Wednesday, April 8, 2015

The Albanian jihadist network in Italy, by Giovanni Giacalone

The data on foreign fighters from Italy recently released by the Italian institutions raised to 59 the number of individuals who left the country to join jihadists in Syria and Iraq: among them only 5 have Italian passports, while 2 have dual citizenship.  

Fourteen seem to have died (including Bosnian citizen Ismar Mesinovic who was cited in a previous article). More than 100 potential jihadists who are either involved in online activities or active in Islamic centers are also closely being monitored.

Even though it is hard to have specific and precise data on the issue, it is believed that about one-fifth to one sixth of the 59 who left Italy to go fight are originally from the Balkans while, strangely enough, only 13 of them seem to be Syrian.

A common fallacy that has often been exposed by some Italian experts is that those who leave the country to join jihadists do not attend Islamic centers or mosques, but does not correspond to reality. It is evident from the visits in different Islamic centers throughout the country by preachers such as Idriz Bilibani and Bilal Bosnic. 

This last one in particular, arrested in September 2014 by SIPA in Bosnia, got connected in Friuli with Ismar Mesinovic, Munifer Karamaleski and Elmir Avmedoski (all of them fought in Syria).

Albanian citizen Aldo “Said” Kobuzi and his wife, Italian citizen Maria Giulia “Az Zahra” Sergio are also known to have attended Islamic centers in Italy, including in the Tuscany region. Kobuzi and Sergio seem to be linked to an interesting network that connects Italy to Albania for the departure of foreign fighters and whose main organizers are two imam currently in prison in Albania. 

Maria Giulia Sergio, originally from Torre del Greco, had moved approximately ten years ago to Inzago, a small town the outskirts of Milan and was living with her family in complicated economic conditions. The family was strongly catholic and was being helped by Caritas but after some time they all converted to Islam. In an interview on Italian media her mother claimed that her daughter “has the strength of a person that fights for a just cause”.

Maria Giulia had initially married a Moroccan citizen, but she divorced after some time because, according to her, he was not sufficiently religious. She then met and married Aldo Kobuzi.

From a sociological perspective it is interesting to examine the Kobuzi family’s roots to Islamist extremism. The first one of the family to become radicalized was Aldo’s mother, Donika, who was abandoned by her husband in the early 90’s after he moved to Italy. The woman also lived in Italy, in the Grosseto area (it is interesting to notice that an Islamic center in Grosseto hosted in 2013 a radical imam from Pristina’s great mosque, Shefqet Krasniqi).

Aldo Kobuzi’s sister, Serjola, married Mariglen Dervishllari, an Albanian from a village near Pogradec, who seems to have died while fighting in Syria. According to an Italian investigative article published on Panorama, Serjola is currently in Syria and her mother Donika could be there as well.

Panorama explained that the person that connected the various members of the family all the way to Syria is Bujar Hysa and it cites a phone conversation where Dervishllari tells him “I am sending you my brother in law. I gave him your phone number”. Always according to such article, it was Hysa’s organization that paid for Daervishllari’s trip to Syria (as well as for other Albanian jihadists).

Bujar Hysa and Genci Balla, two imam who preached in Mezezit and Unazes Ze Re, were arrested, together with ten other people, in March 2014 and are considered the leaders of a vast organization that recruits jihadists for Syria.

Another interesting story that has emerged at the end of January and still needs to be clarified is the one of an Albanian woman resident with her husband and children in Lecco, near Milan, who seems to have fled to Syria with her six year-old son.  Her husband went to the police to report the case and investigations are currently underway.

Even though the issue is not connected, it is interesting to notice that another imam from the Balkans quoted by Panorama, Idris Idrizovic, had also been detected in the Lecco area; this imam is connected to Sead Bajraktar, a well-known preacher from Kosovo who is known for radical propaganda and who is also active in Tuscany.

According to another investigative article by Panorama, Bajraktar influenced the radicalization of individuals such as Eldin Hozda, resident in Bolzano, who was in a critical condition due to the lack of work.

Overall it is interesting to point out that many of these volunteers come from critical social and economic conditions, which mean unemployment, lack of means to conduct a decent life and lack of solid perspectives for the future, family problems. 

However, even though these elements can make some individuals more sensitive to extremist propaganda due to the anger and resentment that they can retain towards society, they are still not enough to justify radicalization, because it would probably not occur without the essential role of extremist preachers who exploit the distress of people and brainwash them with Islamist propaganda that only makes things worse, putting their lives at serious risk. 

Such situations have been detected in some of Tirana’s suburbs, as well as in towns such as Elbasan, Cerrik and Librazhd and they are also taking place in Italy. The geographical area changes but the wicked mechanism is the same one; hence it is clear that the problem must be faced up to its root: the engine of propaganda and financing must be neutralized in order to but a stop to such process.


Giovanni Giacalone is an Italian researcher and analyst specialized in political Islam and Islamic extremism in Europe. He currently resides in Milan and analyzes radicalism, security and integration in Italy. He has written articles for Itstime, Rimse, Ispi as well as for national and international newspapers.