A man in his fifties was filmed in the hall of Mother Teresa Airport in Tirana, teaching three young men how to act on boarding their first ever flight. That was back on January 2, 2014, when Albanian police stopped the young men from heading towards the battle fronts of Syria.
One of them carried a handwritten letter in his pocket, reading: “Tirana-Istanbul-Gaziantep-Kilis. $750 belong to Ebu Amar’s family.” The note described the route that three young men needed to follow to reach the war in Syria. As for the money, that was a contribution from “Muslim brothers” in Tirana to the widow and orphans of Diamant Rasha, who still live in camps in Syria.
Rasha – who took the religious name of Ebu Amar – was a pizza delivery man in Tirana who died on December 28, 2013, fighting in Syria for ISIS, the so-called Islamic State. Tracing the source of funding for Albanian jihadists fighting in Syria from 2012 to 2014 has proved a challenge for Albania’s office for the Prosecution of Serious Crimes, as it investigates a group of 13 suspected Islamists arrested in March.
Investigation papers that BIRN has obtained show that the source of the funding for the 90 Albanians who traveled to Syria over those two years remains unclear.
Payments identified by the investigation were made to cover plane tickets or repay debts that jihadist had run up before they departed to war. Of the 13 people prosecuted for recruiting Albanians to join the Syrian war, four face charges of funding would-be jihadists.
According to Prosecution Office, the promise of eternal rewards in the afterlife was the main incentive for the Albanian jihadists who joined al-Qaeda and ISIS.
Investigating the money network
In January 2014, Turkish police seized offices of Humanitarian Relief Foundation, IHH, in Istanbul, Gaziantep, Kilis and several other Turkish locations, suspecting that this organization helped funding foreign jihadist.
The Syrian authorities have accused the IHH of funding hundreds of Albanians to fight against Bashar al-Assad’s regime. However, Prosecution Office probes in Albania have yet to uncover transfers that link this or other similar organizations to the funding network headed by two arrested Albanian imams, Genci Balla and Bujar Hysa.
Investigators have verified all the transactions in commercial banks in Albania and found that the two imams took large sums of money from Turkish individuals but not from organizations. The influx of bank transactions was sizable until 2010, which is when the Prosecution Office dated several transfers of 3,000 to 5,000 euro into Balla’s and Hysa’s bank accounts. The transfers were listed as donations for mosques, but the identity of these “philanthropic” individuals in Turkey remains unclear.
One source in the Prosecution Office told BIRN that most of the donations to Albanian jihadists were no higher than 200 or 300 euro. The two imams have declared that the money was destined to help the mosques they run in Tirana.
“We could not prove that the two imams profited financially from any Turkish organization or from an organization located in the Middle East,” the same source told BIRN. Beside bank transfers, prosecutors have investigated the travels to Kosovo in 2012-2014 of the two imams, who are considered the heads of the recruitment network in Albania.
This period coincides with the rise in the number of Albanians joining the Al-Nusra front or ISIS.
There is suspicion that the money came illegally from Kosovo but it has been hard to prove
The investigation’s documents and wiretappings by Albanian authorities reveal a need for money for warriors in Syria. But Imam Hysa was also interested in sending money to the families of killed Albanians.
As in the case with Rasha, the money was sent in cash through new people heading towards the front. In a wiretapped phone call on October 27, 2013, a jihadist newly arrived in Syria asked the imam how to divide up the money he gave him. “Give 200 to Ebu Enes and 100 to Hasan Korvafaj,” answered Hysa from Tirana.
Enes’s real name was Hamit Myslija – killed in Syria a few days before this conversation took place. Korvafaj was then still alive, but was killed in battle a few weeks later.
One-way ticket to war
Despite the low cost of living in Syria, Albanian jihadists still needed money to get there. Plane tickets, payments for guns or living costs for families totaled thousands of euros. The men arrested as recruiters could not have afforded the bills on their own.
According to BIRN’s interviews and the investigation documents, the imams and their followers divided up the financial burden, based on a belief that funding a fighter is the same as sacrificing yourself for jihad.
Many Albanian jihadists turned for funds to others, while buying plane tickets or paying “zekat” for the war. One of them, Shkelzen Dumani, who was killed in an assault on November 5, 2014, sold his house and used a share of the money to invest in jihad. After paying for the plane tickets of two young Albanians traveling with him to Syria, Dumani left another sum of money to Hysa before he was killed.
“Abdyl Aziz will bring you 500 euros. The money belongs to Nisi from Elbasan, if he already reserved his plane tickets. Otherwise, send the money where it is needed,” Dumani wrote in a wiretapped message.
Aside from plane tickets, another concern was costs of living in the frontline camps. The Albanians had guaranteed food and place to sleep, but they still needed extra money to live.
Those who decided to stay in Syria often asked for the quick sale of their properties in Albania, while others survived with what they had. The offer of financial assistance was usually around $150 dollars monthly for the men and their families. “We have everything here. They give the families $150 a month,” one jihadist’s wife wrote.
Unlike this woman, a jihadist who returned to Albania told BIRN that the conditions in Syria where harsh.
“There wasn’t enough food; we didn’t have any shower even for a month because it was too cold. We were united by belief, that’s why we were willing to share even the last bite of bread,” he said.