By Saman Ayesha Kidwai*
A conglomerate of elite jihadists, referred to as Malhama Tactical, has emerged as a serious threat. It was formed by an Uzbek militant, Sukhrob Baltabaev or Abu Rofiq, in 2016,1 and is believed to be the first for-hire terrorist group, which has trained Islamist militants, including the East Turkistan Islamic Movement fighters, and those who participated as mercenaries in the Syrian war.
It has therefore gained notoriety as the “Blackwater of Jihad”.2 Blackwater (renamed Academi) is an American private military company whose contractors have infamously participated in conflict-ridden states like Iraq, as part of American security operations. Jeremy Scahill, an investigative journalist, has attributed Blackwater’s catapulting rise to American demobilisation in the post-Cold war era.3
Unlike the conventional terrorist groups, Malhama Tactical is a commercial enterprise driven by a for-profit agenda and is not constrained by a specific ideology and defined enemies. Today, the market for private contractors is flourishing with a vast supply of cash and weaponry and earnings far better than that of ordinary soldiers.4 These factors have given Malhama Tactical much leeway in carrying out its objectives, and associating with a broad spectrum of radical and violent groups including Hayat Tahrir al-Sham, Jabhat al-Nusra and Ajnad al-Kavkaz. Although the organisation reportedly has a Sunni pan-Islamic leaning, it remains ideologically opposed to groups like Islamic State.
It is also considered exclusive due to the military expertise and guerilla warfare tactics passed on by the trainers (battle-hardened and former Chechen militants) and Abu Rofiq, who was a member of the Russian Airborne Troops, an elite group within the armed forces.5 The training modules also incorporate lessons from the strategic tactics of foreign armies.6 Its trainers and recruits have easy access to a wide array of extravagant arms and ammunition, such as the Rocket Propelled Grenades, that amount to no less than $800 per round.7 Its recruitment process is selective where trusted associates provide a reference for the incoming training recruits.
The militants have derived the word Malhama from Hadith literature prophesizing end-time events. They consider Al-Malhama Al-Kubra to be the fiercest apocalyptic war, even though descriptions of the event are highly abstruse and have been subject to varied interpretations.8 Although mainstream Islamic theorists have advised against taking Malhama myths literally, jihadists use the term as part of their propaganda campaigns. Combined with the word “tactical”, the attempt to invent a catchy brand that becomes popular among impressionable radical youth is obvious, even though the name in and of itself makes little sense.
Its emergence and increasing numerical strength could be attributed to the collapse of terrorist groups like Al Qaeda and the Islamic State. As a result of this development, extremist jihadists could seek an alliance with terrorist groups like Malhama Tactical. Making extensive use of forums like Telegram, the organisation advertises its propaganda videos and training programmes, and has even conducted Q&A sessions about the type of weapons preferred in armed conflicts.9
Notably, Malhama Tactical has paid its core members and purchased arms and necessities using bitcoin and other forms of cryptocurrency, which are non-conventional tactics of finance terrorism for carrying out its objectives.
Equally significant is the concept of Nizam La Tanzim, from which this group could be deriving its strategies and gaining mounting prominence. Tracing its origin to Abu Musab al-Suri (affiliated with Osama bin Laden and a prominent Syrian jihadist), this call refers to a global jihad being fought by a loosely connected network of fighters instead of a centralised organisation.10 It encompasses four crucial features, such as spontaneity, autonomy, decentralisation and situationist outlook.
Malhama Tactical has posed multiple challenges for global security. Hostile states can now rely on plausible deniability while conducting asymmetrical war against actors perceived as oppressors, infidels or contenders for dominance.
Secondly, it has resulted in an additional problem for states that cannot associate Malhama Tactical with a specific terrorist group and, consequently, an ideological underpinning, the base of operations, leadership and recruitment methods. Such factors have long allowed them to formulate broadly coherent counter-terrorism initiatives by tracing past and current activities.
Furthermore, it could foment the growth of similar extremist organisations worldwide, potentially taking advantage of the security vacuum in the territories experiencing turmoil.
Although it primarily came to the fore to oust President Bashar al-Assad, it has also set its sights on expanding its influence across Central Asia.11 Violent extremism has remained a potent threat across the region since the dissolution of the erstwhile Soviet Union. Significantly, most of the fighters hail from the former Soviet Republics or Russia’s Muslim majority areas like Chechnya.12
Evolving Trends and Enemies
Malhama Tactical has indirectly targetted countries such as Russia by providing training in combat to violent extremists who are fighting against it on the Syrian battlefield. It has previously experienced waves of Islamic militancy led by Chechen terrorists. They believe that the efforts of the Syrian resistance forces are part of a much broader and intensive war against the Russian state with which they had engaged in bloody battles.13 Violent separatists in Chechnya had engaged in two armed conflicts against the Russian state between 1994–1996 and 1999–2009. Additionally, Russian soldiers have also come under direct attacks while supporting President al-Assad’s counter-terrorism operations.
In the recent past, Sergei Lavrov, the Russian Foreign Minister, has underscored the security dilemma his country faces should this event come to pass—“There must be at least 5,000-6,000 Russian-speaking militants (fighting in the Syrian war). Their wives and children have started returning to Russia and other CIS countries. The 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.”14
His fears are not unfounded. Ali al-Shishani, the current leader of Malhama Tactical, has called for a “new page” to be opened in the Chechen war while mentioning the group’s links with the Chechen mujahedeen fighters in Russia that have persevered over the years.15
The Potential Implications
The privatisation of jihad has underscored a pertinent dilemma. As extremist Islamist groups are becoming more territorial, their reach has also become narrower. However, Malhama Tactical with a more global outlook could potentially connect and facilitate terrorist organisations worldwide.
The situation has become considerably more challenging with the formation of the Taliban-led government in Kabul. The turn of events could embolden violent jihadist groups like Malhama Tactical to follow suit—particularly in West Asia (primary base of operations) and Central Asia (where the core fighters and trainers trace their origin to). These regions could experience further instability and violence, more so in Russia.
Additionally, jihadist groups like the Islamic State and Al Qaeda have diminished in strength or fraught with in-fighting and organisational issues. Yet, Malhama Tactical’s loosely organised structure and absence of similar complexities have become a fertile ground for defecting terrorists to join its ranks. They would bring resources, expertise and connections to collectively engage in global jihad and boost its numerical strength. This has resulted in a quagmire for counter-terrorism agencies who would find it difficult to dismantle the overall organisational structure and leadership through the arrests of a significant leader, which is the case with conventional terrorist groups.
According to notable strategists like Sean McFate, the activities of this organisation have revolutionised war, and it will continue to pose a grave threat in the foreseeable future.16 The appeal of global jihad and the military and technological advancements have enabled swift implementation of radical ideas promulgated by Malhama Tactical, which could possibly bolster its consolidation as the predominant jihadist for-hire group and widen its reach.
Furthermore, given the rapidly deteriorating situation in Afghanistan, it has become imperative for India to overhaul its security and intelligence frameworks in the event of potential spillover of Malhama Tactical. Understandably, countries like Pakistan or their proxy groups like Jaish-e-Mohammed could independently use Malhama fighters to undermine Indian national interests using plausible deniability. The victory of the Taliban has rejuvenated the jihadist ambitions, including in Kashmir, where the Indian state has frequently engaged in counter-terrorism operations.
The website of Malhama Tactical is easily accessible for those seeking information about this organisation or to directly get in touch with its members.17 This degree of accessibility makes the emergence of radicalised and violent individuals a greater threat than before.
Furthermore, this organisation could result in an upsurge of lone-wolf terrorist attacks across India. The jihadists who do not want to affiliate themselves with a specific terrorist organisation could become radicalised by the propaganda disseminated by Malhama Tactical. Much of its activities, including instructional videos, appear to be directed towards individual extremists and not cohesive organisations. Therefore, violent and radical youth could potentially look towards this terrorist group as an outlet to realise their objectives. The adherence to Abu Musab al-Suri’s call, facilitated by internet connectivity and social media access, could create havoc, forcing societies towards civil wars. India could face terrorist threats on multiple fronts. For now, the due diligence of the counter-terrorism agencies has curtailed the dramatic upsurge of such attacks and broadly eliminated potential threats. Counter-terrorism agencies can closely monitor and seize the bitcoin transfers via channels like Telegram to counter finance terrorism.18 The states could also reverse engineer the social media-based technology used by Malhama Tactical to neutralise its fighters and trainers.
Views expressed are of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Manohar Parrikar IDSA or of the Government of India.
*About the author: Ms Saman Ayesha Kidwai is Research Analyst at Manohar Parrikar Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, New Delhi.
Source: This article was published by Manohar Parrikar IDSA
- 1.“Self-proclaimed ‘Jihadi Consulting Firm’ Operates in Syria”, South Front, 5 December 2016.
- 2.Alessandro Arduino and Nordirbek Soliev, “Malhama Tactical: The Evolving Role of Jihadist Mercenaries in the Syrian Conflict”, National University of Singapore, 22 June 2021.
- 3.Javed Hamim Kakar, “Blackwater Book in Pashtu Hits Stalls in Kabul”, Pajhwok Afghan News, 13 March 2014.
- 4.Sean McFate, “Mercenaries and War: Understanding Private Armies Today”, National Defense University Press, 4 December 2019.
- 5.Alessandro Arduino and Nordirbek Soliev, “Malhama Tactical Threatens To Put China In Its Crosshairs”, Terrorism Monitor, Vol. 15, Issue 22, 27 November 2017.
- 6.Halid Abdurrahman, “Interview with Malhama Tactical Leader Ali Shishani”, Global Politics and Conflict Agenda, 27 February 2021.
- 7.Rao Komar, Christian Borys and Eric Woods, “The Blackwater of Jihad”, Foreign Policy, 10 February 2017.
- 8.Uran Botobekov, “What is the Future of Malhama Tactical?”, Modern Diplomacy, 29 December 2018.
- 9.Bridget Johnson, “Blackwater-style Jihadist Training Firm Teases ‘Many Operations’ In The Works”, Homeland Security Today, 3 June 2019.
- 10.“‘Nizam, La Tanzim’. System Not Organization”, Mediterranean Affairs, 2 July 2015.
- 11.Pieter Van Ostaeyen and Neil Hauer, “Interview with Abu Salman Belarus, Military Leader of Malhama Tactical”, European Eye on Radicalization, 19 September 2018.
- 12.Abdiraheem Saeed, “Analysis: How Malhama Tactical Became The ‘Blackwater of the Syrian Jihad’”, BBC Monitoring, 8 December 2018.
- 13.Neil Hauer, “What’s Behind Chechnya’s Increasing Interventionism in Syria?”, Pacific Standard, 4 December 2017.
- 14.John C.K. Daly, “Jihadist-owned Private Military Company Unsettles Russia”, The Arab Weekly, 14 September 2019.
- 15.Haber Merkezi, “Interview with Malhama Tactical Leader Ali Shishani”, MEPA News, 27 February 2021.
- 16.Yavor Raychev, “Malhama Tactical: A New Disturbing Trend in Jihad Conflicts”, Academia.
- 17.“About Us”, Malhama Tactical.
- 18.Tom Robinson, “The US Takedown of Crypto-linked Terrorist Financing”, ELLIPTIC Blog, 14 August 2020.