Joby Warrick/The Washington Post Minarets share the skyline with office towers in downtown Tirana, Albania. Since the start of the Syrian conflict, the country has been grappling with the emergence of radical Islamist groups.
TIRANA, Albania — Ask Bujar Hysa about the charges that landed him in Tirana’s cramped No. 302 Prison, and he spits furious denials. “I never encouraged terrorism!” declared the Muslim cleric, convicted last month of recruiting young Albanians for the Islamic State.But press further and Hysa readily admits to supporting a kind of Islamic state — not in Syria, but at home, in Albania, a NATO member and close U.S. ally on Europe’s southern flank. Reflecting on his country’s future from the prison’s tiny visitor’s room, he predicted that Albanians would inevitably replace Western-style governance with sharia, or Islamic law. Indeed, younger members of his flock were clamoring for it, he said.

“Islam can coexist with other religions, but with democracy? No!” the bearded imam told a reporter as a guard kept an anxious watch just outside the door. “Anyone who says that sharia can coexist with democracy is a hypocrite.”

It is precisely this sentiment that has officials on a war footing in tiny Albania, a country with 2.8 million people, but an outsize problem trickling in from across its rugged eastern border.

The Balkan enclave, nestled between the shimmering Adriatic and the high peaks of the Dinaric Alps, has a majority-Muslim population but a centuries-old tradition of religious tolerance and moderation. Yet even here, 1,200 miles from the fighting in Syria, the Islamic State has found a small but devoted following.

More than 100 Albanians have traveled to the Middle East to join the terrorist group, and a few have gained prominence, using the Internet to beckon their countrymen. Their call to Islamist militancy has been echoed by a handful of ultra-

conservative mosques that have sprung up in Albania in recent years, some of them built with help from Islamic charities and missionaries from Turkey and the Persian Gulf region.

Albania’s government is aggressively pushing back. The parliament recently passed laws forbidding participation in the Islamic State, and the security services have cracked down on recruits making the trek to Iraq and Syria. Bujar Hysa, the imprisoned imam, was one of three clerics and six others sentenced last month to prison terms of up to 18 years for allegedly encouraging young Albanians to embrace violent jihad.

But these efforts are facing strong headwinds, including a current of radicalism welling up from the Levant and spilling through a Balkan neighborhood still scarred from the sectarian warfare of the 1990s. 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.

Border police are stepping up patrols for Islamist fighters traveling north to central Europe with Syrian refugees, though few of the migrants have dared to attempt Albania’s dangerous alpine passes so far. “We have high mountains to serve as partial barriers to their entry,” Albanian parliament speaker Ilir Meta said during a Washington visit last month, “but even mountains cannot stop this tide.”

Statues of Joseph Stalin and other former communist heroes stand in disrepair in a forgotten corner in Tirana, Albania. Since the country acquired its freedom in 1990, religious groups and radical views have proliferated.© Joby Warrick/The Washington Post Statues of Joseph Stalin and other former communist heroes stand in disrepair in a forgotten corner in Tirana, Albania. Since the country acquired its freedom in 1990, religious groups and radical views have…Albanian officials acknowledge that their most potent weapon against extremism — economic development — continues to fall short, as do Western promises of increased trade and investment with a country still mired in poverty 25 years after the end of communist rule.

“Religion has never been the problem here; it’s education. It’s the lack of a developed civil society. And it’s poverty, especially in the remote areas,” Ylli Manjani, the country’s justice minister, said in an interview. “When you have a situation where people feel hopeless, extremists can fish in that pool.”

Rise of Wahhabi mosques

The very idea of radical Islam still sits uneasily in a country that has always worn its religion lightly.

For centuries, Albanians were an amicable mix of Sunni Muslims, Orthodox Christians and Roman Catholics, with a significant minority of Bektashis, a moderate Sufi Muslim sect that has its global headquarters in Albania. For nearly 50 years until the collapse of communism in 1990, the country’s Marxist leaders proclaimed Albania to be the world’s first atheist state, officially banning religious observances and persecuting imams and priests.

Among the persecuted was the Muslim grandfather of Ylli Gurra, a moderate Sunni cleric who today presides over a prominent mosque in Tirana, not far from statues honoring Skanderbeg, Albania’s national hero and a 15th-century convert to Christianity.

Gurra, wearing a tailored suit and sipping coffee in one of Tirana’s fashionable outdoor cafes, credited his grandfather not only for his faith but also for his belief in embracing neighbors from different religions. Such acceptance, he said, has always been a staple of Albanian Islam — at least, until recently.

“We have always been proud of being a country where you can practice your beliefs as you see fit,” Gurra said. “But the people who grew up under communism had little understanding of their religion. And now, after 25 years of democracy and freedom, some have trouble understanding the boundaries.”

Foreign groups have been only too eager to assist in the country’s religious education. Starting in the early 1990s, Islamic charities, some with the backing of oil-rich gulf kingdoms, jetted into Tirana to begin building mosques and madrassas, or religious schools. The most promising young students were offered scholarships to study theology under the tutelage of fundamentalist clerics in Saudi Arabia and Turkey.

In the past decade, Albania’s larger cities have witnessed a proliferation of independent mosques, unaffiliated with the Muslim Community of Albania, the organization that presides over the country’s moderate-Sunni worship centers. New evangelical Christian congregations had cropped up, as well, reinforcing a growing sectarian consciousness that many Albanians say is alien to their culture.

Today, one of the biggest construction projects in Tirana is a huge, $34 million mosque funded in large part by the Turkish government. While few officials would publicly question Turkey’s largesse, some privately expressed exasperation. Why a lavish new mosque in a country with so many critical needs, including schools, highways and infrastructure for Albania’s promising but underdeveloped tourism industry?

“Please,” implored one senior official, “we have needs other than mosques.”

Trial of the clerics

Lately, it is not the mosques themselves that worry Albanian security officials. It is the messages, communicated by a small number of independent imams, many of them trained outside the country.

Fears about radicalization began building two years ago when the first waves of Islamic State volunteers began leaving for Syria, urged onward in some cases by local clerics. In some remote villages in southeastern Albania, young Muslims in their teens and 20s left home in clusters, sending word later that they had arrived in Iraq or Syria. Some joined up with all-Balkan combat units made up of Albanian and Kosovar nationals.

One Albanian fighter, Ebu Belkisa, a 32-year-old imam from the tiny eastern village of Leshnica, was promoted to a leadership post and then to Internet stardom, appearing in Islamic State videos under the nom de guerre Almir Daci to urge his countrymen to carry out terrorist attacks at home. Belkisa was later killed in fighting, but his widely circulated videos helped spur an unprecedented crackdown by Albanian officials on real and perceived radicals across the country.

Some of the most notorious mosques were closed or forced to change leadership, and many of the more outspoken Islamists were arrested. Among those caught up in the initial sweeps were Bujar Hysa and the eight other Islamists accused of encouraging congregants to support the Islamic State.

The trial of clerics became a public sensation, as the defendants shouted insults at the judge and accused the prosecutor of being a puppet of the United States. Still, Albanian officials, sensitive to accusations of religious persecution in a former communist country, have allowed the defendants to air their grievances in unfiltered interviews with journalists.

In an interview with The Washington Post in their Tirana prison, Hysa and two other defendants asserted that they had been railroaded by an Albanian government eager to burnish its terrorist-fighting credentials. Hysa recounted being arrested by an assault force of dozens of officers who burst into his house while he and young children were sleeping. His only offense, he said, was urging Albanians to come to the aid of Syrian war victims.

“I made a public appeal for people to help Syrians against Assad — at a time when all the world was against Assad, including [President] Obama,” Hysa said. “But because it was coming from a religious person, they say I am a terrorist.”

Moments later, Hysa acknowledged that it was not just his views on Syria that got him into trouble, but rather, a more fundamental conflict with the pluralistic society that Albanian officials are trying to build. Hysa claimed that a growing number of the country’s Muslims see Albania’s system of government as irreconcilably at odds with their religion. Eventually, he said, Albania’s experiment with democracy would be scrapped in favor of a benign Muslim governance that would allow other religions to continue to exist — as long as they agreed to submit to Islamic law.

“We don’t accept their democratic system,” he said of Albania’s government. “We don’t accept their [morality], such as their belief in marriage between women and women, men and men. We oppose action by NATO anywhere in the Arab world.”

“These,” he said, are the main reasons we were arrested.”

‘We have our own traditions’

Exactly how many of the country’s Muslims share such views is unclear. Government officials and leaders of more traditional Muslim organizations insist that the number is quite small. Along Tirana’s broad avenues, and in the sun-drenched tourist resorts on the Mediterranean coast, Muslim prayer caps and headscarves are rarely seen. Restaurants serve wine and traditional Albanian raki, or fruit brandy.

Manjani, the justice minister, says the country turned a corner with its quick action to stop Islamist recruiting. But he also acknowledges that the root causes of radicalism — poverty and foreign proselytizing — remain serious problems. And, despite assurances of help from U.S. and European officials, Albanians still are having to confront such challenges without significant assistance.

“The real challenge is economic development,” he said. “We have to give these people jobs, because if we fail to fight poverty and ignorance, things will only get worse. Meanwhile, what we get from the [West] is the same promises for more training and more ‘capacity-building.’ What does that even mean?”

Gurra, the moderate imam, said members of his mosque still prefer the Albanian tradition of embracing the country’s religious diversity, sometimes even joining in the religious celebrations of their Orthodox and Catholic neighbors.

But lately, some of his members are asking difficult questions, he said, and Muslims from other communities have criticized him for publicly advocating religious tolerance. After the Islamic State’s terrorist attacks in Paris, Gurra joined clerics from Orthodox Christian, Catholic and Bektashi congregations in condemning the violence in a show of religious solidarity. But afterward, he received anonymous threats. “Why were you with those people?” one caller demanded to know.

“Fortunately, there aren’t many people who hold such views, and they’re not going to win,” Gurra said. “I tell our people, ‘We have our own traditions,’ and they’re Albanian traditions, not Arab traditions. We are all part of Europe, not just geographically, but culturally.”