Malhama Tactical is a group that hasn’t received much attention but is growing more important by the day in Syria’s ongoing conflict. 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”.
Even though the group has existed for more than two years now, it is believed to have no more than fifteen to twenty core members, all originating from former USSR states. Initially, the group was led by an Uzbek, known only by his kunya (nom de guerre) Abu Rofiq. He told journalists that he had lived in Moscow and served in a special forces unit of the Russian army. Abu Rofiq was killed in a Russian airstrike in February 2017, alongside his wife and newborn son. Subsequently Abu Salman Belarus was appointed as the new leader and spokesman of the group. He is of Belarusian origin, as his name suggests. He joined the group in 2016.
As the group is an active user of social media services such as Twitter and Telegram, the authors have been able to interview the new leader. What follows is an edited reproduction of a series of questions asked in English and answered in Russian by Abu Salman Belarus. The discussions took place between late July and late August 2018.
Q: Could you explain the history of Malhama Tactical? Where and when was it founded and by who? How many men were in the original group and were you part of it?
A: Malhama Tactical was created around 2016, with the goal of increasing insurgents’ battle skills. We trained Jabhat Fatah Sham, Ajnad al Kavkaz, Jaysh Muhajirin wal-Ansar, Turkistanis , and other groups, even Ahrar as-Sham.
By the kindness of Allah [we] participated in many operations as a Spetsnaz group when our help was requested. First during the Aleppo blockade, we participated there as military advisors and trained almost all fighters and eventually successfully broke the blockade. In 2015, our brothers trained and prepared the operation for the capture of Abu ad-Dhuhur airbase. In 2016, we captured the heights of al-‘Ais . Furthermore we had a hand in more than 10 successful infiltration operations by our group and students.
We are primarily instructing insurgents in battle tactics, giving medical aid, working with armoured vehicles, mortars, sniper activity, and weapons modifications.
We even liquidated an [ethnic] Russian sniper and had clashes with other Russian forces. We fought against Hezbollah and killed a good number of them, one of our brothers was martyred back then.
We do not engage ourselves in teaching how to conduct terrorist attacks or killing peaceful civilians, however. We have never worked and will not work against civilians, regardless of their nationalities or religions. Our objectives are exclusively military facilities and war criminals. We are against any terrorist attacks where women and children and civilians can suffer.
Until now, by the kindness of Allah, we are teaching fighters of HTS and other groups. Quite a few of our students have become instructors, already working independently in different places. Many of us have former military experience. We have a lot of experience conducting battles in cities and in the desert.
Q: And two other related questions: who gets accepted to serve for Malhama Tactical? Are only Russian-speaking mujahidin allowed or can anyone join? How do you select the ones that can join, are there tests to become an instructor?
A: We don’t accept all units, we take former soldiers or talented and purpose-driven people, so that they would be motivated and follow our visions and goals.
No, we don’t only accept Russian speakers.
Actually, it’s not a business, our goal and our aid is for the Syrian people, we are here to assist helpless women and children.
We don’t demand payment for our work, we provide everything ourselves, along with friends and acquaintances. My aim is that our work should be free .
Q: Did you notice an evolution in the foreign fighters that came to Syria and joined your ranks? Is there a difference in military experience between the first and latest recruits? Can you still successfully recruit mujahidin from abroad and can they still enter Syria ? Did any of your Chechen or North Caucasian members have experience fighting in the North Caucasus before Syria? Did any of these members come from other jihadist groups in Syria? Do all of your North Caucasian members intend to stay in Syria forever, or do some of them want to return to fight in the North Caucasus?
A: I don’t see a difference [between fresh and veteran recruits], it happens that some groups have difficult training and others quickly learn everything and can successfully apply it.
As long as there is work here we will stay here, but we can’t forget about the Caucasus, there are brothers who want to work there when the time comes; some of the group are Caucasians.
Right now we don’t know of any new people entering Syria, the situation is not very good or stable, and the way in from Turkey is practically closed. In my group it’s almost all foreigners, most from Russia and the CIS.
Q: What is your opinion on the current situation in Idlib? Do you think the regime will attack soon? What do you think the Russians will do in this phase of the war? If the regime attacks, will you support Hay’at Tahrīr as-Shām?
Can you comment on the ISIS infiltration in Idlib? Where did they come from? Why did they come to Idlib and what is their aim?
“Stupid question”: how does your group communicate with trainees? I guess they don’t speak Russian. Do you have translators at your service?
Do you have plans for the future of Malhama Tactical after the battle for Idlib? Will Malhama Tactical train mujahidin in other places?
There is still nothing clear regarding the situation in Idlib, we are prepared for anything insha’Allah and await what’s next.
Russians will play the main role in this attack, I heard they will use heavy weapons.
We were almost always with HTS and we will help them and fight together with them.
I don’t know about IS, right now they are very few, HTS already caught and executed many of them, those from the Uqariybat pocket left after coming from Turkey.
We speak in Arabic and instruct in their language, our fighters speak several languages.
Yes, there are plans. We are living through the battle and then we’ll see.