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Albania Nabs Suspected Al-Qaeda Recruiters

Seven people, including two imams, were arrested on Tuesday, suspected of recruiting fighters for al-Qaeda-affiliated groups fighting in the Syrian civil war.
FILE – In this January 5, 2014, file photo, gunmen patrol during clashes with Iraqi security forces in Fallujah, 40 miles (65 kilometers) west of Baghdad, Iraq. With a new label – the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant – the global terror network al-Qaida is positioning itself as a vanguard defending a persecuted Sunni community against Shiite-dominated governments across Syria, Lebanon and Iraq. The al-Qaida gains pose the most serious challenge to Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s Shiite-led government since the departure of American forces in late 2011. (AP Photo, File)

The seven suspects are accused of recruiting a number of Albanian citizens to fight in the bloody civil war in Syria.

The suspects include the imams of two Tirana mosques, Genci Balla and Bujar Hysi, who are believed to be ringleaders of the group.

Balla, who is also known as Aburrahman Balla, has drawn attention with his fiery sermons posted on YouTube, calling on Albanians to join Islamist militants linked with al-Qaeda in Syria.

“Jabhat al-Nusra and the Islamic State [of Iraq and al-Sham] are the only groups that are fighting to create an Islamic state where sharia law will rule,” Balla says in a sermon posted on YouTube.

“The [mainstream, anti-government] Syrian Free Army… don’t want Islam to rise up,” the preacher adds.

Jabhat al-Nusra, also known as the al-Nusra front, is a branch of al-Qaeda fighting in Syria. The Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham, ISIS, was founded in the early years of the Iraq war. It pledged allegiance to Al-Qaeda in 2004, becoming known as Al-Qaeda in Iraq.

The mosques where Balla and Hysi preached are not part of Albanian Muslim Community, the official organization representing Muslims in Albania.  

A 33-year-old Albanian, Anri Maliqi, who died fighting in Syria, used to attend Balla’s mosque, which is located in a poor suburb of Tirana.

A growing a number of Muslims from the Balkans are being drawn into the sectarian conflict raging in Syria, Iraq and, increasingly, Lebanon. Most Albanians are Muslims, at least nominally.

The International Center for the Study of Radicalization, ISRA, a think tank based in King’s College, London, believes some 300 Albanian fighters, from Kosovo, Macedonia and Albania, have joined Jabhat al-Nusra or ISIS.

The arrests follow an investigation launched by Prosecutor’s Office for Serious Crimes in cooperation with Albanian state police.

During the arrests, police sized an AK-47, a hand grenade and hundreds of automatic rifle rounds.

“All the suspects are accused of the crime of ‘recruiting of individuals in order to carry terrorist acts, incitement and propaganda”, the general prosecutor’s office said.