Speaking to Exit in a quiet cafe in the capital of Albania, Tirana, Matthew Caruana Galizia explained that four years later, local authorities still have not launched an investigation to establish how a bomb from this small, Balkan state ended up under his mother’s car in Malta.
After journalist Daphne Caruana Galizia was assassinated in 2017, links emerged that suggest the bomb used to blow up her car originated in Albania. “The bomb that was used to murder my mother came from Albania, via Italy, it was supplied by Albanian organized crime, you can practically buy them off the shelf here,” Matthew told The Shift.
“The government of Albania has done no investigation at all into how a bomb was supplied by people in Albania and then used to murder a journalist in Malta. They’ve done nothing. They’ve done absolutely nothing,” he added.
He further questioned how Maltese criminals were able to so easily procure a bomb from Albanian organised crime and for there to be zero repercussions in the country. The explosive device was allegedly supplied to the accused murderers by Robert Agius and Jamie Vella who have been arraigned in Malta. It is believed Agius travelled to Albania at least three times prior to the assassination.
“There is no way Prime Minister Edi Rama does not know that there is this problem,” Caruana Galizia said. “If he does not know that the supply of bombs from Albania is a problem, then he needs to fire absolutely everyone in his intelligence services. There is no way he cannot know about it.”
Bombs on the streets of Albania
Early evening in September 2020, a car bomb detonated in broad daylight in Central Tirana, Albania.
As crowds of people filled the streets, shopping, walking home from work, or going to meet friends, a loud bang emanated from a vehicle in the road, followed by it bursting into flames.
Police reported that a remote-controlled explosive had been placed in the car and then set off when the intended victim Prend Gjini got in and drove off. Gjini survived the attack, as did the various passers-by that were hit by shrapnel and burning debris.
It was later revealed that the attack was part of an ongoing criminal gang conflict, likely involving drugs.
But this was by no means a one-off.
In December 2019, a prosecutor’s car was blown up via remote demolition in Vlora. In May 2020, a TNT bomb went off in an alley between a hotel and a bar linked to previous gang activity. In July 2020, a TNT explosion was reported in an apartment in Laprake, Tirana.
In February 2021, a hotel was targeted with a remote-controlled TNT bomb in Saranda. On 12 March 2021, TNT was placed inside the car of Prosecutor Arjan Muca in the family-orientated neighbourhood of Kommuna Parisit. On 16 March, police arrested two men for making remotely detonated explosives in Tirana.
Other cases took place on a semi-regular basis throughout the country, so much so, it hardly makes headline news anymore.
A battle against organized crime
Car bombs, TNT and explosives are often used by Albania’s vast criminal underground to attack, silence and intimidate.
Now an EU-candidate country with official accession negotiations due to start imminently, Albania is working hard to shake off its bad image. While Albanian politicians may have successfully wooed Brussels, the reality is that there is still a long way to go.
The minimum wage is just €213 a month, 40% of households are deprived of sufficient material income and almost a quarter could fall into poverty within a month. Extreme poverty impacts predominantly those in rural areas, with little education or skills, or those that are unable to find work. This poverty, when combined with a weak rule of law and inefficient governance means that organized crime has been allowed to flourish.
Albania’s economy is mainly cash-based and informal. The country has also become a prime location for both domestic and international money launderers. It’s a source and transit country for human trafficking, a leading exporter of cannabis, a transit country for heroin and cocaine, a central people-smuggling route, and known for weapons trafficking. Despite promised reforms and political clean-ups, little seems to change.
The public consensus is that the government allows these things to go on, as long as they get a cut.
But the reasons behind Albania’s issues with crime and criminality are complex. For almost 500 years, the country was under Ottoman Rule and later plunged into one of the world’s most repressive and isolated communist regimes. Emerging from this in 1990, it took its first steps towards democracy before ending up embroiled in a ponzi scheme that bankrupted the country and many of its citizens.
By 1997, Albania was on the brink of civil war. Armed gangs roamed the streets, assassinations and executions took place in public, and you could go for a coffee in central Tirana and count the people drinking coffee with an AK47 casually slung over their shoulders.
During these years, many State armouries were pillaged and looted for guns, ammunition and explosives. Years later, it’s estimated there are some 210,000 illegal weapons still in the country, despite various attempts at amnesties.
Albania’s criminal underworld continues to thrive with the Albanian mafia being considered one of the most powerful in Europe, responsible for the lions share of drugs, human and even arms trafficking. Fostering links with notorious Italian criminal clans, they are also dabbling in money laundering, extortion, and even online gambling, reaching the shores of Malta
Bombs off the shelf
The Shift contacted a former police officer who explained how easy it is to get hold of explosives in Albania. “If you want TNT, I can get it for you tomorrow,” he said.
“There are two kinds – one you set off with fire like a cigarette, the other with electricity from the phone. You just call the phone and ‘BAM’.”
The Shift enquired how long it would take to make one of these bombs to order and how much it would cost. “If you buy direct from the maker, it’s €600, if you buy through an intermediary, or two, or three, the price goes up,” he said.
“ It will take four days to a week. If you are lucky you can find some already made and have it on the same day,” he added.
He said that TNT, the same compound used in the bomb that killed Daphne, is everywhere on the black market. Much is leftover from 97’s civil conflict but he adds that some are acquired from the country’s mining industry.
The north of the country is full of chrome and mineral mines, many of which use TNT for detonation. Those involved in the racket simply say they used more TNT than they did and sell the remainder to contacts in the underground world. It could also be taken by those working in construction, a market that is known for its mafia links.
As for getting these out of the country, that poses little to no issue. Hundreds of Albanians pass the borders illegally every month. Plus the export of drugs, people and weapons means slipping in a bomb or two is little additional risk.
After all, the Albanian mafia is now one of the main partners of the Italian mafia. Several high profile drug busts have shed light on the growing collaboration between Italian, Sicilian and Albanian organized crime groups.
In June 2020 for example, 3.5 tonnes of cannabis, hash and cocaine were seized by police in Italy and Albania. The cargo had a value of more than €40 million. An additional €4 million was seized in Albania.
Sources suggest that the infamous Malta-linked Santapaulo-Ercolano clan has started working with Albanian gangs in the southern city of Vlora. Involved in the trafficking of hashish, Italian investigators believe the relationship has been going on for years during which time, heads and key figures of Ercolano visited Albania, sometimes for months at a time.
It also widely believed that the Albanian mafia is becoming so strong that they are seizing power from the Italians in some places.
In the meantime, the possible origin of the bomb that killed Caruana Galizia combined with Agius’ visits to the country has not been addressed or investigated by the Albanian government.
Despite questions from The Shift sent via email and directly to the deputy interior minister on several occasions, no answer was received.
“There has been no statement from the government. Nothing. Absolutely nothing,” Matthew Caruana Galizia said.
This is a joint investigation between Exit.al and The Shift News