Poverty, unemployment and a general lack of perspectives for the future makes it easy for radical Islamist preachers in Albania to lure and recruit young men for 'Islamic State' and jihad in Syria. Some never return.
"Dorian studied English at the University of Tirana. He loved college. We took out loans for him to study. After he received his master's degree he came back to the village. But he couldn't find a job, neither here, nor in the surrounding area." Meleq Kuqo is visibly shaken and his voice trembles as he talks about his son, who died in the war in Syria.
Dorian's family lives in the tiny village of Rremenj in Southeast Albania. They are poor, like most people here. There are about 250 houses in the village, as well as a mosque, and next to it, a church.
Like many Albanians, Dorian also sought work as a seasonal laborer in nearby Greece. He hoped to pay off his student debt and help out his family. However, the financial crisis in Greece meant that many Albanians were unable to find work. Dorian, too, had to leave the country.
In early 2014 he told his family that he was going to Austria, where he would be working for a few months. He never returned.
"He called once a month. He told us that he had found a job. But when we said we wanted to come visit, he told us the truth."
"He said that he had gone straight to Syria, become a jihadi and had married a Muslim girl from Kavaje in Central Albania. We begged him to come home, but he told us that he had volunteered," says Dorian's father.
Then, on August 18, 2015, they received the sad news. "It was 7:27 in the evening when a friend of his from the neighboring village of Gurras called and said that Dorian had been killed in the war." His body could not be returned.
Victims of poverty
Between 2012 and 2014, several groups of young men left Pogradec and other cities in Central and Eastern Albanian in order to join "Islamic State" (IS) forces in Syria. According to official statistics, some 114 people joined "IS" during that time. Meanwhile, 40 have returned, 20 have been killed.
Roland Hoxha, a dentist and a practicing Muslim, knew several of the young men that went to Syria. "Most had only a junior high education, some had a high school degree, very few went on to college. They came from poor families and were easy prey for those who promised them money and prosperity," says Hoxha.
Poverty, unemployment and a total lack of perspectives made it easy for radical Islamic foundations and preachers to recruit young people. That problem was made worse by the fact that many of the mosques were not members of the Muslim Community of Albania, a moderate organization that includes a large portion of those Muslims living in multi-denominational Albania. "The imams at those mosques preached a violent and extreme version of Islam, and actively tried to recruit unemployed youth," says Roland Hoxha.
No chance for Salafism
Salafism and other extreme forms of Islam first made their way to Albania in 1990, Mufti Ylli Gurra, chairman of the general council of the Muslim Community of Albania, told DW in an interview. Since all religion was banned in communist Albania there were only a few imams and no Islamic schools or scholars when the Iron Curtain fell. There were few mosques as well. "That made it possible for a number of Islamic organizations and foundations from Saudi Arabia - which were blacklisted by the USA after 9/11 - to come to Albania and build mosques and Islamic schools. At the same time, they offered poor families financial assistance in order to convert more people to their ideology," says Gurra.
"But, no Albanian citizen has joined 'IS' in the last two years," he says. "All imams have since been vetted and the mosques now have executive boards that regularly report the content of sermons to the country's central Muslim Association." Mufti Ylli Gurra is confident that religioius extremism has no future in Albania.