By Elizabeth Sullivan
Plain Dealer Columnist
Standing on an airstrip in the steaming sunshine of an Albanian spring eight years ago, the outgoing U.S. ambassador admitted it was no fun having to take a fully armored vehicle and bodyguard whenever she left the embassy.
It was May 1999, the height of the Kosovo air war next door.
As a staunch U.S. ally, Albania had turned most of its airport over to NATO. Marissa Lino, then-U.S. ambassador, said things had improved since the U.S. Army arrived in force.
Still, she said, it was getting a little old, having "to live in one room" for security reasons.
To the general lawlessness and the rise of warlordism in post-Communist Albania in the 1990s was added a civil war that seeded hundreds of thousands of Kalashnikovs all over the Balkans. The small arms helped precipitate guerrilla war in Kosovo and later Macedonia, among other impacts.
As U.S. officials were later to learn, the violence and weaponry also helped make the Balkans a new vector for al-Qaida infiltration, recruitment, arms-running and money-laundering. Twice in the late 1990s, U.S. officials had to be evacuated from Tirana because of civil unrest and threats from al-Qaida.
This week, New Jersey authorities arrested four ethnic Albanian immigrants, a Jordanian relative and a Turkish friend, charged with plotting terrorism on U.S. shores.
They were amateurs, so inept that a Circuit City clerk helped unravel the plot and FBI informants taped their scheming. Yet it's instructive to see where the four ethnic Albanians came from: supposedly the most pro-American Muslim neighborhood in the world, in the southern Balkans.
One was a refugee from the 1999 Kosovo war. The other three appear to have immigrated illegally in the 1980s with their family. The Associated Press reports that they hail from Debar, a tiny Macedonian village on the Kosovo border, where residents harbor generally friendly feelings toward the United States.
That goes along with the general story line in Washington these days -- that the Balkans are yesterday's hotspot, a mostly quiet backwater that may be home to a few too many crime groups, but that no longer poses a threat the Europeans themselves can't handle.