BY ALLAN HALL , DAN WARBURTON
Jihadists are flooding Britain with cannabis from the Albanian drug farm as intelligence experts warn that Islamist extremism is taking hold in Europe
In Albania Islamic State is raising cash for its terror campaign by running cannabis farms and shipping the drug to Britain. The evil caliphate has seized control of a $4billion Mafia marijuana growing operation in the rural mountains of Albania – giving it a foothold in Europe.
Private jets and ships take the £4billion-a-year harvest to Mafia bosses in Italy, who distribute it, the Sunday People reports. ISIS moved into the lucrative trade after security services fought their way into an Albanian Mafia HQ in the hill village of Lazarat. Far from putting paid to cannabis farming, the 2014 raid cleared the way for extremists to take over by removing the Mafia. ISIS now recruit in the area – often from the Mafia itself.
Dr Vladimir Pivovarov, a former military intelligence officer, said: “It is well known that Albania and other countries in the region have citizens joining ISIS.
“Western intelligence identified Balkan countries as the most active in providing recruits for jihad.
“There is no doubt that the best recruits for the jihadists are those that were in the Mafia. Already schooled in violence, they even pay their own way because the dirty money that the jihadists then gain when they recruit Mafia recruits helps to further swell the jihadist coffers. With new recruits and money, the Mafia in the region is exactly the reason why Muslim extremism is establishing itself in this part of Europe.”
He is echoing what the People was told earlier by an unnamed senior government official, who said: “It wasn’t as if the Mafia moved out and Jihadists moved in, what many people fail to understand is that the borders between Albanian Mafiosi and ISIS militants are blurred. Even if the leadership is different, they often use the same people to supply them with illegal weapons, and use the same people for illegal activities whether it’s drug running or indeed any of the other illicit activities.
“For the drugs Mafia there are not so many advantages to links with the extremists although in the past, it might have helped out with money laundering and the like, but the terrorists love to have drug dealers in their squads, and offer them everything that can to win them over. With their help, they are clearly muscling into the drugs world.”
Lazarat came onto the radar of western drug officials in 2012 after two Dutch motorbike tourists travelling through Albania made the remarkable discovery of the village.
Being from Holland, where cannabis consumption is legal, the pair were no strangers to what cannabis plants look like. But even they were stunned to discover tens of thousands of the plants growing in the countryside around Lazarat.
A video they made of the trip showed cannabis plants stretching away alongside the road for mile after mile. Their video went viral showing how the druglords in Albania produced weed to fuel the bars and cafes, the nightclubs and the homes of western Europe.
In its 2015 report, the US government-funded NGO Freedom House noted that Lazarat was at the heart of producing marijuana in Europe, valued at 5.9 billion (4 billion GBP) in 2013 – then equivalent to nearly half of Albania’s gross domestic product and making it Europe’s biggest illegal cultivator of marijuana.
To protect their turf, narcotics barons had turned the area around Lazarat into a no-go zone, brooking no outside interference. Armed with rocket-propelled grenades and armour-piercing shells – and with millions available to grease the right pockets – the region was generating hundreds of tonnes of marijuana annually with residents even using private planes to distribute their drugs.
And the police stayed away. Or at least they stayed away until June 2014 when the Tirana authorities decided on a shock-and-awe display of force intended to reclaim the area for the state.
A new Socialist party government had taken office at the end of 2013 and pledged to combat corruption and organised crime – and to claim a place in the EU club of nations.
They decided to hit Lazarat hard, and backed up by helicopters and armoured personnel carriers, 800 heavily-armed police officers marched into the region. Against them the gangsters deployed their fearsome arsenal and unleashed shells, grenades, RPGs and machine guns on the forces of law and order.
Police occupied the town after fierce fighting, seizing 102 tonnes of marijuana and destroying 530,000 marijuana plants. The cannabis they torched left a cloud of smoke so thick it obscured even the local mosque. In the process they seized grenades, mortars and machine guns.
Albanian security forces are now battling the jihadists and weapons seizures have been made.
When the Sunday People visited Lazarat, 140 miles from the Albanian capital of Tirana, locals said their lives are made hell by extremist thugs who recruit local men.
In the capital Tirana, officials confidently told the EU that Lazarat was pacified. The EU’s delight at the action was clear, and as news of the decimation of the criminal gangs was revealed, it was also revealed that after rejecting Albania’s membership three times previously, as a reward for the Lazarat raids that same month, the EU officially designated Albania as a candidate for membership.
But while the Albanian Mafia were forced into the defensive, across the country new drug fields were taking root, run this time run not only by the druglords, but also increasingly by an entirely different criminal organisation, and the Albanian Mafia position as the number one producer has slowly but surely passed into the hands of Jihadists.
While the money was flowing into the traditional Albanian Mafia clans the Jihadists had little opportunity to recruit locals. Most were not religious and many of those in Albania growing the crops were from the local dervish Bektashi religion, practitioners of a mild form of Islam who have little problem with other religions.
But when the money stopped flowing, and men and older children started being arrested or shot, the Jihadists’ promises started to fall on fertile ground among their children and junior disaffected members of the crime syndicates.
When the Sunday People became the first Western media organisation to visit Lazarat since the bloodbath in 2014 in which over 50 people were killed, locals said their lives were made hell by extremist thugs who recruit local men.
One who remained was an old man who said he had little left to worry about from talking to strangers. His wife, he explained, had cancer, and his son was one of those taken in the fighting for Lazarat.
“Here,” he said pointing his finger in the corner of the street. “Here on that spot my son was arrested.
“We are not criminals, everyone around here knows that the state was involved in what we were doing, it was the state that brought us the cannabis seeds. This village has 600 houses. We were all paid to grow cannabis and make hashish.”
But he said that income had now dried up for Lazarat, and the business had moved elsewhere: “Now many of the fields are now in Tepelene and Lushnje and they also make business with cocaine and heroin.
“What happened to Lazarat is even worse than the genocide that Serbia did in Kosovo. Our houses were raided, everything was confiscated. Even our clothes, our shoes, our jewellery, wedding rings and necklaces torn from the necks of our wives’.”
Claims of abuse like this are exactly why the Jihadists’ promises are falling on fertile ground. The old man acts as a guide for the reporters, introducing them to others as they turn up at the cafe who confirm what he is saying.
As more old men joined the table nodding at his words, he continued, saying: “The radical Muslim groups are trying to get our children. They are promising money and education in the Arab countries and promising them a better future. Some of the kids believe them and they are taking them to Syria and other countries like that.”
On the outskirts of Lazaret is a military-style training camp, hidden in the surrounding mountains and created by the drug dealers to train their foot soldiers, but which is now being used by those signing up with the militants.
Proof of the extremists’ presence in Lazarat was exhibited after the 2014 raids when Ibrahim Basha, an Albanian NATO Special Forces soldier who had served five tours in the Middle East for NATO was lured into a trap and killed with three of his colleagues badly injured. After the murder, the police arrested Xhuliano Malo, 17, who was driving a vehicle in which both firearms and cocaine were found.
He made a full confession, and described how the officers tasked with keeping up pressure on drug smugglers had been deliberately lured into a trap. But more significantly, he named three other young men from his village as being involved, also young men like himself, with one aged 19 and two aged 20. On their social media accounts, all of them made it clear of their support for the Jihadists.
The fact that the drug smuggling is continuing was admitted by Albania’s Interior Minister Saimir Tahiri in July last year when he gave the country’s parliamentary National Security Commission an update on the situation in Lazarat.
He said: “Criminality created over the years in Lazarat cannot be defeated in a year, regardless of the achievements of the successful operation last year.
“A massive criminal enterprise was created in Lazarat. Last year, police ended wide-scale drug cultivation there, the value of which was in the billions of euros. But the fact is that the state, police and the justice system were corrupted with drug money.”
When the People visited Lazarat police who were part of an operation codenamed “Kadiaj” were still finding and destroying cannabis plants, even though the season finished a long time ago. The plants were being grown in huge greenhouses in the village of Kadiaj about 5 kilometres from the city of Lushnje. More than 12,470 cannabis plants were destroyed, and six people arrested.
At the same time, police arrested five employees at the port of Durres on suspicion that they had allowed over 1.6 tonnes of cannabis to be smuggled out, which had been seized in the Italian port of Bari a few days ago.
The truth is that drug production has continued at almost the same levels as before in Albania, and the shortfall, if there was any, has not affected the supply of cannabis to the West, instead it has just resulted in more being produced in neighbouring Kosovo, if anything even more in the grip of the Muslim extremists.
As the Interior Minister admits, and the police operations show, Albania is still pumping billions of pounds worth of cannabis around Europe, together with vast amounts of cocaine and heroin, but now with different people in charge.
The latest CIA intelligence on Albania confirms that it is an “increasingly active transhipment point for Southwest Asian opiates, hashish, and cannabis transiting the Balkan route and – to a lesser extent – cocaine from South America destined for Western Europe.”
It said that cannabis production is still expanding; and that ethnic Albanian narco-trafficking organisations are “active and expanding in Europe; vulnerable to money laundering associated with regional trafficking in narcotics, arms, contraband, and illegal aliens.”
Mentor Vrajolli, a senior researcher in Kosovo’s Centre For Security Studies, said: “The Police raids in the last years in Albania did not have the desired effect. The phenomenon was not eliminated. Cannabis production didn’t stop. And what is worst, because of the action in Albania, as a result of the police raids, there is increased cannabis production in Kosovo now.”
He added the most of the money being made from the drugs trade seemed to end up leaving the country and that previously that was to the Albanian Mafia. With the structures in place for laundering money, where that cash was now going was anybody’s guess.
He also confirmed that the terrorists were moving into the traditional Mafia business areas saying: “Organisations like ISIS are selecting some isolated gang members and bringing them over to radical Islam. Or they are selecting people with some criminal background and are then “rehabilitating” them, convincing them that radical Islam is the way they will clear their souls.
“Drug dealers and manufacturers are often weapon smugglers, or human traffickers too.”
The extremists may have a very different motivation to the Mafia gangs, but they have the same desire for Western luxuries and the fact that the drug trade is still continuing is evidenced by the top-line vehicles like Hummers and BMWs which litter the streets between the humble whitewashed walls of ordinary locals in areas where cannabis production still continues.
Removing the drugs to remote locations makes it extremely difficult for police to track these down, although authorities claim to have found 216,000 marijuana plants in the first six months of this year, aided by aerial surveillance funded by Italian officials.
With Albanian migrants already running UK drug dealing operations, it means the cash is now going to the Jihadists.
Security expert Dr Marjan Nikolovski warned: “The UK is the main market for Albanian cannabis. ISIS is involved in production and smuggling. So anybody buying drugs in Britain is funding terrorists.”
Bonded by a code of honour and blood, the Albanian Mafia traditionally exploited the UK’s thriving vice trade. Known as the Mafia Shqiptare, crime families from the Eastern European country arrived in the aftermath of the 1999 Kosovo war.
They identified Britain as fertile ground for their illegal immigration, drug trafficking and arms dealing operations and in the space of less than a year their grip on the UK’s sex industry tightened.
A leaked Home Office report in 2001 found the Albanian mafia had seized control of the Soho vice trade, which had an estimated £40 million annual turnover from the sale of young girls.
Officials claimed the ruthless Eastern European crime network had moved into almost all of the saunas and massage parlours in the heart of Britain’s vice trade. But they also became major players in the distribution of drugs, enforcing deals by meting out extreme violence.
In 2014 Albanian gang members set up a cocaine hotline for drug addicts, earning more than £4million from 100,000 calls in just one year. The unprecedented operation, dubbed ‘Mario Line’ by police, ran a round-the-clock service for callers desperate for the class A drug, sold at £40-£50 a gram.
And just months later a gang from the Eastern European country was jailed for a total of 157 years after attempting to flood London and the south of England with £40m of cocaine and heroin.
The Government has launched an investigation into foreign funding of jihadist groups in Britain. Lib Dem peer Paddy Ashdown claimed last year that outside links to home-grown extremists were not properly checked due to the Conservative Party’s “closeness” to rich Gulf Arabs.
Now Home Secretary Theresa May confirmed that the Extremism Analysis Unit will carry out a probe. Lib Dems want a full public report into how cash is provided to radicalise British young people. MP Alistair Carmichael said: “Funding of extremist organisations from states like Saudi Arabia needs to be cracked down on.”
Prof. Dr. Marjan Nikolovski from the respected Faculty of Security in Skopje at the St Kliment Ohridski University said that cash spent in the UK on drugs was now funding jihadists: “Isis is financing itself mostly from the same places as organised crime, and one of the most profitable forms of organised crime is the illicit drug trade.
”The fact that the UK is the number one market for Albanian cannabis and that Isis is involved in the production of cannabis and the smuggling of other drugs either directly or indirectly, it leads to the inevitable conclusion that anybody buying and consuming illegal drugs in the UK and other EU countries is helping to fund terrorist activities worldwide.”
In Albania, planeloads of cannabis are still being flown in private aircraft across to Italy, where they are handed over to the Italian Mafia, which was long ago infiltrated by Albanian mobsters, to be sold on the streets of Rome, London, Paris and Munich. With the vast sums from the Lazarat drug network, it provides plenty of cash for new recruits.
The most favoured are offered the chance to prove their loyalty by going to fight in Syria, and when they return are rewarded with senior positions and all the perks that money can buy. It is believed their activities are being coordinated from Syria by Lavdrim Muhaxhiri, originally from Kosovo, who has responsibility for the region, and who has also been recruiting armies of loyal Muslim IT professionals from the region to help in the ISIS global social media campaign.
And they are not the only ones interested in glamorising what is happening in Albania.
A Hollywood production company is due to begin filming the bizarre story of Lazarat soon – although there will not be any on-site scenes for the reported A-list of actors turning the tragedy of Lazarat into a box office spectacular, because the place is simply deemed too dangerous for outsiders to enter.