Jihadist-owned private military company unsettles Russia
Many aspects of the US-led military operation in Iraq in 2003 continue to reverberate throughout the Middle East, from the questionable legality of the endeavour to the American government’s deployment of its first private military company, Blackwater.
Under CIA control, Blackwater’s mercenaries became notorious for their actions, many of which could be considered war crimes, blackening private military companies’ reputation to such an extent that, in 2011, Blackwater was renamed Academi after being acquired by a group of private investors.
An invaluable aspect of the private firms is to provide the governments utilising them “plausible deniability.” Blackwater’s success led to other governments deploying such companies, notably Russia, where the Wagner mercenary group has seen action everywhere from Ukraine to Syria.
This model of success now extends to the terrorist “private sector” with the appearance of the Middle East’s first jihadist private military company, Malhama Tactical, an ominous development with potential implications far beyond the troubled region.
Malhama Tactical was founded in May 2016 by a 24-year-old Uzbek, initially known only by his kunya Abu Rofiq al-Tartarstani until Russian intelligence disclosed his identity as Sukhrob Muratovich Baltabaev. He said he had lived in Moscow and served in a special forces unit of the Russian Army.
From its inception, Malhama Tactical has operated as an independent outfit, training rebel and jihadi groups in Syria’s Idlib, Hama and Aleppo provinces. It has been increasing its prominence in Idlib, training foreign jihadis and an elite unit of Hayat Tahrir al-Sham.
Malhama Tactical was led by Abu Rofiq until his purported death in an air strike in Idlib on February 7, 2017. In a recent interview, however, Rofik acknowledged that he faked his own death and used the name of Abu Salman al-Belarusi to avoid being targeted by Russian security forces. On August 17, his death was reported yet again, to some scepticism, by Russian media.
What is most disturbing to the Russian government is that Rofiq is from Uzbekistan and speaks Russian well and post-Soviet Central Asia has seen a rise in extremism as the region rediscovers its Islamic heritage.
Malhama Tactical’s core membership reportedly numbers more than 50 militants, primarily from formerly Soviet Central Asia and the northern Caucasus. Russia and other post-Soviet governments are concerned these militant nationals will return home after acquiring combat experience in Syria to pursue jihad in their home regions. Adding to this concern are media reports stating that Malhama Tactical members had demonstrated high combat efficiency in Aleppo and later in Idlib and Latakia provinces.
Malhama Tactical works exclusively with Islamist groups, primarily Hayat Tahrir al-Sham and the Islamic State, which is banned in the Russian Federation.
Beyond combat operations, Malhama Tactical has established a social media presence, releasing videos on how to handle weapons and carry out military operations. On YouTube, Malhama Tactical members posted tutorials about firing weapons as well as battle tactics in small groups.
In an audacious display of their social media expertise and their lack of fear of intelligence agencies, in January 2017, the group on Facebook and Twitter posted a job opening seeking instructors with military experience to join a “fun and friendly team” to provide “professional training sessions on military theory and practice” for jihadis lacking combat experience. Potential mentors were promised “a good salary and one day off per week.” Some Malhama Tactical YouTube videos gave details for those who want to support the group’s activities with money.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov has stated that the government believes that 5,000-6,000 Russian nationals have engaged in jihad in Syria. Russian Colonel Shamil Garev outlined Moscow’s anxieties about the group: “Presuming that outlawed armed groups in Idlib consist of about 80,000 members, then there must be at least 5,000 to 6,000 Russian-speaking militants. Their wives and children have started returning to Russia and other [Commonwealth of Independent States] CIS countries.
“Chances are that once the militant groups are defeated, the terrorists and members of these jihadist private military companies, set up with the assistance of Russia’s enemies, will follow the women and children. We are bracing for that.”
Baltabaev’s pseudocide underlines the very real fear that militants from the post-Soviet space have about being tracked by Russian intelligence and subsequently hunted down by special forces. Accordingly, social media visibility is a two-edged sword: while providing an opportunity to advertise, the electronic presence provides the increased opportunity to be located and neutralised.
Obviously, “neutralising” post-Soviet space militants in Syria is preferable for Moscow to them returning home. Their presence on the internet will be more difficult to eradicate than a purely military operation can accomplish, however, and, in the interim, they continue to inflict more sorrow upon Syria’s long-suffering populace.