Operation “Martese” targets 10 jihadists between Italy & Albania, by Giovanni Giacalone
On Wednesday July 1st 2015 five jihadists were arrested in a counter-terror operation that took place between Italy and Albania, while five others are still wanted and currently hiding in Syria.
The ten individuals are accused by Milan DA office of terrorist propaganda, recruitment for ISIS and four of them are currently in the Raqqa area where they have joined the terrorist group.
The raids took place in Inzago (Milan province), Scansano (Grosseto province), Treviglio (Bergamo province) and in the Albanian city of Lushnje.
The ten accused of terrorism and propaganda are:
Buonfiglio Assunta (17.02.1955), her husband Sergio Sergio (20.06.1954), their older daughterMarianna Sergio (10.05.1984), all arrested in Inzago (Milan).
Their younger daughter, Maria Giulia “Fatima Az-Zahra” Sergio (23.09.1987) is still at large and currently in Syria, together with her husband, Albanian citizen Aldo “Said” Kobuzi (17.07.1991).
Coku Baki (19.09.1975), Aldo’s uncle, was arrested in Lushnje while visiting relatives, but he resident in Scansano (Grosseto).
Kacabuni Arta (23.03.1974), Baki’s sister, arrested in Scansano (Grosseto) where she shared the house with her brother.
Two other Albanians are still at large and currently in Syria:
Coku Donika (16.05.1971), who is Aldo Kobuzi’s mother and Coku Baki’s sister, currently hiding in Raqqa. Donika and her brother have both appeared in a 2010 INPS list of agricultural workers in Scansano, were they were resident. She was the first one of the family to become radicalized, after her former husband left for Italy and abandoned her.
Serjola Kobuzi (25.02.1996), Aldo’s sister, currently in Syria. She was previously married to an Albanian jihadist named Mariglen Dervishllari, who died while fighting for ISIS. Serjola later married another jihadist there. Dervishllari was radicalized by Albanian imam and recruiter Genci Balla and in Saudi Arabia while studying at the Islamic University of Medina, as registration documents for academic year 2010-2011 show.
A Canadian citizen of Syrian origin who grew up in Bologna is also at large and is wanted by Italian authorities; her name is Bushra Haik (30.07.1985). She left Bologna in 2012 and currently lives in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia. Haik had a major role in radicalizing Maria Giulia Sergio through Quran, Tafsir and Aqidah lessons that she taught through Skype. She had a large number of followers and also taught Arabic and Quran recitation, all online with the Skype account Bushra_1. She is very well-known inside the Muslim community in northern Italy and she is a strong anti-Assad activist.
Maria Giulia Sergio and Aldo Kobuzi could praise important contacts inside ISIS, such as Ahmed Abu Alharith, a well-known ISIS recruiter and foreign fighters coordinator who gave them hints on how to safely reach Syria. Through his Turkish phone number he takes the calls of potential terrorists who want to reach Syria and gives them advices. He manages contacts with volunteers from many countries such as Afghanistan, Algeria, Bosnia, Albania, Morocco, Saudi Arabia, Georgia, Libya, Lebanon, France, Oman, Sweden, Iraq, Switzerland, Italy, San Marino, Russia. People call that number and there is always someone who speaks the required language and is able to give advices and directions to the volunteers going to Syria.
Marriage and departure
Maria Gulia Sergio was initially married to a Moroccan citizen residing in Italy and she was attending the faculty of Pharmacy at the University of Milan. The marriage did not go well though; some have speculated that she did not find her husband religious enough, but people who were close to the couple claimed that the reason was mainly cultural. The family of her former husband did not accept her as an Italian and even though she even reached the point of wearing a niqab, it did not help, while other sources have pointed out economic issues that the couple had: the divorce was unavoidable.
Immediately after, Maria Giulia told a friend of hers that she was looking for someone strictly religious and managed to meet Aldo Kobuci thanks to a friend, Albanian citizen Gjecaj Lubjana, while attending an Islamic book market in san Paolo d’Argon, together with her sister Marianna.
According to official sources, Aldo Kobuzi and Maria Giulia Sergio got married on September 17th2014 in Treviglio’s Islamic center and left for Syria shortly after, together with Aldo’s mother, Donika. On September 21 their mobiles were detected at Rome’s Leonardo Da Vinci airport, while the following day in Turkish territory.
Their trip was organized and financed thanks to the network of Genci Balla, head of the recruiting network in Albania and Bujar Hysa, a well-known extremist imam who used to preach….; both currently detained in Albania. Aldo Kobuci’s brother in law, Mariglen Dervishllari, took care of putting him in touch with his mentor, Genci Balla, as recordeded in a phone tapping: “I’m sending you my brother-in-law. I gave him your phone number”.
They were put in touch with the Tirana network by Mariglen Dervishllari, they took a flight from Rome, together with Donika Coku and flew to Istanbul, then with an internal flight they reached Gazantiep and from there to Syria.
The Kobuzi-Coku family, originally from the Lac Kruje and Lushnje area, had moved to Italy from Albania to find work and progressively became radicalized, as a consequence of contacts with extremists in Tuscany, Lombardy and Albania.
The Sergio family was originally from Torre del Greco (Naples) and moved to Inzago in the mid-2000 because they were in difficult economic conditions and were told by a friend that in Inzago they would have found help by Caritas and the local church.
They were for some time under the help of the church, then the older daughter, Marianna, married an Egyptian and converted to Islam. Maria Giulia did the same by marrying a Moroccan citizen. The parents later converted too and their father (Sergio Sergio) was one of the guardians of the small Islamic center in Inzago, in via Boccaccio.
At some point, after a systematic pressure by Maria Giulia via Skype, they decided to leave for Syria. Sergio left his job, sold their furniture via web and asked for passports. At that point the police arrested them.
Maria Giulia Sergio hailed jihad on several occasion while on Skype with her family and said that those who reject jihad are misbelievers and their heads must be chopped off. She claimed that she can’t wait until al-Baghdadi will give the authorization for women to do jihad because she wants to die as shahid. She constantly instigated her family to “kill the misbelievers”.
On July 7th 2015 Maria Giulia Sergio released an interview for Italian newspaper Corriere della Sera where she claimed that the Islamic State is perfect and that it is mandatory and fair to kill misbelievers, to cut hands, as ordered by Islamic law. The woman eventually became agitated when the journalist asked about her whereabouts and immediately hanged up.
Maria Giulia is believed to still be in the Raqqa area, together with Donika and Serjola Kobuzi, but it is also possible that they might have moved to a nearby location considered safer after the interview and especially as a consequence of the Kurdish YPG pressure in the area.
In both cases it is clear that the two families were living in precarious cultural, social and economic conditions and radical preachers found fertile ground for their propaganda. A mechanism which is not new to counter-terrorism experts since it is commonly used in many poor areas of the Balkans and especially in the Albanian cities, not only in Tirana but also in small cities like Cerrik, Librazhd, Elbasan, Kavaja and recently in Lazarat.
Tuscany, a hot-bed for radical extremists from the Balkans
Southern Tuscany is well-known for the presence of Islamist radicals from Albania, Kosovo and Macedonia. An interesting case is the one of Sead Bajraktar, imam at the “Rastelica” Islamic center in Monteroni d’Arbia, founded in 2008 and mostly attended by Albanians and Kosovaris. According to investigative sources, Bajraktar was caught on July 27th 2012 in the Dragas mountains in Kosovo while conducting some sort of operative training, together with other individuals from the area and residing in Tuscany.
The Kobuzi were well-known in Scansano for their extremism and contacts between them and local Islamic centers such as the one in Grosseto and in Monteroni d’Arbia (Siena), where extremist imams such as Shefqet Krasniqi (in the first case) and Bilal Bosnic and Idriz Bilibani (in the second case) were hosted.
Although there is an additional element that is worth mentioning: in the Tuscany area there have been several reports of Albanian and Kosovari individuals that were pictured at demonstrations in favor of the Albanian ethnic union, the KLA/UCK and that are also well-known inside the Balkan Islamic extremism context. The danger is that the two ideologies can somehow overlap, creating a dangerous mixture that could have serious consequences on the other side of the Adriatic.
A paradigm for the study of jihadist recruitment
Alexei Grishin, an expert in Islamic extremism in the Russian Federation, has recently explained how recruiters and propagandists can rely on “spotters” in order to detect individuals who are potentially sensitive to jihadist propaganda. He cites the so called “individual approach” through which detailed information is gathered in order to find the weak psychological spots of the target and then adapt a specific and singular method in order to conquer the heart and mind of the person that will gradually be indoctrinated and consequently recruited.
It is very likely that even in Italy there are spotters who are active in looking for potential volunteers and a proper investigative procedure needs to examine in detail such a possibility. In the Sergio case, who was it that eventually pushed Maria Giulia towards Bushra Haik’s classes, which were a major instrument for jihadist indoctrination? What kind of contacts inside the Italian Muslim community did Bushra have? How did Bushra reach Saudi Arabia and through which contacts when she left Bologna for good in 2012? Did she have contacts with the Islamic University of Medina, were Mariglen Dervishllari also had studied? What were the Kobuzi connections in the Milan and Treviglio area? This is clearly an investigation that is only at its first phase.