How Ismail Morina and his drone shaped Albania’s Euro qualification
Belgrade, Serbia. 14 October 2014.
For the past two hours the Partizan Stadium in the Serbian capital of Belgrade had been a cauldron of noise. The stands had been filled hours before the European Championship qualifier kicked off.
Serbia were playing Albania. The two had not played each other before and Yugoslavia had not played Albania since a Balkan Cup game in 1977 – for good reason. The two neighbours had a long history of wars, massacres and counter-massacres. But it was the 1999 Kosovo War that had taken them to the edge of conflict and defined their modern enmity.
As Yugoslavia disintegrated into its constituent parts, Kosovo had been left in limbo. Although part of Yugoslavia, and having been given special status under Tito – the still popular communist strongman who had kept the country together until his death in 1980 – Kosovo was not one of its six constituent republics.
After Croatia and Slovenia had announced their independence, after the war that followed, after the evisceration of Bosnia, after Srebrenica and Vukovar and Krajina, after Dayton, an uneasy peace of new-old nations was agreed. But not for Kosovo. The population is majority Muslim and majority ethnic Albanian but the territory has great historical significance for Serbia. The 1389 Battle of Kosovo was perceived as a crushing but noble defeat for Serbia’s princes, who were massively outnumbered by the forces of the Ottoman empire and then annihilated. For Serb nationalists Kosovo had to be kept at all costs.
Thousands of lives were lost in the 1999 conflict, which brought Nato bombs to Belgrade. Albania supplied arms and men via its porous border, engaging in a proxy war, before an uneasy peace was agreed. Kosovo was neither independent nor part of Serbia. At the Partizan Stadium, frustration at the humiliations forced on Serbia were vented upon the Albania team, the majority of whom were born in Kosovo. The match was deemed the highest risk by Uefa, and away fans were banned. The only Albanians allowed in to the stadium were the players, the coaching staff and a handful of VIPs, including the brother of Albanian prime minister Edi Rama.
“Kill the Albanians,” the crowd shouted.
As the first half progressed, it was Albania who had the best chances. The chants grew in volume. Objects were thrown on the pitch. Martin Atkinson, the English referee in charge of the game, had already halted the game twice because of the flares and missiles. In the 42nd minute, with the score at 0-0, an unfamiliar object appeared in the sky. Its humming could barely be heard above the noise. At first, no one knew what they were seeing. Then the chanting ceased.
A quadcopter drone was gliding serenely towards the pitch. Underneath, it was carrying a red and black flag. On it was printed the word “Autochthonous” – that is, indigenous rather than descended from migrants or colonists – and the faces of the Albanian nationalist heroes Ismail Qemali and Isa Boletini next to a map of Greater Albania, a nationalist conceit that many in Serbia fear.
The silence was temporary, like the heavy pressure at the eye of a passing tornado. When Serbia defender Stefan Mitrović reached up and pulled the drone down, the players tussled over the flag. The stadium exploded back into life. “It was out of control, I was really scared for my players,” said Albania’s captain Lorik Cana, who was born in Kosovo and fled the Yugoslav war for Switzerland as a child.
The match was abandoned. As the Albanian players ran for the safety of the tunnel, several fans managed to get onto the pitch, throwing punches and plastic chairs. It was only the quick thinking of the Serbian players, who protected their opponents, that prevented serious injury. “They were coming from everywhere,” Cana recalled of the fans that had got on to the pitch. “[Alekandar] Kolarov and [Branislav] Ivanović really protected us. Without them we were in big trouble.”
In the sanctuary of the dressing room the Albanian players treated their wounds – cuts and bruises, but nothing more serious – before Serbian police burst in and demanded to search the players’ bags. They were looking for a remote control. “They thought one of us did this with the drone, which was ridiculous!” Cana said incredulously. When none was found, blame centred on the Albanian delegation and the prime minister’s brother. The Serbian authorities claimed the drone was the “a terrorist action planned in advance.” But nothing was found on him either.
The drone’s remote control was nearby, but the police never discovered it. It lay on the stone floor of a Serbian Orthodox cathedral next to the stadium. As the police tore the stadium apart looking for the culprit, Ismail Morina lay in silence under a parked car. When the coast was clear, he moved through the shadows of Belgrade’s back streets and made his escape.
Prekaz, Kosovo, one year later.
Aside from the presence of armed soldiers in Kosovar uniforms, a huge white marble graveyard that stretches out into the distance and a semi-permanent scaffolding frame used to funnel hundreds of selfie-taking tourists around its bullet-riddled facade, the house that Adem Jashari built has remained as it was since the day he died.
Jashari was the leader of the Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA). He is considered a hero in Albania and Kosovo, but as a terrorist by the Serbs. On 7 March 1998, Yugoslav special forces moved on Jashari’s house. Whether they wanted to apprehend him or kill him is still open to question. What isn’t open to question is what happened next: a firefight in which all 58 people in the house were killed, including Jashari, his brother, their wives and their children. Two Serbian policemen also died.
The house was left as a memorial to the ‘martyrs’. Huge holes remain in the masonry, punched through by artillery shells. Thousands of bullet holes seem to cover almost every inch of the brickwork. The house is now a site of pilgrimage and a large crowd, larger than usual, had gathered outside it. The several hundred men and women were all members of the Red and Black, the ultras group of the Albania national team. In a few days time, Albania would play in arguably the single biggest match in its history. They were just one victory away from qualifying for Euro 2016. It would be Albania’s first appearance at a major tournament. The team standing in their way was Serbia.
In the middle of the crowd stood a short man in his early 30s with wild, curly black hair and an American flag bandana around his neck. Teenage girls had surrounded Ismail Morina, taking it in turns to take a selfie with him before the Red and Black moved towards the house. “This,” Morina said grandly before going inside, “is our Jerusalem.” Morina was here as a guest of honour, invited by Adem Jashari’s one surviving brother who still lived next door and oversaw Kosovo’s most popular tourist attraction. “You are a hero to the Albanians,” the frail old man said as he handed Morina a plaque. In return, Morina handed him a flag. “That was the original flag I was going to fly with the drone,” he explained after the ceremony. “It was too heavy to fly. I couldn’t lift it off the ground!”
The members of the Red and Black marched to the graves of the 58 men, women and children killed during the raid and sang songs honouring the KLA. The visit was part of a two-day patriotic tour of Kosovo’s famous war graves in preparation for the Serbia game. Morina was the star attraction as they arrived at different towns, each with stories of massacres and bloodshed – Priština, Gjilan, Decan, Prizren. In each town and village mayors, former KLA commanders, soldiers and others gathered in large numbers to wish the Red and Black well for the upcoming match against Serbia. But, more importantly, to meet Ismail Morina.
Since the Serbia v Albania match Morina had become a national hero in Albania and Kosovo. At first, no one knew who was responsible for piloting the drone. Uefa awarded the match 3-0 to Albania and punished Serbia further with a three-point deduction for failing to control the crowd. The Serbians were livid that they had, as they saw it, been punished twice and that their qualification campaign for Euro 2016 was effectively over.
After months of speculation and conspiracy theories, the identity of the drone pilot was finally revealed when Morina gave a one-hour long interview on Albanian TV. Far from being a provocation organised by the government or a member of Albania’s special forces, the culprit was a shy, clumsy, 33-year-old crane operator living in northern Milan who had devised a plan five years previously that 999 times out of 1000 would have been left on the bar room floor.
“I first had the idea after I had come back from work one day,” Morina said. I spoke to him as he drove a Range Rover (“borrowed from my brother!”) back from Kosovo to his home in Albania. A huge member of the Red and Black sat in the back seat. “My bodyguard,” Morina said, laughing.
He’d lived in Milan for six years with his Italian wife and two children. One evening in 2010, he returned to his apartment after his shift and, for the first and only time, didn’t jump straight into the shower. “Something told me I should turn on the television so I did that first, which I never do,” he said. What he saw would change his life forever. Italy were playing Serbia in a European Championship qualifier in Genoa. The match was abandoned largely because of the behaviour of Serbia’s fans. At the front, on top of the security fence, sat Ivan Bogdanov, the most notorious football hooligan attached to Crvena Zvezda. He had cut through the fence and used a flare to burn the Albanian flag.
“I couldn’t believe it, fuck you!” Morina said. “They weren’t even playing Albania, why burn our flag?” At that moment he vowed to get revenge. But the anger soon fell away and life got in the way. It lay dormant until the qualifying draw for Euro 2016 when Albania were drawn against Serbia.
If the poltical situation demands it, Uefa’s Executive Committee will intervene to prevent countries from being drawn in the same group. But no one thought to separate Serbia and Albania. “I saw the draw, and saw that the first game was in Belgrade, which was perfect. Perfect,” Morina said.
As the match approached he still had no idea exactly what he would do, until he met up with a friend who had just bought a drone for his young son to play with. He saw the drone flying around the Milanese park and realised that, with a little bit of work, it could carry a banner or a flag. So he went out and bought a drone. He destroyed the first one. The second went the same way. By the time he had bought his third drone he had mastered it. “I got used to it quickly because it was like when I drive my crane, I had a joystick. It’s like playing on the PlayStation.”
The next issue was how he would get the drone into the stadium. He used Google Earth to research the surrounding area. He flew to Belgrade and walked around the Marakana, checking potential sites from which he could fly the drone. But with the plan set and the date approaching, he realised he had been researching the wrong stadium. So he returned to Belgrade, and this time settled on the Church of the Archangel Gabriel, a few hundred metres from the Partizan Stadium. It provided the perfect cover. It was left unlocked, was surrounded by a large park and from the cupola Morina had a clear view of the stadium. Most importantly, it was in range of the drone that he had bought.
A few days before the match, Morina and a friend drove from Italy to Serbia. The car was searched at the Croatia and Serbian border by Serb border police. Morina thought that the game was up. “They looked at everything and then found the drone in a box in the back,” he said. Morina explained that it was a gift for the son of a friend. The border guard handed the drone back and waved them through. “It was unbelievable. After that there was nothing to stop me.”
Morina positioned himself in the church grounds 17 hours before kick off. He had already hidden the drone and the remote control in the church two days before. The plan was to wait there until the game started. Security, he figured, would have been too tight if he had left it any later. So he lay there, listening to the crowd arriving – singing, he says, anti-Albanian songs – until, finally, he moved into position.
There were a few teething problems. The first flag Morina tried (the one he later presented to Adem Jashari’s brother) was too heavy. But he had a back-up. As the match began, he could hear the crowd in the distance, although not what they were singing. Outside, the roads were deserted when Morina launched his drone into the Partizan Stadium.
“There was twenty seconds of silence,” Morina recalled of the moment the drone entered the stadium. “I lowered the drone so that the players could see the flag, to give them courage.” But Morina had made an error. Serbia were playing in red and Albania in white. He flew the drone towards the red-shirted players believing them to be Albanian. When he realised his mistake he tried to power the drone into the sky. The original plan was for the drone to circle the stadium and then head back to the church where Morina would collect the flag and jump into a car he’d parked a kilometre away from the stadium. A friend would be waiting with the engine on. But Stefan Mitrović grabbed the drone, all hell broke loose and Morina decided to abandon his post, leaving the remote control on the floor of the church.
Morina managed to escape the church before the police had flooded the area. But still he had to hide under a parked car when two policemen passed by. Once they were out of view he made his way to the waiting car and drove south through the border and into Kosovo. “I still thought I had failed at this point,” he said. “Then I got a call from a friend in Italy. He told me, ‘Man, you’re famous’.”
And famous he was. His actions were discussed on Albanian national TV, although not always favourably. In a region awash with conspiracy theories, he was accused of being a spy for numerous sides. “One analyst on TV said I was from Isis, because the flag was black, and that I was paid by the Serbian secret service!” he said. There was adulation, but he also received thousands of death threats on Facebook and by text message, so Morina fled Italy and took his family to Albania. “People knew where I and my family lived,” he said. According to the Serbian media a businessman from Chicago even offered a €1 million reward for Morina’s capture. “I’m not worried about the Serbian state, but extremist groups,” he said.
Once we had crossed the border into Albania, he pulled into a petrol station for a coffee. From the glove compartment he took out a gun and placed in my hands a Zastava pistol which, ironically, was made in Serbia and, even more ironically, means ‘flag’ in Serbian. It felt heavy, but I didn’t immediately realise it was real. It was small and looked like a cigarette lighter. For a split second it crossed my mind that I should jokingly put the gun to my head and pull the trigger. “It’s real, man,” he said, giving me a concerned look.
I gingerly handed the gun back to him.
Over the next few days, Ismail and I would travel around Tirana, meeting members of the Red and Black. We spoke on the record three times, him repeating his story, me trying to fill in the blanks where parts didn’t make sense, or where parts of the story contradicted each other. There was no sense of danger or fear. Ismail Morina was a national hero and he could go wherever he wanted and spoke to whomever he chose. The Red and Black had closed around him, offering him friendship and protection. He rarely gave interviews and primarily interacted with the outside world using Facebook. Every day bought an avalanche of death threats: Serbian men, usually claiming they were ex-special forces, sending topless pictures of themselves wearing balaclavas. Or simply a collection of guns and knives on a bed with a threat to slaughter everyone he knew. But it wasn’t all bad. He also received hundreds of friend requests from Albanian women who sent pictures in various states of undress.
The last time I saw Ismail Morina was in a cliff-top restaurant outside the coastal city of Durrës, about 45 minutes drive from the capital. We had agreed to meet there for the final interview before the Albania v Serbia game. Morina was dining with a select group of the Red and Black. We knocked back blindingly strong rakija and talked about the moment he became the most famous man in Albania. “I didn’t think I’d be offensive against Serbs,” Morina said, now a little drunk and magnanimous. “In that flag was a map, a map of ethnic Albania. I didn’t claim territories. I just claimed the history. I have to say to the Serbian people I don’t hate them. I really don’t hate them. But the past has hurt us.”
Of greater concern was how the Albanian authorities viewed him. Both the Albanian FA and Uefa had banned him from attending the game in Elbasan, about 35 miles from Tirana. The fear was that another drone would be flown into the stadium. Albanian special forces were to patrol the rooftops surrounding the stadium, ready to shoot down any that might appear. “I am a danger man, they say!” he laughed. But, he said, his time as a drone provocateur was over. “I’m going [to the game] and I don’t want to do anything. I just want to support the national team. Too many people say to me, ‘the three points [against Serbia] were because of you.’ I don’t think so. Our players went to Portugal and won before the Serbia match. We drew with Denmark. I can say my achievement was that I stirred up the patriotic feelings.”
When the bar closed Ismail offered to drive me back to Tirana. It was late and the restaurant was isolated, so we drove back down the winding, black, single lane towards the highway. Morina was excited. He had received a new message from a girl. Suddenly, from the pocket of the car door, he pulled a second gun, a bigger one, and opened the window. He raised it outside and pulled the trigger.
He hadn’t loaded it. Somehow he managed to drive the car at speed with his knees, message the woman on Facebook, load the gun and cock the barrel all at the same time. He lifted the pistol out of the window again and blasted it three times in the air. The noise in the car was deafening. A spent shell flew out of the chamber and bounced off my forehead as Morina laughed until he had a coughing fit.
The rest of the journey was uneventful.
Morina pulled up outside my apartment in central Tirana. It was 2am but his night was not over. He was off to meet someone else, he said. We would meet tomorrow and then travel to the game, he promised.
I fell asleep that night dreaming of the sea and gunshots.
Early the next morning I received a message saying Ismail Morina had been arrested. I didn’t believe it at first, as I’d only seen him a few hours earlier. But, sure enough, every news channel and radio station was leading with the story. I watched a local news channel in a cafe in Tirana. Morina had been arrested less than 30 minutes after he’d dropped me off, at around 2.30am. The report had pictures of a dishevelled Morina standing in a dock wearing the same clothes I’d seen him in the night before. Next were pictures of the car we had sat in the night before, close-ups of the spent bullet shells in the footwell, not to mention a pile of 30 tickets for the Serbia game, one of them with Morina’s name on it. It was then that I heard my name for the first time on Albanian TV news: “James Montague”, “American [sic] reporter” and “New York Times”.
By coincidence, a story I had written about Morina for the New York Times had been published a few hours after his arrest. In it I had mentioned the death threats, that he feared for his life, the fact that he carried a Zastava pistol for self-defence and, later on, his arrest. But the police had briefed the media that they had arrested Morina after reading the article, which was impossible. But every TV channel and radio station ran with it anyway. My picture flashed up on the TV. “Xhjems Montague” read the caption. “American reporter”. Almost immediately my phone buzzed again. It was a message from Ismail.
“Why you mention gun?!” read the message. “Ismail now in jail. ALL YOUR FAULT!!” It was Morina’s nephew, who had accessed his Facebook account.
The next few hours were spent running from police station to police station looking for Morina and trying to speak to as many members of the Red and Black as possible. They too were trying to find him and arrange a lawyer. “He is in a lot of trouble,” one told me. He was denied bail and would spend the foreseeable future behind bars. He faced up to 15 years in jail. “They have him on gun charges,” he added, leaving the statement of fact hanging in the air like an accusation.
On the morning of the Albania v Serbia match all the roads to Elbasan had been shut nine hours before kick-off. The highway was lined with checkpoints while the stadium itself was surrounded by a ring of armed officers. Residents of the tower blocks next to the stadium were told to stay inside and not let strangers into the building. More than 2,000 police and 500 special forces officers patrolled the streets. Snipers prepared themselves on the rooftops surrounding the Elbasan Arena. Huge Russian-made helicopters flew overhead as the police practiced crowd-control manoeuvres with water cannon and tear gas canisters. “It is for practice,” a police officer explained over the deafening sound of rotor blades overhead. Practice involved firing the water cannon into the crowd.
Still, the city had been full six hours before kick-off. There had been a carnival atmosphere gradually eroded by the constant rain and overbearing security. Outside the stadium a drunk member of the Red and Black grabbed me by the lapels and shook me before he was prised off. “It is OK, we found out what happened to Ismail,” said Fitim, one of the Red and Black’s organisers, apologising for his friend’s behaviour.
It turned out that the Albanian police had been following Morina’s movements for months. Back in the summer he had posted a video online joking that he would use a drone to snatch the glasses off the nose of Serbian Primer Minister Aleksandar Vučić. Ever since he had been monitored, with the police waiting for the moment Morina put a foot wrong. They had followed his car from the restaurant in Durrës and, after hearing the gun shots, took their opportunity once he had dropped me off. The police had simply used me to cover themselves, so no one would think they were working in league with the Serbians to jail a national hero.
Ismail Morina missed the game, but the result was a disappointment. The Serbian national anthem was booed and the fans chanted in favour of the KLA but the 12,000-strong crowd seemed nervous and subdued. Even the snipers on the roof of a building next to the stadium saw little danger, and moved into a tent erected nearby to keep out of the driving rain. In the end, Serbia ran out comfortable 2-0 winners. The victory party had been spoilt. “It is my birthday tomorrow,” said Besmir, an Albanian supporter who had travelled from Switzerland for the game. He, like the rest of the crowd, was shuffling out of the stadium in silence. His face was painted red, with a black eagle over his eyes, nose and mouth. “I don’t know if I will celebrate it,” he added.
Lorik Cana was equally disappointed. “We knew we could qualify but we are young and wanted to do it tonight, in our land, in front of our people,” he said after the game. “On the pitch we tried to lead by example and that is what happened. That is the way we want to show how we respect people here.”
Within an hour of the final whistle, Elbasan was silent and deserted. It was perhaps for the best that Ismail Morina was not allowed to watch the match in jail.
Albania qualified for their first European Championships with a surprisingly easy 3-0 victory over Armenia a few days later. The returning team were greeted as national heroes. Edi Rama, Albania’s prime minister, held a reception for them as soon as they landed. Tens of thousands celebrated on the streets of Tirana and across Albania.
Morina would spend Christmas in jail, facing the prospect of a life-changing stretch in an Albanian prison. But after three months behind bars there was a breakthrough. He would be released, but kept under house arrest for a few more months.
“They arrested me ten minutes after we said goodbye,” he wrote shortly after his release. “They came, like 15 policemen.”
Morina’s house arrest was due to end in January, then February, then April. He says he is now done with the national team and won’t be going to France for Euro 2016 even if he is allowed to leave the country – or his house. “It was all political. I respect the players. I am proud of them. I am OUT.”
Thankfully, Morina’s house by the Albania-Kosovo border has a lot of land. It is spring. Fruit is ripening on the vine. “Man, I am loving the nature,” he says. Earlier that day he was out planting trees before watching the news. A terrorist attack had struck Belgium. “Be careful man, about the terrorist attacks.”
He sends a picture of his view, a beautiful blue sky, a wooden fence and green fields stretching out into the distance. In the Netherlands, where I am sitting, it is grey and wet and cold and the suffocating feeling that Isis could strike anywhere next. Perhaps it is safer where he is, planting trees in the Albanian sun, I offer.
“Yes!” he replies. “I said the same thing to my brother just today.” And with that he logged off, to plant more trees in his little patch of earth.