I see the role of Islamic religious communities more from the aspect of prevention and countering radicalization, which should be carried out in cooperation with other state institutions and the civil sector, said Erolld Musliu, director of the Intelligence Agency in an interview with MKD.mk.
A year has passed since the coronavirus outbreak worldwide, that our country has been fighting since the end of February. What steps are the security and intelligence services taking in that area, the Intelligence Agency, to be precise?
The pandemic undoubtedly changed the way we live completely and such a change will remain to be felt even after it is overcome. All institutions had to adapt to the new reality both in terms of internal functioning and in terms of accomplishing their mission. The Agency approached the pandemic like a global phenomenon, since it affects and causes changes not only in the overall political, economic and international relations, but also in the manifestation of asymmetric and hybrid threats.
In such conditions, adaptation to the new reality has been identified with both terrorist organizations and transnational organized criminal structures. The hybrid strategies creators have also adapted by implementing media-propaganda activities and diplomatic tools to influence public opinion. In this regard, certain countries, by creating a false perception in the public, provoked positive emotions for non-NATO countries, as opposed to the "passive and unsupportive" EU and NATO.
Such changes imply a new approach to the security - intelligence services’ operation, in addition to the limiting circumstances for normal functioning. The Intelligence Agency adapted to the new reality and has maintained its efficiency level and regular communication with information beneficiaries, including the Ministry of Health. Under the circumstances the Agency developed dynamic cooperation with the partner intelligence services, exchanging experience and information on ways to address the pandemic, beneficial to the health sector in our country.
To what extent does the current situation in the country, especially the relations with Bulgaria, affect the security assessment for Republic of North Macedonia? Do you have information about intensified foreign intelligence activity in Republic of North Macedonia?
Relations with Bulgaria do not represent a security issue. Bulgaria is our NATO ally, hence we have excellent relations with the Bulgarian civil security and intelligence agencies. We, as Agency, share the same strategic commitments and interests with the Bulgarian agencies and have been jointly countering asymmetric and hybrid threats. In this context, AR monitors the intelligence activities and acts by countries developing hybrid strategies, the false news propaganda of which, adapted to geographical, ethnic and religious characteristics, can lead to confusion and uncertainty among the population and political actors in the respective states. In these circumstances, the politicians and the media unconsciously entering the matrix of hybrid strategies creators’ propaganda would be a dangerous development and might cause additional polarization, division and tensions in the society, especially for domestic political purposes and in pre-election period.
The Belgrade - Pristina dialogue is one of the key political issues related to the stability of the entire region. How do you assess the outcome of this EU-sponsored dialogue?
It is a complex and sensitive negotiation process, blocked by the assassination of an eminent Kosovo Serb political leader in 2018, and revived this year under the strong US and EU administrations’ initiative. Several factors have impact on the negotiation process dynamics and its outcome: the positions of Serbia, Kosovo and the international community; the internal political situation in both countries, particularly in Kosovo, due to the resignation of the Kosovo President after the indictment confirmed by the Hague-based Special Prosecutor’s Office. Progress in the negotiation process cannot be expected without the Serbia and Kosovo leaderships’ political will. The negotiations are expected to end with a legally binding agreement for full normalization of relations, with an internationally acceptable solution respecting the principles of inviolability of borders, without regional and security implications.
The in Vienna events have reopened the issue of Islamic radicalism, Republic of North Macedonia, the Macedonian security organs ... How prepared, trained and informed are we about the presence of such radicalism on the Macedonian territory?
Radicalism, violent extremism and terrorism from a political, ethnic and religious point of view represent a global, regional and national threat, therefore - one of the Intelligence Agency’s top priorities. Terrorism knows no borders, a terrorist kills people, attacks vital objects, creates fear and confusion in order to ignite religious, racial and national hatred that further leads to polarization in the society.
The network of inspirers, recruiters and supporters of the global Jihad ideology in Europe and in the Balkans intertwines through many countries and enjoys logistic support. The phenomenon of foreign terrorist fighters remains the Agency’s focus of interest, especially due to the fact that since the start of the war in Syria, about 1,000 radical ideologies supporters from the Western Balkans that were recruited and used by al-Qaeda and later by ISIS, have left for Syria and Iraq to fight. The Republic of North Macedonia is part of the global anti-ISIS coalition, within which the Agency has a strategy to counter this phenomenon; its members are highly trained professionals, the Agency develops cooperation with international partners and domestic security entities.
A show case of the cooperation at the international and national level playing a key role was the arrest, in early September this year, of three ISIS supporters that had planned a terrorist act. Regarding the recent terrorist act in Vienna, it should be noted that the Macedonian security and intelligence agencies have regular cooperation and communication with the respective ones in Austria and we exchanged relevant information. Of course, one should bear in mind that such cooperation and communication has always been within the competence of the Austrian services and their legislation and the competencies of the Macedonian security entities.
What is the role of the Islamic religious community? How closely do you follow the preaching in the mosques, which often turns out to have nothing to do with Islam?
Islamic religious communities as institutions, or in some countries as associations, have the obligation to regulate issues related to the organization of religious life in the country where they are registered. As such, they are not in the AR security interest. Experience to date has shown that radical ideologies’ recruiters, inspirers, supporters and ideologues operate in illegal religious buildings and other locations. I see the role of Islamic religious communities more in terms of prevention and countering radicalization, which should be executed in cooperation with other state institutions and the civil sector.
From all the information you receive, can it be said that the emigration crisis and the Balkan refugee route are being used by the radicals and that individuals are being deployed in the countries of the region?
In terms of identifying external threats, the Intelligence Agency treats illegal migration as a phenomenon, but due to the geographical areas where it emerges, further creating security and political instability because of the refugee flows, it manages it as a hybrid. threat.
Experience so far has shown that the Balkan route passing also via our country, and the final destination of which are the Western Europe countries, was used by extremist and terrorist elements who carried out terrorist acts on European soil. Security - intelligence agencies cooperate and exchange information on the identification of terrorist elements that have been using criminal structures dealing with the organization of illegal channels and transfers and may pose threat to the national security.
I must note that there are currently several women and children originating from the Republic of North Macedonia living in the refugee camps in Syria, living in extremely inhumane conditions. The situation tends to get out of control, so we might face a mass escape wave potentially bringing terrorist elements. On the other hand, it is a fact that there are several Macedonian citizens left in Syria, members of ISIS, some of whom imprisoned and others are Hayat Tahrir al-Sham members.
What is the cooperation with the neighboring countries services regarding the ISIS returnees with with dual citizenship, from a security aspect?
Since the start of the war in Syria, security and intelligence agencies in the Balkans have developed an intensive exchange of information, covering several aspects related to the process of volunteers leaving for the battlefields. One of those aspects was the identification of those who left for Syria and those who were preparing to leave. The exchange of information was at a highly professional level and in many cases we helped each other in preventing departures to Syria, as well as in revealing intentions to carry out terrorist acts in the region. It should be noted that a number of volunteers originating from the Balkan region that had lived and worked in EU countries, left for the battlefields and connected with some of the Balkan groups in Syria.
When you were appointed director of AR, you had problems with DUI, a party that is part of the ruling coalition. How are things now, have the passions calmed down? Does that political pressure create problems in your everyday work?
It is true that at the beginning of my mandate there were reactions from DUI. I think that they were due to insufficient information about my professional profile and the real situation in the Agency in the past. But this misunderstanding has been overcome and belongs to the past. We have excellent cooperation with the DUI ministers in the Government, they have already supported the AR work positions systematization together with the draft Law of the Agency, which will soon enter a parliamentary procedure.
When it comes to political pressure, it should be emphasized that the Agency, as institution, has managed in the past year and a half to have an independent and autonomous role in its operation, free from political influence and pressure, which is very important for a professional service. The situation is now over when individuals, who, taking advantage of connections with the top state political structures, influenced and interfered in the work of the Agency. However, as a director, I have been subject to prejudiced attacks, on several occasions, by party press and statements of the opposition, which had been misinformed and abused by individuals who are no longer part of the Agency and belong to a deplorable past of the Agency.
Can you say for yourself that you do your job professionally, uncompromisingly, that those who advance in AR are professionals, not political sycophants?
I draw the principles in my management from my professional career, which started 27 years ago in the Ministry of Interior and continued in the AR. In those years I went through all the steps of the hierarchy, and in May 2019 I was entrusted with the role to lead the Intelligence Agency. The honor is even greater with the fact that for the first time in the entire security-intelligence system, an Albanian has been appointed to this high responsibility position. The agency has an autonomous role and is a professional service with incorporated criteria, which are constantly being upgraded, and there is no place for political flatterers.
Security issues, security structures are part of what awaits us in the European integration processes. How do we stand here as a state? Will we pass that chapter easily or not?
It depends on us as a country whether and how easily we will pass Chapter 24 - Justice, Freedom and Security, which according to the new negotiation methodology is part of the first cluster - foundations, which opens first and closes last. The fulfillment of the reforms in this cluster will affect the dynamics of the accession negotiations as a whole. Reform of the intelligence and security services is one of the key priorities in the process of European integration, envisaged within the urgent reform priorities and subject to intensified monitoring by the European Commission. The need for а reform in the intelligence and security sector has been continuously repeating in the EC reports. It is essential that the reform is fully completed and implemented, ensuring non-partisan operation of the intelligence services.
What changes are allocated by the new amendments in the Law on the Intelligence Agency?
Before the start of the reforms in the intelligence-security services in 2018, the Intelligence Agency had been the only service in the country established by a law dating back to 1995. In order to complete the reform process in this area that started with the laws on OTA, ANB and the Law on Coordination of the Security - Intelligence Community, a new law on the Intelligence Agency was necessary. The new law offers several innovations in terms of its functioning and the status of employees. A clear distinction is made between the competencies of AR and ANB, i.e. AR is defined as the only institution responsible for external intelligence, which collects intelligence on asymmetric, hybrid and cyber-threats abroad. Among other benefits, I would mention the introduction of the position of Deputy Director of the AR, the integration of NATO criteria, the introduction for the first time of internal control and supervision over the work of the Agency, transparency in the work, levelling the employees’ status with the of the security sector employees in the Republic of North Macedonia.
All the information announced in public these days about unprecedented abusive behavior of security structures officials’ only shows us how porous this area is. How do you deal with that? What’s the status of the charges pressed for conflict of interest of your wife's consulting agency and your current position?
So far, we have not had lawsuits for corrupt activities of officials in the Intelligence Agency. Regarding the charges for conflict of interest of the civil association that my spouse presides with, I would like to mention that the Agency has never established a business relationship with that association. As it was publicly announced, the procedure against me, initiated upon an anonymous report, ended with a decision "to be ceased", passed by the State Commission for Prevention of Corruption on October 2.
What measures have you taken for the scandal in Brussels with the two AR employees, who were detained by the Brussels police because of their paranoia, and one of them is again a representative in Sarajevo?
The event you are asking about, unfortunately, was mispresented to our public, by people who, obviously for personal reasons and benefit want to harm the reputation of AR as institution and the reputation of our country. The event took place during the term of the previous AR director and was publicly announced after my appointment. Until my appointment as director of the AR, no measures had been taken to review the case. I reviewed the case, discussed the event with my colleagues and took a disciplinary action against one of them pursuant to my authorizations. As for the second part of your question, related to the diplomat of our country in Bosnia and Herzegovina, I should note that it is not the person who was disciplined.