Saturday, March 14, 2015

Albanian Islamists smuggled Italy's "Lady Jihad" to Syria, by Aleksandra Bogdani


Aldo Kobuzi was an average teenager in a forgotten village of central Albania before he took the fateful path towards Islamic radicalization and joined Islamic State, or ISIS.

Before then, his main passions were motorbikes and Tony Montana, the lead character of the 1983 crime flick Scarface.

On the other side of the Adriatic, in Italy, Maria Giulia Sergio, was a Neapolitan Catholic who, after converting to Islam in 2007, appeared in TV shows under the name of Fatima az Zahra, defending the wearing of the veil.

In the summer of 2013, Kobuzi, 23, and Sergio, 25, met in Milan through common contacts and married. The wedding photos, which made the rounds of Italian magazines, show the bride covered from head to toe from a white satin hijab.

Last September, the couple left Italy for Turkey and traveled to Syria to join the Islamic State, the militant terror group that controls large swaths of Syria and Iraq and has proclaimed an Islamic caliphate ruled under Sharia law.

Sergio was the first woman among 59 Italian residents, many of them migrants from North Africa and the Balkans, to travel from Italy to Syria to join the Islamic State. The Italian press have dubbed her “Lady Jihad”.

The couple’s move to Syria is the target of a probe launched by prosecutors in Milan, reflecting growing concern felt in Italy about the recruiting activities of radical Islamic cells.

In Kobuzi’s home village of Germenj, near Lushnja, in central Albania, Kobuzi’s uncle, Bledar Coku, says they are in a safe place and he often talks to them on Skype.

“I talked a month ago with them,” said Coku, seated at the village’s only coffee shop. “They are safe and sound and told me not to worry,” he added.

Italian authorities suspect that radical Islamic cells in Albania linked to Kobuzi arranged the couple’s move to Syria.

Such ties run deep in Kobuzi’s family, BIRN can reveal.

His path towards radical Islam apparently started after his father abandoned the family in the late 1990s.

Forced to leave her husband’s house and return to her paternal home, Kobuzi’s mother, Donika Kobuzi, found solace in religion and became a practicing Muslim.

Kobuzi’s uncle says his sister converted her children. “She would always talk to us about God,” said Coku, who sports a long beard and is himself a practicing Muslim of the hardline Salafi sect,

According to Kobuzi’s former neighbours in the village, Donika first converted her daughter, Serjola, and married in her in 2011, when she was only 15, through a middleman to Mariglen Dervishllari, a Muslim from the village of Rremenj near Pogradec in southwest Albania.

According to documents obtained by BIRN, Dervishllari travelled to Syria in 2013 and joined the al-Nusra front, a militant Islamic group linked with al-Qaeda.

Serjola and her infant daughter joined Dervishllari in Syria in 2014, before he died, possibly while fighting with the radical group.

Pandi Janko, the owner of garage where Aldo Kobuzi once worked, says he became an ardent Muslim following a three-month visit in 2012 to his sister’s family to Pogradec. “When he returned, he had beard down to his chest,” Janko recalled.

Fatjon, a neighbour and childhood friend of Aldo’s, agreed, noting that before the trip to Pogradec in 2012, Aldo was just an average teenager.

“We would ride a motorbike, work when we had the chance and drink a beer or two in the village bar,” Fatjon recalled.

Following the visit to Pogradec, Kobuzi changed into a different person, Fatjon said.

“He would talk about death and paradise,” he added. “He described paradise as a place with seven floors, and those who took a bullet in the forefront would occupy the highest floor,” Fatjon continued.

Janko said Kobuzi moved in 2012 to the village of Scansano, near Grosseto, in Italy, where an older uncle had been living since the 1990s.

The register of the municipality of Scansano first lists Kobuzi as a resident at his uncle’s home in the spring of 2012. His residency permit was renewed in 2013.

According to an interview she gave to the Italian newspaper L’espresso, Sergio converted to Islam in 2007 and married a man from Morocco who she divorced soon after because he did “not interpret the faith properly”.

At the time when Kobuzi moved to Italy, Sergio, originally from Naples, was living with a family in an area between Milan and Bergamo.

She met Kobuzi in Milan in 2013 though the mediation of other Muslims. Kobuzi’s uncle says his nephew traveled from Grossetto to see her in Milan and they immediately liked each other.

They then married in a mosque in Milan and returned to live in Grosseto until September 2014.

That summer, Kobuzi returned to his home village of Germenj in Albania, more radical than when he had left.

Milan prosecutors believe Kobuzi went to Albania to reactivate contacts with radical Islamists in order to arrange his move to Syria.

Kobuzi’s brother-in-law, Dervishllari, shows up in an investigation into an Albanian network of recruiters, which was headed by two Tirana imams, under the name “Halit from Pogradec.”

Albanian police arrested the imams, Bujar Hysa and Abdurrahman Balla, in March 2014. They are currently on trial, accused of recruiting more than 70 Albanian jihadists for the al-Nusra front and ISIS.

Dervishllari first traveled to Syria on January 28, 2013 but returned home soon, after being wounded at the front. Two other Albanian jihadists lost their lives in the incident where he was wounded.

In October 2013, he traveled again to Syria, never to return.

Neighbours in Rremenj, near Porgradec, says his wife and infant daughter joined him a few months after the second trip to Syria.

The date and cause of his death is not clear. Family members insist he died from leukemia and not while fighting at the front.

Kobuzi and Sergio traveled to Syria in September 2014, when Dervishllari was already dead.

A few weeks before he left through Rome airport, Kobuzi posted an ISIS flag and a note in his Facebook profile. “Death comes once in life, and so it should be in the path of Allah,” the note read.