by David Isenberg
From the very beginning of the modern private military company (PMC) era, dating back to the late 1980s, one question raised by just about every observer looking into it was, how did you guarantee that a private sector company—whose primary motivation was to make a profit—would not go and do unsavory work for a disreputable client?
The stock answer was that the invisible hand of the marketplace would weed out bad actors, because any company would want to stay in business and would not be able to win future contracts if they had a reputation for doing bad things.
Of course, even without hindsight, such thinking was always laughable. There has never been any sector of private activity where various companies weren’t willing to put short term profit over long term sustainability. And the PMC sector is no different. From the early years of the U.S. occupation of Iraq, where the lure of U.S. government money attracted contractors like bees to flowers, to private psychologists devising torture techniques for the CIA, the strategy has always been to win contracts first, ask questions later. And that was all within the structure of duly constituted governments issuing perfectly legal contracts to duly certified private companies.
So it should come as no surprise that market logic has come full circle and we now have PMCs working just for terrorists.
Welcome to the world of Malhama Tactical (MT), a PMC operating in the Syrian Civil War. As contractors go this is a tiny group, with a membership of less than a dozen people, primarily former Russian military, but its ambition and significance is large. Its name is telling, as al-Malhama al-Kubra, or the “Great Battle,” is the prophesied battle of the end times. Malahim (???????) means bloody fights, massacres.
MT was founded in 2015 or 2016 by an Uzbek with the pseudonym of Abu Rofiq. Russian intelligence disclosed his identity as Sukhrob Muratovich Baltabaev. He reportedly enlisted in the Russian army as a common soldier, or possibly a cook, though he appears to have later spent time in Russia’s elite Vozdushno-Desantnye Voyska (VDV) airborne forces. He was reportedly killed, along with his wife and infant son, in a Russian airstrike on February 7, 2017.
On August 16, 2019 MT announced that the group’s new leader, Abu Salman Al-Belarusi—who was reportedly a senior sergeant of the 103rd Guards Airborne Brigade of the Special Operations Forces of Belarus based in the Vitebsk Region—had been killed at the front, south of Idlib, and was succeeded by Chechen jihadi Ali Al-Shishani.
But it is unclear whether Belarusi even existed, let alone died. In September it was reported that Rofiq faked his own death and used the name of al-Belarusi to avoid being targeted by Russian security forces. On August 17, his death was reported yet again, to some skepticism, by Russian media.
Regardless, MT is closely allied with Hayat Tahrir al-Sham, formerly known as the Nusrah Front, which fought against the Syrian government and aimed to establish an Islamic state there. In December 2012, the United States Department of State designated it a foreign terrorist organization, and in November 2013, it became the official Syrian branch of al-Qaeda. Nusrah formally severed its ties with al-Qaeda in 2016 and changed its name to Jabhat Fatah al-Sham. Hayat Tahrir al-Sham was formed in January 2017 in a merger of Jabhat Fatah al-Sham and four other groups.
While there is a long history of former soldiers offering their services to criminal groups like drug cartels, mafias, and various rebel groups, Malhama has gained notice as a PMC working just for Islamist jihadi groups. Although its members have participated in battles for Idlib, Aleppo, and other locations since at least 2015, its forte is providing training—including in the use of various weapons and equipment. Its social media accounts show it training fighters with tanks, RPGs, and small arms, as well as in tactics and long-range marksmanship.
In an interview at the beginning of the year, Abu Belaman Rus gave some detail on the kind of training MT is providing:
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.
But they are equally well-known for their online presence. A February 2017 Foreign Policy article, which dubbed MT the “Blackwater of Jihad,” noted:
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. Though the titles of these YouTube videos are written in Russian Cyrillic, their background music is an a cappella Islamic chant known as a nasheed, which is often used by extremist groups in propaganda films. But the men are no ordinary jihadis. They are members of Malhama Tactical, the world’s first jihadi private military contractor (PMC) and consulting firm….It consists of 10 well-trained fighters from Uzbekistan and the restive Muslim-majority republics of the Russian Caucasus. But size isn’t everything in military consulting, especially in the era of social media. Malhama promotes its battles across online platforms, and the relentless marketing has paid off: The outfit’s fighting prowess and training programs are renowned among jihadis in Syria and their admirers elsewhere. It helps that until now the group has specialized its services, focusing on overthrowing Bashar al-Assad’s regime and replacing it with a strict Islamic government.
…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.
In December 2018 Twitter suspended Rofiq’s account, after allowing it to post for more than a year.
From May 2016 to May 2017, MT produced and posted about 37 instructional videos providing guidance on a wide range of military exercises, including on-battlefield medical response, target practice, military assault courses, the use of rocket-propelled grenades and ambush tactics.
A November 2017 analysis by the Jamestown Foundation found that while MT’s direct income is from training fighters, it also relies on online donations. The group has made numerous fund-raising appeals through Twitter, Telegram, Facebook, YouTube and Russian social-networking sites like VKontakte and Odnoklassniki):
The group uses electronic online payment services for its crowd-funding calls, including platforms like Wallet One and QIWI Koshelek. It has even used crypto-currencies. In the past, when Abu Rofiq operated as a trainer for Jamaat Saifullah ash-Shishani (a.k.a. Katiba Sayfullah), he reportedly requested donations via QIWI Koshelek, a Russian online payment system (RFE, September 26, 2015).
In September 2015, Abu Rofiq made two separate appeals to raise donations to help the group purchase equipment and “assist those who are in need.” He instructed would-be supporters to contact him privately for details on how to donate. Most recently, group members have begun crowd funding using the crypto currency Bitcoin (Ria Fan, May 28).
The online support base is growing with nearly 2,400 subscribers and 250,676 views on YouTube, as well as 600 members on its public Facebook page. On Twitter, the group has more than 1,500 followers. In January 2017, a member of Malhama Tactical used Twitter to call for anonymous donations and give an account number with Wallet One, a Johannesburg-registered international payment system.
The Jamestown analysis is also noteworthy because it points out that MT claims that not only Uighurs, but also Han Chinese are among its trainees. It notes:
The ripples of Malhama Tactical’s threat to Beijing are expanding from Syria to Xinjiang. If the group has the capacity to shape angry Uighur youth into elite fighters, then it is going to be able to threaten not only the Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region, but also the land corridors along Beijing’s Belt and Road initiative.
There is perhaps some irony here as Blackwater founder Eric Prince has positioned himself as key to Beijing’s effort to secure the Belt and Road initiative via his Hong Kong-registered private military company, Frontier Services Group.
Irony aside, it was recently reported that Prince’s Frontier Services Group (FSG) “plans to spend approximately $15.4 million in Pakistan and Xinjiang, China by May 2020, according to a recent financial disclosure. The Trump administration announced sanctions this week against multiple Chinese entities tied to Xinjiang, citing the alleged human rights violations taking place in the region.
Earlier this year, Prince told Al-Jazeera that FSG “has zero footprint in Xinjiang, China. Period.” However, this new financial disclosure reveals that FSG has been planning to spend millions in Xinjiang since 2018.”