Malhama Tactical is a group that hasn’t received much attention but is growing more important by the day in Syria. The group was founded in May 2016 by Abu Rofiq as an independent outfit, training rebel and jihadi groups in Syria’s northwestern Idlib, Hama and Aleppo provinces. Lately it has been particularly prominent in Idlib, training among others German jihadists and an elite unit of Hay’at Tahrir as-Sham, previously known as al-Qaeda’s representative in Syria, Jabhat an-Nusra.
In the media, Malhama Tactical has been called the first jihadist private military company (PMC). In 2017, Foreign Policy dubbed the group “The Blackwater of Jihad”.
This is the follow up to our first interview to Abu Salman Belarus, leader and spokesman of the group.
Q: A lot has happened since our last interview. The Islamic State has lost almost all of its territory and the situation in Idlib could escalate at any moment now. What do you think about the rumor that Russia and Turkey will split Idlib? Do you believe this might happen?
A: I think these are just rumors, nothing else. It won’t happen as far as I know.
Q: What, then, do you think will happen in Idlib? Assad’s army and its allies will eventually attack, no?
A: Maybe they will attack, but I don’t know when exactly. They have been approaching lately and seem to be preparing their army on the borders for an attack.
Q: What will happen if they attack? Do you think the Mujāhidīn will unite? Do you think Hay’at Tahrir as-Sham (HTS) will cooperate with the other groups?
A: I don’t know. And honestly speaking the Mujahidin are already united, there is only Faylaq as-Sham, a bigger group, that chose not to affiliate with HTS. HTS controls almost all of the area here. I’m not speaking about the Olive Branch or Euphrates Shield operations. Whatever happens, we are ready to fight and defend our territory. I don’t know and really don’t care what is going to happen, but they are bombing civilians as you know, and that saddens me.
Q: Yes, I realize a lot of civilians might get killed in case of a massive attack.
If you read @ajaltamimi’s website lately you can see there is an increasing rift between HTS and the al-Qaeda affiliated Tanzim Hurrās ad-Dīn. I know you cooperated with HTS before. Do you also train Hurrās ad-Dīn? What do you think about the problems between these groups? What do you think about Hurrās ad-Dīn? How big are they, what is their military strength? Do you prefer working for HTS or can all of the Idlib-based groups hire Malhama Tactical?
A: Currently we work just with HTS. We don’t train Hurras ad-Din. I don’t really know much about the problems between the two groups. But I do not want to work with them. We just train the fighters from the Turkistan Islamic Party, Hay’at Tahrir as-Sham and Jaysh al-‘Izza.
Q: Why don’t you train Hurrās ad-Din?
A: I cannot tell you why, but we don’t want to train them.
Q: Do you know about HaD military strength? Weapons and numbers?
A: No, I have no idea.
Q: Why would you not like to work for Hurrās ad-Dīn, even now there is a general agreement between Hay’at Tahrir as-Sham and Hurras ad-Din? Because of their ideology?
A: My apologies but I cannot tell you, we don’t want to cause any Fitna (discord between fighting groups). We just do not want to train them.
Q: Some final questions on Malhama Tactical as an organization, if I may. Did you hire new trainers in the last six months? Who can apply to become a trainer and what are the requirements they would need before getting hired? What kind of training do you provide, beside weapons training? Training for small tactical groups, bigger pelotons, for military leaders, snipers …?
A: Yes, we hired some new instructors. They have to be motivated brothers of action who can work hard and do something for this revolution. They need to have battle experience and have to be in excellent physical condition.
We provide training for small groups, hand gun courses, special courses for PKM (Kalashnikov heavy machine gun) and RPG (rocket propelled grenades). We also have courses for the field commanders of military groups. We don’t train snipers. We extensively trained groups like the red troops (the Hay’at Tahrir as-Sham elite forces). We recently build new professional shooting ranges. A new training [programme] we provide is for intelligence and sabotage infiltrators inside enemy ranks. We did have some successes in these like in Tarabiyya.
Q: A few last questions on foreign fighters if that’s ok. Did you happen to train Dutch or Belgian fighters? If so, what do you think about their zeal and readiness to fight if needed? And related: how about Northern Africans? Tunisians, Libyans…?
A: I cannot tell you about this, I’m sorry.
Q: No problem, I completely understand.
One last thing; I asked you a few months ago, after I forwarded you this article if these rumours were true. And you then told me you are indeed Abū Rofiq and that you faked your own death. (see screenshot) As I don’t know Russian, I couldn’t read the article. How do you think they found out that Abū Salmān Belarus is just an alias?
A: Yes, they know.
Q: How did they know? The article was made by a Russian media outlet, correct?
A: Yes, FSB gave them info and screenshots of documents.
Q: Because FSB is still looking for you I guess?
Q: When you told me that you are Abū Rofiq in early December 2018, I only told Neil Hauer. For weeks no one mentioned that suspicion again. What do you think has happened that Western researchers are now looking into your identity again?
A: I don’t even know. Pro-Russians made first statement about this.
Q: Who exactly do you mean?
A: TV Jihad, pro-Russian FSB public
Q: What do you think about this investigation? Is this new publication threatening for you? Do you think FSB and Russian military will increase the hunt for you and other members of Malhama Tactical?
A: I don’t think so, they cannot just do that—I mean increase hunting us down. But they are always hunting us. We have to be constantly on our guard.
European Eye on Radicalization aims to publish a diversity of perspectives and as such does not endorse the opinions expressed by contributors. The views expressed in this article represent the author alone.