourseIsrael has been brilliant over the years in shaping and misdirecting the public discourse on the future of Palestine. Among its earliest achievement along these lines was the crucial propaganda victory by having the 1948 War known internationally as the ‘War of Independence.’ Such a designation erases the Palestinians from political consciousness, and distorts the deeper human and political consequences of the war. Language matters, especially in vital circumstances where there are winners and losers, a reality that applies above all to a war of displacement.It took decades for the Palestinians to elevate their experience of the 1948 ...
READ MORE
Five Facts about Kosovo the #Fakenews Media is Lying to You about
1. Kosovo is not ancient Albanian landIts very name comes from the Serbian word “kos,” meaning blackbird. Its Albanian name, “Kosova,” means nothing whatsoever.Kosovo was the heartland of medieval Serbian state and the site of the 1389 battle in which both the Serbian prince and the Ottoman sultan died, checking the Turkish expansion into the Balkans for almost 70 years. Ethnic Albanians were settled there by the Ottomans over the intervening centuries, and became a majority due to pogroms and persecution of Serbs – which began under Ottoman rule but continued under Austro-Hungarian occupation in WWI and German/Italian occupation in ...
READ MORE
Why are We in Kosovo?
Once again, U.S. air and naval forces are preparing strikes on Serbia’s army and police for refusing to stand down in Kosovo. And, once again, Americans are deeply ambivalent about intervention.“Either we get in there with a NATO force, or we get the hell out,” said an exasperated Sen. John Warner after Yugoslav strong man Slobodan Milosevic showed two NATO generals the door.Warner advocates intervention. But Americans sense that, despite our disgust at the latest massacre and Milosevic’s thuggery, no vital U.S. interest exists there. The Serbs do not threaten NATO; they have not attacked Americans; they are fighting to ...
READ MORE
Barack Obama, Donald Trump, Hillary Clinton: Who’s the Fascist?
The U.S. public loves fascists; they elect them, constantly. Donald Trump, who “says he would raise the minimum wage and stop the endless efforts at regime change,” is called a fascist by some.  But Hillary Clinton “is happy to bomb Libya or Syria or any other country,” and played a major role in mass Black incarceration. Barack Obama is the war-maker and deporter-in-chief. “All of the major party candidates fit the F word description in some way.”“No one comes into office with any intention of undoing America’s leadership as the world’s worst jailer.”Donald Trump is the ill spoken, boorish, graceless ...
READ MORE
Turkey’s Political Agenda in the Balkans: Erdogan’s Islamic Influence in Bosnia
As Turkey’s President Erdogan runs out of money, he is now, more than any time before, using religion to exploit the Balkans, especially the states that are more susceptible to Islamic influence. Bosnia is at the fore of Erdogan’s ambitious Islamic agenda, where he is sparing no political capital or financial resources, even under his current economic hardship, to assert his influence and distance the country away from the EU’s reach. Obviously, the Bosnians cannot survive simply on being devout Muslims, with the youth unemployment rate at almost 60 percent. Turkey is unlikely to economically recover anytime soon, and Erdogan’s ...
READ MORE
Thank an Anti-War Veteran
Big Brother in the Aisles of HyVeeRepeat a lie often enough, the conventional Nazi propaganda wisdom ran, and it will become an accepted truth.This last Veterans Day weekend, I couldn’t watch a sporting event, listen to a car radio, or even go shopping at the local grocery store without hearing a Great American Lie repeated over and over.Sports announcers, radio talk-show hosts, commercials, and even a recorded voice blasted into the aisles of the HyVeee supermarket told me again and again that I owed my great American “freedom” to veterans and current enlistees of the U.S. military – in other ...
READ MORE
The Bosnian Serb “Death Camp” Fabrication
Greater Albania and the Balkans
“Islamic State Déjà Vu”
Western Media Propaganda Threatens Peace and Prolongs the Deadly Conflict in Eastern Ukraine
Parallels Between Israel and 1930s Germany
The 1939 Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact & Imperialist Propaganda
Gibraltar: A Tax Haven not a Nation
A Refugee Problem in Europe
Why the Rise of Fascism is Again the Issue
Pompeo the Warmonger Supports Authoritarian Regimes
The Useful Idiocy of Donald Trump
Dusseldorf Axe Attacker: “Fatmir H.”, Muslim Albanian from Kosovo
Western Warmongers Killed 1.5 Million Muslims in “War On Terror”
Hidden Manipulators: Who is Behind the “Kosova Independence” Campaign?
Renaming the 1948 War against Palestine: Partition, Dispossession, and Fragmentation
Five Facts about Kosovo the #Fakenews Media is Lying to You about
Why are We in Kosovo?
Barack Obama, Donald Trump, Hillary Clinton: Who’s the Fascist?
Turkey’s Political Agenda in the Balkans: Erdogan’s Islamic Influence in Bosnia
Thank an Anti-War Veteran
FOLLOW US ON OUR SOCIAL PLATFORMS
Share