How Albania Ended Up in Iran’s Cyber Crosshairs
Late last month, Albanian Prime Minister Edi Rama paid a high-profile three-day visit to Israel, where he met with Israeli Prime Minister Yair Lapid, President Isaac Herzog, Knesset Speaker Mickey Levy, Finance Minister Avigdor Lieberman, and the head of Israel’s National Cyber Directorate, Gaby Portnoy. Both sides discussed enhancing security cooperation, particularly in the cybersphere, and organizing a summit of Balkan leaders in Israel next year.
Rama’s visit to Israel came after Albania found evidence that Iran was behind a series of cyberattacks in July and September that temporarily shut down numerous online Albanian government services and websites. Rama said his government’s investigation, which was conducted with assistance from the FBI and Microsoft, among others, revealed that the cyberattack wasn’t carried out by individuals or independent groups but by the Iranian state—calling it “state aggression.” In response, Rama expelled Iranian diplomats from the country.
For its move, Albania won praise in Israel, as Israelis have often voiced their frustration at European governments’ unwillingness to confront Iran. “Iran represents a joint threat for Israel and Albania. We saw this in the recent Iranian cyberattacks against Albania,” Lapid said. “Israel will assist in any way in the effort against Iran. We see this as a national interest and a historical responsibility.” Washington also backed Tirana’s decision to cut ties with Tehran and sanctioned Iran’s Ministry of Intelligence for its alleged role in the cyberattacks. Tehran rejected the charges that it was behind the cyberattacks and accused Albania of complicity in an American-Israeli campaign against Iran.
So how did Albania of all places find itself in Iran’s cyber crosshairs?
In fact, the two countries have been at odds for years, ever since the Balkan state began hosting—at the request of the United States—members of the exiled Iranian opposition group People’s Mujahideen of Iran, or Mujahedeen-e-Khalq (MEK), on its soil. The group has had a presence in Albania since at least 2013.
In the 1970s, the MEK was one of the main groups fighting the imperial regime in Iran. It played a significant role in the 1979 Islamic Revolution before falling out with the newly established Islamic Republic led by Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini.
Morphing into a secretive, cult-like group, the MEK lived in exile under former Iraqi President Saddam Hussein’s patronage starting in the 1980s and was designated as a “Foreign Terrorist Organization” by the United States, European Union, Canada, Japan, and Great Britain because of its alleged killings of U.S. nationals.
The United States removed the MEK from the terrorist list in 2003 following the U.S. invasion of Iraq and planned at the time to use the MEK in a potential overthrow of the Iranian regime (a plan most recently voiced by former U.S. national security advisor John Bolton in 2018). However, such a plan never came to fruition. Hussein’s toppling and the ensuing chaos in Iraq required the group to find a new sanctuary, and the United States urged Albania to host MEK members.
Currently, about 3,000 MEK members are estimated to live in Albania’s Camp Ashraf-3, a heavily fortified compound protected by Albanian private security.
Since 2013, the MEK has regularly hosted events and summits in Albania that have attracted conservative U.S. Republicans, including former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and former Vice President Mike Pence, the latter of whom delivered a keynote address at an event in Albania in June. Even today, many Republicans and congressional aides view the MEK as an important voice calling for regime change in Iran. Albanian media outlets have also reported on contacts between the Israeli Embassy in Tirana and representatives of the MEK. Most recently, in October, the Israeli ambassador to Albania, Galit Peleg, apparently met with MEK leader Maryam Rajavi during the former’s trip to southern Albania.
For obvious reasons, Iran is not thrilled with Albania for hosting the MEK, though Tehran tends to put most of the blame on the United States. Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesperson Nasser Kanaani criticized the United States for “forcing” the Albanian government to host the MEK and for “training and equipping them in cyber technology.” The group, he said, has “constantly served and still serves as a tool in the hands of U.S. to carry out acts of terror, cyberattacks, and wage psychosocial war against the Iranian government and nation.”
This raises the question of why Albania would willingly drag itself into one of the world’s most tense geopolitical standoffs, involving the United States, Israel, and Iran, by agreeing to host such a controversial group. A number of Albanian analysts have told me that the idea was not an Albanian initiative but rather a U.S.-Israeli agreement. To paraphrase my favorite line from the 1997 film Wag the Dog: ‘‘Why Albania? … Why not?’’ And the Albanian government, eager to showcase its pro-Western credentials, went along with it.
A former communist dictatorship that broke off ties with both the Soviet Union and Mao Zedong’s China to tread its own path, Albania is now yet another NATO member in a region surrounded by NATO member states. Eager to stand out as a steadfast U.S. ally, it often entangles itself in complex geopolitical issues far from its shores—from being the only country to accept Uyghurs from the U.S. prison at Guantánamo Bay who were cleared of terrorist charges, to accepting nearly 4,000 Afghans (mostly translators and support staff of the U.S. military), to hosting the MEK—a foreign-policy approach considered fruitful by major political forces in Albania.
Albanian analysts have told me that this way, Albania hopes to strengthen its role in the region and its diplomatic relations with the United States and Israel. Back in 2011, then-Prime Minister Sali Berisha declared Iran “a Nazi state” and backed Israel at the United Nations against the Palestinian bid for statehood. Then, much like today, the idea of gaining access to the United States via Israel was certainly on Rama’s mind.
For its part, Israel’s approach to the Balkans can be framed as a classic securitization policy: securing the state beyond its borders by military and intelligence cooperation, political deals, and intelligence sharing. Israel has gradually and discreetly formed partnerships with Balkan countries such as Romania, Bulgaria, Albania, and Serbia. Israeli investments, both private and government-linked, in Greece and Serbia have been increasing, as have the number of Israeli tourists visiting the region, including Israeli Arabs visiting Bosnia and Herzegovina.
Indeed, Israeli sources confirmed to me that the person organizing Rama’s recent Israel visit was Alexander Machkevitch, a billionaire businessman and the chairman of Eurasian Resources Group, one of the largest global producers of essential metals and minerals, employing some 80,000 people. Machkevitch is also an Israeli citizen and a good friend of Rama’s.
Over the past few years, Israel has also emerged as one of the main diplomatic backers of Bosnia’s highly autonomous Republika Srpska, where Lieberman has cultivated a close working relationship with the pro-Russian Bosnian Serb hard-liner Milorad Dodik. Israel has also been nurturing military and diplomatic ties with Greece, Croatia, and Macedonia. On a more diplomatic level, it has engaged Balkan states through the Craiova State Forum, which brings together heads of government from Serbia, Romania, Bulgaria, and Greece, and focuses on improving infrastructure and energy cooperation.
Having a diplomatic presence in the Balkans is not only tempting but logical for Israel as well. Nested between the Black Sea and the Adriatic, its geography places it at the crossroads between trade routes. Croatia, Montenegro, Albania, and Greece all have maritime access to North Africa and the Middle East; Hungary and Serbia connect the Balkan Peninsula with Central Europe; and Romania and Bulgaria have access to the Black Sea. Turkey’s booming exports destined for the European Union all pass through the Balkans, the shortest and most economical route. Just recently, Israeli company Elbit Systems opened a flight school in the southern city of Kalamata that will train Greek pilots in combat missions.
Israel is not the only Middle Eastern player making overtures in the Balkans: Turkey, the United Arab Emirates, and Saudi Arabia have made forays in the past, in addition to China and Russia. Security experts in the region have told me that Israel is trying to carve a place for itself in a region that is seen as the new chessboard in a great power competition.
Looking from a broader perspective, the Balkans fall into Israel’s “periphery doctrine”—its strategy of outflanking Arab neighbors deemed hostile by enhancing its security and economic ties with non-Arab Muslim states including in the Balkans, the Caucasus, and Central Asia. This was a starting point in Israel’s decadeslong relationships with Turkey and Azerbaijan.
The Balkans are clearly emerging as a distinct region in which Israel wants to play a leading role. It is establishing itself as a leader in tech innovation, the defense sector, and cybersecurity. So far, Israel has managed to forge a system of bilateral working relationships with Serbia, Albania, Croatia, and Kosovo.
In the case of Albania, all three sides win: Albania gets Israel’s support in terms of cybersecurity and intelligence and showcases its loyalty to Washington; Israel forges closer ties with yet another non-Arab Muslim-majority country on its periphery; and the United States continues training a group in Albania that politically and militarily opposes its archnemesis—a card that can be pulled out should circumstances call for it. /Foreign Policy/