The Syrian Civil War has seen the rise of a new dynamic in the jihadist movement; the rise of the private mercenary firm that caters to Islamic fundamentalism. Malhama Tactical is the world’s first jihadi private military contractor (PMC) and consulting firm. The outfit’s fighting prowess and training programs are renowned among jihadis in Syria and their admirers elsewhere.
Since launching the firm in May 2016, Malhama has grown and doing a brisk business in Syria. It’s been contracted to fight and provide training and other battlefield consulting alongside groups like the al Qaeda-affiliated Jabhat Fateh al-Sham (formerly known as the Nusra Front) and the Turkistan Islamic Party, a Uighur extremist group from China’s restive Xinjiang province.
Despite recent rebel setbacks in Syria, including the loss of Aleppo, demand for Malhama Tactical’s services in the country is as strong as ever. Heavily armed and expertly kitted with body armor and ballistic helmets, the men can be seen defending bunkers, storming buildings, and even posing by whiteboards giving tactical lessons. (Foreignpolicy.com)
The group “Malhama Tactical” is an Uzbek group, part of the Jabhat Fateh Al-Sham and, by extension, falls under the umbrella of Hayy'at Tahrir al-Sham (HTS). Based in Syria, the group’s militants have participated in fights for Idlib, Aleppo, etc., at least as early as 2015.
However, fighting is not their main purpose for self-identity. Apart from JFS, the group purports to be a virtual university for battlefield operations, with over 34 instructional videos created in the last six months. Though Malhama Tactical membership in nominal, at best in terms of strength in numbers, their on-line influence packs quite an impact.
With popular channels on Facebook, Twitter, Telegram, Vk.com, and YouTube, Malhama Tactical's sway over jihadi self-help/instructional tutorials will have ramifications well beyond their inner circle. Strength in Numbers as videos and photos show. (trackingterrorism.org).
Dubbed the Blackwater of jihad, Malhama Tactical isn’t an enormous military conglomerate like the infamous Blackwater (now named Academi). It consists of 10 well-trained militants from Uzbekistan and the restive Muslim- majority republics of the Russian Caucasus. Until recently, the group has specialized its services, focusing on overthrowing Bashar al-Assad’s regime and replacing it with a strict Islamic government. (special-ops.org)
The group’s founder is a 24-year-old from Uzbekistan who goes by the name Abu Rofiq (an Arabic pseudonym that means father of Rofiq). Little is known about him. In an interview he provided to the periodical Foreign Policy, he stated that he had moved as a young man from Uzbekistan to Russia, where, in addition to starting a family, he joined one of the Russian government’s most elite military units, a group of airborne troops known as the VDV.
In 2013, Abu Rofiq left Russia for Syria where, rather than joining one faction like most foreign fighters do, he remained independent and moved between them, before founding Malhama in 2016. (foreignpolicy.com)
He called the company Malhama, named after an epic battle Muslims believe is set to be fought in Syria before judgement day. Like Rofiq, many of his instructors purport to have backgrounds in Russian Special Forces. They argue that they came to Syria with the specific mission of combating the Assad regime and helping Sunni Moslems, whom they believe are under relentless attack.
In February 2017, Malhama registered on its own site that Abu Rofiq, along with his wife and child had been killed in a bombing. (video) However, in a piece by Foreign Policy, it was confirmed that Rafiq had survived the bombing, though his family did not.
Throughout 2016, Malhama Tactical’s units trained the hardline Islamist rebel group Ahrar al-Sham and Jabhat Fateh al-Sham in urban combat to help their fight against the Syrian regime in Aleppo. To reach a wider audience, the company had extended their training beyond physical classrooms. They have developed an extensive curriculum online comprised of YouTube videos.
In one video, trainees practice firing multiple rocket-propelled grenade (RPG) rounds and work as squads to assault a building. In another, a two-man team clears rooms and eliminates targets using grenades and gunfire, all under the watchful eye of Malhama instructors. Malhama’s YouTube and Facebook pages also showcase free online guides for jihadis covering improvised grenade construction, weapon cleaning, room clearing, and urban combat among other skills.
The group’s instructors organize online training sessions — on subjects including battlefield first aid, the use of weapons (such as RPG-7s); hand signal systems for urban combat, and introductions on how to conduct ambushes — when in-person assistance and consulting is not possible (foreignpolicy.com). What has proven to be most helpful is the basic skills training the company offers that has been largely devoid amongst many jihadists fighting.
Many classes offer battlefield first aid, weapons handling and maintenance of a variety of different weapons and firing techniques. These videos and postings have so far garnered a wide audience throughout the Middle-East and former Soviet republics. Abu Rofiq even gives online question and answer sessions over the web concerning jihadists. These sessions discuss such issues as comparing weapons models for military operations. (video)
Malhama Tactical also takes its social media presence very seriously. The group advertises its services through Facebook, YouTube, Twitter, and the Russian social media site VKontakte; although, the group’s account has been suspended. Its Instagram feed has the feel of something produced by a major corporate gun manufacturer. It features artsy, filtered photos of weapons and fighters taken from multiple angles, interspersed between various high-quality Malhama logo designs.
With more than 208,160 views on YouTube, Malhama has a large reach; especially, for its size. By comparison, the Free Syrian Army al-Moutasem Brigade, which is 50 times larger and half a year older, has just over 110,000 YouTube views. Everyone from rebels in Syria to Ukrainian soldiers and Russian separatists in Donetsk has commented on the group’s posts. (foreignpolicy.com).
The type of training the company offers isn’t cheap. The RPG rounds Malhama uses in its practice sessions are estimated to cost around $800 each on the black market which is why military training for most rebel and jihadi groups in Syria has tended to consist of little more than marching, acrobatics, and basic marksmanship. But for jihadi groups that can afford it, Malhama Tactical’s infantry training is worth the expense. One European military contractor who spoke on the condition of anonymity acknowledged that the group’s tactical skills would provide it, and whomever it trains, a distinct advantage on the Syrian battlefield. (foreignpolicy.com).
Malhama Tactical’s operators have, on occasion, also acted as special forces for different jihadi groups. In September 2016, they were embedded with the Turkistan Islamic Party to help it repulse an Assad regime attack in southern Aleppo, according to a rebel activist source familiar with the group. (founderscode.com)
The company has taken part in several major “Jaish al-Fatah” operations. According to crossing militant’s claims, the group was leading the seizure of Ramuse Artillery Academy in August 2016 and the battle for 1070 Al- Hamdaniyah Project in southwest Aleppo City. During the aforementioned clashes, the group has showed an unprecedented level of joint fight and assault capabilities in different terrains such as rural areas around Kham Touman in south Aleppo province and large urban zones like 1070 Project. Also, as claimed, all the militants are well prepared in medical issues which helps them reduce their KIA numbers. (almasdarnews.com)
However, Abu Rofiq says his outfit’s primary goal is to train other rebel and jihadi groups in combat, rather than fight on the front lines. Rofiq admitted that Malhama also produces equipment for other jihadi groups as needed. Malhama, for example, manufactures accessories for the PKM, an extremely popular Russian-made 7.62 mm machine gun. The vests and grips, widely used in Aleppo during the intense fighting there, have become especially sought after among jihadis. (founderscode.com)
Malhama’s main contribution to the fighting in Syria has been to bring professional military knowledge to the jihadi rebel groups. Through this company, the tactical capabilities of many of these organizations has been enhanced greatly as well as their ability to execute more complex mission and intelligently engage their adversaries. As explained, Malhama Tactical has been highly instrumental in professionalizing the insurgency in Syria, allowing those who wish to fight jihad to know how. (video)
Malhama Tactical is a natural offshoot of the prolonged Syrian war, but the outfit’s mixture of extremist ideology with the privatization of war is a unique and troubling trend. A jihadi group doing this is at a new level because, if you’re talking about hardcore idealists paying for military training, then that’s a milestone of modern warfare. (foreignpolicy.com)
The quality of training offered by Malhama Tactical is difficult to assess. In one video, the urban warfare training being conducted looked sub-par to the level of training given to basic infantry units of most western militaries. Their movements come across as disorganized and uncoordinated15. In another video, Malhama training is more in depth, professional and organized. Students are moving with greater precision, the equipment used mirrored the equipment most professional infantry units use in western militaries. The tactical movements were professional and also resembled most professional infantry units in western militaries. (video)
In comparison, training conducted by a basic infantry unit in Israel, mirrored much of Malhama’s training exactly. The movements, weapons handling and approach maneuvers were virtually identical. (video)
In November 2016, the group placed job ads on Facebook looking for instructors with combat experience to join the group. The ad described the outfit as a “fun and friendly team” looking for recruits who are willing to “constantly engage, develop, and learn” and work with Jabhat Fateh al- Sham. It even specified that instructors were privy to benefits like vacation time and one day off a week from jihad. The wording was more befitting of a Fortune 500 company than a group of extremists fighting in a brutal and bloody war.
But ever since the days of Abu Rofiq, the direction of the company has been about expanding elsewhere. Malhama Tactical is willing to take work wherever Sunni Muslims are oppressed. The company cites China and Myanmar as places that would benefit from jihad. It has also been suggestedthat Malhama Tactical might go back to its roots, returning to fight in the North Caucasus against the Russian government. (special-ops.org)
The agenda of Malhama has been difficult to interpret. It maintains tight connections with Uzbeki connected organizations. Up to now the group hasn’t pledged allegiance to Ahrar al-Sham and Co or rebranded Nusra amid ongoing inter-jihadi conflict in Idlib. But in the near future “Malhama” is likely to join “Tahrir al-Sham” as some other Uzbek terrorist have already done. (almasdarnews.com)
While at the same time, the company has been just as discriminating with who they will not work with. They have refused to work with ISIS. At the same time touting themselves as an organization in service to the Islamic cause, it still operates as a profit making business. (video)
Abu Rofiq’s jihadi PMC model has already had a significant affect on battles in northern Syria and could soon inspire copycat organizations outside the Middle East. Even if Abu Rofiq is killed and Malhama Tactical is destroyed, he’s already shaken up the war against Assad and maybe even the future of the global military-industrial complex. (foreignpolicy.com)
It’s still premature to predict where this market is inevitably going to go. Malhama Tactical has proven successful. It opens a potentially lucrative business niche that larger established military companies, such as Academi would never get into. This leaves the door open for fledgling companies created by professional soldiers and tacticians of Moslem heritage to exploit. This also leaves western intelligence services and policy makers concerned about how to approach this new phenomenon.
Two scenarios can potentially come about:
The market itself may be narrower than expected. Islamic insurgencies are active all over the world. Yet, the number of groups that have the financial resources to hire such services over the larger number that exist with limited means, may greatly limit how far this business model might go. Regardless of what rational these jihadi PMCs argue about fighting for a cause, they are still operating a profit driven business. A business with a limited number of jihadi organizations that possess the financial resources to hire such a company.
Furthermore, these companies are largely regarded by most governments as terrorist groups and are treated accordingly. Ultimately, this may prove to limit the expansion of this market.
The other possible scenario is: Governments in the Islamic world who work with various jihadi organizations or want to support insurgencies abroad may seek such services. These governments may see these new jihadi centric PMCs as a means to better support jihadi causes and allies throughout world without directly risking themselves or their own assets. This could mean that indirect government support from sympathetic governments might provide the financial resources necessary to finance this emerging industry.
For the time being, Malhama Tactical and any ensuing companies will most likely retain a client list comprised purely of insurgent groups throughout the world. Where this goes will inevitably be determined by how far they advance the abilities of these insurgent groups on the ground, and how cost effective they prove to be. In either case, the U.S. government and, by extension, the western governments should begin to draft a strategy that discusses how to address these firms.
How should they be defined with more established PMCs? Are they terrorist groups or businesses that should be targeted solely when they operate militarily on the ground or in whatever country they make their central headquarters in? What if they start taking on non-insurgent clients, such as government security forces or begin to work with insurgent groups that have a coinciding agenda to our own. These are problems that could arise in the future, if the issue is not addressed early.
(All sources are sited (linked) within the paper. See below for a complete list of sources in the order in which they are sited within the paper..)