TIRANA, Albania — Once branded the world’s first self-declared atheist country, Albania isn’t exactly known as a hotbed for Islamic militants.
With the outbreak of the conflict in Syria, however, militant groups have been gaining a small but significant foothold in this former communist country by taking advantage of social networks.
Over the last year, dozens of videos and Facebook pages advocating extremism have appeared on the internet, and the number of Albanians reported to be fighting for Al Qaeda-related groups in Syria is rising.
Because of the dangers associated with reporting inside Syria, estimates about the number of foreign fighters engaged with opposition groups in the civil war vary greatly.
The International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation, ISRA, estimates 8500 foreign fighters from 74 countries have entered the conflict in the last two years, according to a report published last month. The vast majority is believed to have joined the two militant opposition groups closest to Al Qaeda: Jabhat al-Nusra and the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham, or ISIS.
ISRA estimates that a maximum of 300 fighters of Albanian decent from Kosovo, Macedonia and Albania have joined the opposition forces inside Syria.
Those militants have taken to the internet to narrate their exploits and recruit new members, and they’re finding an audience.
A group called Krenaria Islame (Islamic Pride), which has nearly 2800 followers on Facebook, provides regular updates on militants fighting for ISIS, posts video messages calling for jihad and attacks western culture and democracy.
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One picture posted on the page shows a dozen armed men wearing camouflage and black masks and the title "Albanian mujahedeen of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, with their battalion leader, Lavderim Muhaxheri."
In a video message posted on YouTube and distributed through various militant websites, Muhaxheri — an Albanian from Kosovo — calls on Muslims to join the fight to establish an Islamic state based on Sharia law.
“Brothers, I advise you to not stay one moment more in your homes but prepare and journey toward jihad,” he says. “We thank Allah for allowing us to join these lions from all over the world here to protect the honor of our Muslim sisters.”
The Islamic Pride page also features videos translated into Albanian, praise for mujahedeen of Albanian descent who have died fighting in Syria, and videos attacking democracy as incompatible with Islam.
ISIS, which traces its origins to the US invasion of Iraq and joins together a number of militant groups, came to be known as Al Qaeda in Iraq after it pledged allegiance to Osama bin Laden in 2004. With the breakout of the Syrian civil war, the organization expanded its goals to creating a Sunni state based on Sharia law in parts of Iraq and Syria.
The Facebook page created by Albanian militants fighting with ISIS offers praise for bin Laden and the former head of Al Qaeda in Iraq, Ebu Musab al-Zarkawi.
“Allah should have more men like this… Allah, we ask for a death like Osama’s,” one post reads.
A picture of bin Laden with the burning World Trade Center towers accompanies one of the Al Qaeda founder’s quotes: “Even if I die, hundreds like me will be born every day.”
Although Facebook constantly removes content posted by militants, says Aaron Zelin of the Washington Institute of Near East Policy, “it's impossible to catch everything because there’s so much out there.”
Nevertheless, he adds, militants’ use of social media may not pose as great a security threat as it may seem.
“Jihadi groups in North Africa, Yemen, Iraq, Afghanistan and elsewhere use them as well and haven't been able to recruit people to their cause like in Syria,” he says. “It has more to do with the ingredients and factors related to the particularities of what makes Syria unique that leads people to join in Syria and less to do with the technology itself.”
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Domenic Moran, a Tel Aviv-based Middle East security consultant, says that outside regions where government has broken down or security forces conduct large-scale human rights abuses, conditions for militant groups “don’t tend to exist.”
At the same time, militants’ use of social media offers opportunities for security agencies.
“The use of social media networks with known security flaws by these movements is likely seen as a positive by state agencies seeking both to map connections within and between them and to identify the nature and range of their activities,” Moran says.
And although worrying, the return of radicalized fighters home to the Balkans isn’t giving rise to homegrown radical Islamic groups — for now at least.