Albania: Drug haven is a NATO challenge for next president
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Our next President will face a long list of problems to deal with and no shortage of headaches.

In Washington, Albania’s recent conversion into a Balkan drug haven has flown under the policy radar and needs immediate US attention. That’s because Albania is a NATO member whom the alliance pledged to defend under Article 5, risking American troops in time of crisis. NATO is only as strong as the weakest link, and we can’t ignore a crisis that is destabilizing an alliance member.

In January of this year, the UK’s Daily Mail announced that a “Staggering Arsenal of RPGs, Machine Guns and Grenades Found Guarding Albanian Gangsters' £4 Billion Drug Empire.”  Staggering indeed.

The ‘empire’ was Lazarat, a small, ‘lawless’ town in southern Albania. It was the second such operation there in less than two years, and like the first, it involved eight hundred armed police using helicopters and armored vehicles.

A UK Mirror article noted that “narcotics barons had turned the area around Lazarat into a no-go zone.”

Albania has began to resemble a Balkan version of Mexico and Colombia.

These and other reports, single out Albania not only as a major producer of illegal drugs, but also as a transit point for drugs coming in from Asia and making their way throughout Europe. It has been converted into a base from which criminal gangs smuggle cigarettes,  heroin, cocaine, cannabis resin and other illicit substances into the rest of Europe, according to the European Monitoring Centre for Drugs and Drug Addiction, Europe’s drug agency.

Some in the press have alleged that the operation can be traced to the very highest levels of government. The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) has confirmed the authenticity of an internal 2015 report that included several third-party allegations of corruption by members of Parliament including Prime Minister Edi Rama, a man who attended George Soros’ wedding, by the way.

Other reports tie both Prime Minister Rama and Interior Minister Saimir Tahiri to their own family members who have heavily engaged in the drug business.

Last year, Albania's opposition Democratic Party called for the resignation of Tahiri, accusing him of protecting criminal groups that smuggle Albanian marijuana to Italy by plane.  While pro-government spokespeople have maintained such accusations politically motivated, the fact that the most recent raid on the Lazarat enclave netted 102 tons of marijuana and destroyed over half a million marijuana plants indicates someone in government isn’t paying close attention, or does not want to.  That is, until the drug problem becomes too obvious to the European Union, to which they aspire, and Albanian leaders are forced to act.

Pictures accompanying the January Daily Mail article about the raid on Lazarat could have convinced any reader that what was shown was an ISIS arms cache, replete with the finest weaponry available on the market.

To compound matters, ISIS appears to making its own headway in Albania, a predominantly Muslim country. According to news reports coming out of the U.K., ISIS sympathizers and supporters have taken control of cannabis farms in Albania that are responsible for a huge proportion of the weed illegally sold in Britain.

And in June, the Washington Post noted that despite a centuries-old tradition of religious tolerance and moderation by Albania’s majority-Muslim populations, “even here, 1,200 miles from the fighting in Syria, the Islamic State has found a small but devoted following.  Extremist messages are finding fertile ground in poorer neighborhoods and villages, where official corruption is high and unemployment among young adults often exceeds 40 percent.”

It’s that very corruption that may be causing senior Albanian government leaders to turn a blind eye to the drug trade, the emergence of ISIS in their country, and their responsibilities to the partner nations around them. If the watchmen are not standing watch, the whole security and law enforcement system in Albania may be compromised.

While NATO membership for Albania is important, its transformation into a drug haven is unacceptable. The nexus of drugs and an emerging ISIS presence in Albania does not bode well for the long-term security of our European partners ourselves.  Moreover, corruption that appears to extend to the highest levels is the best protection money can buy.

Our new president’s plate will be full to be certain. He or she would be well served to take a few moments to address the nexus of drugs, ISIS, and security in the Balkans, and particularly in Albania.

Given the US’ priorities to fight these insidious threats while making NATO stronger, the next president should make tackling the problem of the emerging Balkan drug haven a top security policy priority.

Our Congress and law enforcement authorities should look deeper into this dangerous environment, including an international investigation of senior Albanian Government officials connected to international organized crime, drug trafficking, and terrorist activities.

Only under strong US leadership such an investigation can succeed. 

Cowan is a FOX News Channel contributor and internationally acknowledged expert in the areas of terrorism, homeland security, intelligence and military special operations. A retired Marine Corps officer, Cowan spent three-and-a-half years on combat assignments in Vietnam.


 

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