Links in the Balkans
Posted July 1, 2002
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.
Credit: Petr Josek/Reuters
is believed to have contributed funds
to support Albanian guerrillas.
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
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
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
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
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
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
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.