Controlling Crime in Albania: The Ban of “Burner Phones”

Are you in the market for a block of explosive C4 which can be activated by a mobile phone?  The going rate in Albania is 2,000 euros.  Would you like to install a second detonator, ensuring that the explosion is 100% guaranteed? Only 500 euros more!  In July 2014,  Albanian secret police investigators were offered these prices during an undercover operation.  A total of six separate mobile phone-activated C4 explosives were seized in that particular operation.

On a January morning in 2015 the automobile of Arben Sulo, a Prison Director in Fushë Krujë, exploded – from which dynamite placed under his car had been remotely detonated by a mobile phone.  Sulo barely escaped alive, though with serious injuries.  Strangely enough, remotely activated explosives also detonated the day before under the automobile of Ardian Tota in the city of Durrës.  Like Sulo, Tota also barely survived this assassination attempt, as he also did with Kalashnikov-wielding assassins in 2013.

These three examples, out of dozens of cases each year, expose the alarming rates of organized crime and how the national authorities lack the Weberian “monopoly on violence”.  Combined with ongoing penal and judicial reforms, amidst a dysfunctional political system, organized violent crime and the readily accessible black market for explosives and small arms and light weapons (SALW), continue to impede Albania’s development trajectory and its EU Stabilization and Association Process.

To face the challenges that widespread crime creates in Albania, I put forth one simple argument: the need to ban “burner phones”.

Many believe that so-called “burner phones” have beneficial qualities, though here I argue that the net cons outweigh the net pros when it comes to the development of Eastern European countries in general, and Albania in particular.  The fact that criminals can remain anonymous and possess several simultaneous SIM cards and individual mobile phones, at extremely low prices, allow them the freedom to communicate and carry out their illegal activities without fear of getting caught.  In addition to facilitating crime, they have also been largely used in acts of crime, as our previous examples of remotely-activated explosives remind us.

albanian-mob-mafiaI’ve personally seen men buy numerous 30 euro-Nokia burner phones in Albanian corner stores without having to fill out their identification or sign any contract.  Paying cash is the norm.  One can link this phenomenon with frequent articles in the media, such as:  In February 2015 Albanian police forces uncovered twenty individual mobile phones in the city of Elbasan, arresting six people who had 48 kilograms of explosive material and 150 detonators in their possession.  In October 2014, seven people were arrested for being in possession of firearms, 804 kilograms of marijuana, and 16 mobile phones.

The idea is simple, burner phones and their SIM cards can be quickly purchased with cash, used, and then discarded or rotated with others.  National intelligence services and police investigators may be led astray, having difficulty in tracking the very criminals they seek. Prosecuting crimes in court may be even more difficult, as there is no proof that numbers and names are a definite match.

Recently, Californian Congresswoman Jackie Spier has introduced a bill that would outlaw burner phones in the US.  On her Facebook page, Spier wrote that “This bill would close one of the most significant gaps in our ability to track and prevent acts of terror, drug trafficking, and modern-day slavery”.  Like Spier, I argue that Albania needs to pass new legislation requiring that all individuals formally register and provide identification for the mobile phones they purchase.  The requirement of low-cost, long term contracts with service providers could be one possible benefit for both users and investigators, as well as facilitate market competition for service providers.  Such a small policy change would go a long way in the efforts to curtail criminal organizations and their illicit activities.

As Albania is also tainted by the scourge of arms and human trafficking, as well as the growth of radical jihadism, outlawing burner phones would help give the State Police and State Intelligence Service (SHISH) the upper hand in their investigations.

I argue that Albania needs to ban burner phones to yield an increase in security operations and the successful prosecution of criminal groups.  This would not only build trust in government institutions, but would also save lives.  Albanian citizens and security experts should connect the dots between criminal activities and burner phones and close this criminal loophole.  They would be wise in voicing their concern over organized crime to their respective policymakers and to push for more transparent legal requirements in the purchase of mobile phones.

Christopher T. Barber is an American research consultant who focuses primarily on security incidents in the Western Balkans, with emphasis on Albania and Kosovo. The view expressed are his own and may not coincide with ones of the ORIENTAL REVIEW editorial.

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