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MEK defectors raise doubts over alleged Iranian 'terror cell' in Albania

Police said cell planned attacks on exiled Iranian opposition group. Others wonder if Albania is being drawn into US and Israeli fight with Iran
Mojahedin-e Khalq members wave Iranian flags from their base in Manza, Albania this July (AFP)

Albanian police recently announced that they had discovered a terror ring, run by the Iranian Revolutionary Guards, which had planned attacks on an exiled Iranian opposition group living in Albania.

“A terrorist cell of the foreign operations unit of Iranian Quds was discovered lately by Albanian intelligence institutions,” Police Director General Ardi Veliu said at a press conference in late October.

The goal of the ring, Veliu said, was to strike the Mojahedin-e Khalq (MEK), an exiled Iranian opposition group which has been based in Albania for the past three years.

Names of group members were also released, including Alireza Naghashzadeh, whom Veliu identified as the cell’s operations chief and a member of the Quds Force, the arm of the revolutionary guards which conducts foreign operations.

The ring, he added, had been identified by sources inside it.

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But no arrests have been made and Albania has yet to request international arrest warrants for the alleged attackers, leaving local journalists and Iranian dissidents with lingering doubts.

'If it was true, why hasn’t Interpol arrested them?'

- Hassan Heyrani, former MEK member

Gjergj Erebara, a journalist with the Balkan Investigative Reporting Network, said the press conference - which he attended - was unusual, to say the least.

“Albanian police gave no proof to substantiate its claims. They said they have discovered the “terrorist cell”, but they didn't make any arrests,” Erebara said.

Hassan Heyrani, a former high-ranking MEK member who defected from the group in 2017, said he believes the story that the police presented is fabricated.

“If it was true, why hasn’t Interpol arrested them? Albania is a very poor country where corruption is rife, police can be bought,” he said.

MEE repeatedly asked the Albanian police for further details about the alleged ring, but a spokesperson declined to comment. The Iranian Embassy in Tirana refused to comment.

Without further detail, some observers say they have been left wondering if the announcement is a sign that the Balkan country is being drawn further into America’s – and Israel's - fight to overthrow the Iranian government.

From Iran to Albania

Established in 1965 as an Islamist-socialist movement, the MEK rose up against the rule of the Shah of Iran during the 1979 Islamic Revolution, but soon ran afoul of new leader Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini.

Facing a deadly crackdown, the MEK launched attacks on government officials and security forces and eventually was forced to flee the country, first to France and then eventually to Iraq.

Massoud Rajavi, who led the MEK until he disappeared in 2003, and his wife Maryam, who now leads the group seen in Paris in 1985 (AFP)
Massoud Rajavi, who led the MEK until he disappeared in 2003, and his wife Maryam, who now leads the group, seen in Paris in 1985 (AFP)

The group, whose activities have been described as cultish, with a goal of overthrowing the Iranian government using violence and indoctrination, was designated for more than a decade by both the US and the UK as a terrorist organisation.

But in recent years, and as both countries delisted the group, the MEK has become a favourite of anti-Iran hawks in the US and Europe who see it as a weapon against the government in Tehran.

Between 2014 and 2016, at the bequest of the US, at least 2,700 MEK members were resettled in Albania after the group came under attack at Camp Ashraf, the Iraqi refugee camp where they had been living since the mid-1980s.

These days, the group lives in a fortified camp in the country’s northwest, heavily protected by Albanian authorities.

Covert playground

Analysts say the group’s presence in Albania has raised alarm bells in Tehran and there have been reports that prominent members of the group have been under surveillance globally.

Ruslan Trad, an independent researcher focused on Iranian influence in the Balkans and co-founder of De Re Militari, said he believes Albania is now “a subject of espionage games” between Israel, Iran and the US.

Trad said Iran's presence in Albania must be understood in the context of Tehran’s activities over the past two decades in the Balkans where it has been quietly establishing a foothold, triggering the concerns of western governments that the conflict with Iran had arrived in their backyard.

A 2012 attack killing five Israeli tourists, a bus driver and the bomber outside the airport in the Bulgarian city of Burgas, which Bulgarian intelligence eventually attributed to Hezbollah, was seen by many analysts as part of the covert war between Iran and Israel. Hezbollah denied its involvement.

Buses explode as Albanian investigators reenact 2012 July bombing in Burgas to try to piece together what happened (AFP)
Buses explode as Albanian investigators reenact 2012 July bombing in Burgas to try to piece together what happened (AFP)

Since then, however, Trad said he believes the Balkans have become an attractive location for Hezbollah, according to locally based Hezbollah members and sympathisers he has interviewed

“Hezbollah is using Kosovo and Macedonia as a logistic centre and transit path, and Bulgaria as a hub,” he explained. He believes Hezbollah is heavily linked to Balkan mafia circles. 

In turn, the activity has seen the Israelis step up their own operations in the Balkans, he said: “The Albanian authorities are probably cooperating with them."

US-Albanian ties

Heyrani, the former MEK member who defected, said he believes the main reason Albania has been so supportive of the MEK is a result of the close relations between Albania and the US.

“Albania is under American control and also MEK is supported by the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC)," he said, referring to the appearance of MEK members in an AIPAC-funded TV commercial against the Iran nuclear deal in 2015.

Under Donald Trump’s administration, hawkish support for the MEK has continued, including from now-former security advisor John Bolton and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo.

Bolton praised Albanian President Edi Rama at the end of last year for expelling the Iranian ambassador in Tirana in direct relation to an alleged terror plot targeting MEK members.

Trump wrote a letter acknowledging Albania’s “steadfast efforts to stand up to Iran and to counter its destabilising activities and efforts to silence dissidents around the globe”.

The continued support and safety measures that the Albanian government provides the MEK - now with the added questions about the alleged terror cell - has led many dissidents who have left the group to be concerned about their futures.

Does Albania have an America problem?
Read More »

MEE spoke to several MEK defectors, several on condition of anonymity, who said they were distressed about what would come next for them, given the government’s stance.

“We just want a normal life, to get married and have a family. We have no citizenship, no passports, no land rights. We came here on humanitarian grounds, but we are treated like criminals,” Heyrani said. “I have no choice but to live here. I can’t go back to Iran. They do not accept us."

Heyrani said that recently his image was splashed on Albanian television where he was described as an enemy of the state. 

“They have no evidence, just like the alleged terror plot," he said. "But here in Albania that is not important."

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