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Malhama Tactical: The Blackwater of Jihad

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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.

Malhama Tactical isn’t an enormous military conglomerate like the infamous Blackwater (now named Academi). It consists of 10 well-trained militants 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’s leader is a 24-year-old from Uzbekistan who goes by the name Abu Rofiq (an Arabic pseudonym that means father of Rofiq). Small is known about him other than that he cycles through personal social media accounts rapidly, using fake names and wrong information to throw off surveillance efforts. In virtually every video and photo posted online, he wears a scarf or balaclava to cover his face from the nose down, leaving visible only his narrow dark eyes and long, somewhat tangled, pitch-black hair. He speaks fluent Russian, but with a slight Uzbek accent.

Since launching in May 2016, Malhama has grown to do brisk business in Syria, having been contracted to fight, and provide training and other battlefield consulting, alongside groups like the al Qaeda-affiliated Jabhat Fateh al-Sham (formerly known as the Nusra Front) and the Turkistan Islamic Party, a Uighur extremist group from China’s restive Xinjiang province. And despite latest rebel setbacks in Syria, including the loss of Aleppo, demand for Malhama Tactical’s services in the country is as powerful as ever, Abu Rofiq told Foreign Policy in an interview conducted over the messaging app Telegram.

But he is also beginning to think about expanding elsewhere. His group is willing to take work, Abu Rofiq says, wherever Sunni Muslims are oppressed. He cites China and Myanmar as places that would benefit from jihad. He also suggests that Malhama Tactical might go back to its roots, returning to fight in the North Caucasus against the Russian government.

In November, the group placed job ads on Facebook looking for instructors with combat experience to join the group. The ad described the outfit as a “fun and friendly team” looking for recruits who are willing to “constantly engage, develop, and learn” and work with Jabhat Fateh al-Sham. It even specified that instructors were privy to benefits like vacation time and one day off a week from jihad. The wording was more befitting of a Fortune 500 company than a group of extremists fighting in a brutal and bloody war. Jihad went global long before Malhama Tactical, but rarely with so entrepreneurial a spirit.

Although Malhama Tactical is the first PMC to work exclusively for extremist groups, it’s hardly the first foreign PMC to enter the Syrian battlefield. The Syrian war has now lasted for nearly six years and cost the lives of more than 400,000 men, women, and children. And amid the chaos of groups like the Islamic State, the left-wing Kurdish People’s Protection Units, and Jabhat Fateh al-Sham vying for territory and influence, the Syrian front has also been a boon for military contractors, who have found work fighting on both sides of the war.

The first iteration of PMCs in Syria was the Slavonic Corps, an ill-fated, Hong Kong-registered company comprising ex-Russian military that briefly worked alongside government forces in 2013, according to a report by the Interpreter magazine. But it quickly became clear that they did not have the full support of the Syrian government. First, the Syrian army stole their vehicles, then their paychecks never arrived, and finally a Syrian air force helicopter crashed into the Slavonic Corps convoy after flying too low and running into power lines, injuring one mercenary. The Slavonic Corps’ misadventures came to an finish when the group disbanded after a defeat by rebels in the desert near the city of Sukhnah in southern Syria in October 2013. The mercenaries returned home to Moscow and were promptly arrested by the Russian Federal Security Service (FSB) for their unsanctioned Syrian intervention.

Following the Kremlin’s own intervention in Syria in September 2015, nearly 1,500 Russian mercenaries arrived from the “Wagner” group, an infamous and secretive Russian PMC that previously fought alongside Russian-backed separatists in eastern Ukraine, according to an investigation by Sky News. Their mission was to assist the Assad regime, and unlike the Slavonic Corps, Wagner enjoys extensive support from the Russian government. Dmitry Utkin, a former special forces brigade commander of Russia’s military intelligence service, allegedly leads the group. Although small is known about Wagner, it’s believed that it mimics Academi’s model by operating as an elite infantry unit and relies on the Russian government for support, even flying into Syria on board official military aircraft and training at a Russian special forces base in Molkino in southwestern Russia. Wagner remains in Syria to this day.

At the same time, a litany of Russian-speaking militants have fought alongside jihadi groups waging war against the Syrian government. According to the Soufan Group, there are at least 4,700 foreign militants from the former Soviet Union in Syria, the majority of whom come from the Russian republics of Chechnya and Dagestan. These militants typically arrive in Syria better equipped and trained than local militants and with years of experience fighting the Russian government in the mountains of Chechnya and Dagestan during the 1990s and 2000s.

https://youtu.be/4zWZuPTvAzA

These battle-hardened militants quickly earned respect from local militants, who noticed the Russian speakers took on a much higher death rate than local militants. They came to populate the ranks of both the Islamic State and Jabhat Fateh al-Sham, as well as various smaller groups, where locals refer to them as inghimasi, a term used among jihadis to refer to militants who plunge into enemy front lines to inflict the maximum amount of casualties with no plan of returning alive. The archetypal inghimasi fights until he runs out of ammo before detonating his suicide vest as his position is overrun.

But while numerous of their compatriots have become front-line shock serviceman, the former Soviet militants of Malhama Tactical go a different way, carving out their own distinct niche between the worlds of professional PMCs and jihadi groups operating in Syria. They function as consultants, arms dealers, and, on occasion, elite warriors.

Malhama’s elite status makes sense against the background of Abu Rofiq’s own military career. Abu Rofiq told FP that he had moved as a young man from Uzbekistan to Russia, where, in addition to starting a family, he joined one of the Russian government’s most elite military units, a group of airborne serviceman known as the VDV. In 2013, Abu Rofiq left Russia for Syria, where rather than joining one faction, like most foreign militants do, he remained independent and moved between them, before founding Malhama in 2016.

Throughout 2016, Malhama Tactical’s units trained the hard-line Islamist rebel group Ahrar al-Sham and Jabhat Fateh al-Sham in urban combat to help their fight against the Syrian regime in Aleppo. In one video, trainees practice firing multiple rocket-propelled grenade (RPG) rounds and work as squads to assault a building. In another, a two-man team clears rooms and eliminates targets using grenades and gunfire, all under the watchful eye of Malhama instructors.

This type of training isn’t cheap — the RPG rounds Malhama uses in its practice sessions are estimated to cost around $800 each on the black market — which is why military training for most rebel and jihadi groups in Syria has tended to consist of small more than marching, acrobatics, and basic marksmanship. But for jihadi groups that can afford it, Malhama Tactical’s infantry training is worth the expense. One European military contractor who spoke on the condition of anonymity acknowledged that the group’s tactical skills would provide it, and whomever it trains, a distinct advantage on the Syrian battlefield.

Malhama Tactical’s operators have, on occasion, also acted as special forces for different jihadi groups. In September 2016, they embedded with the Turkistan Islamic Party to help it repulse an Assad regime attack in southern Aleppo, according to a rebel activist source familiar with the group. Still, Abu Rofiq says his outfit’s primary goal is to train other rebel and jihadi groups in combat, rather than fight on the front lines. Abu Rofiq admitted that Malhama also produces equipment for other jihadi groups as needed. Malhama, for example, manufactures accessories for the PKM, an extremely popular Russian-made 7.62 mm machine gun. The vests and grips, widely used in Aleppo during the intense fighting there, have become especially sought after among jihadis.

Malhama Tactical also takes its social media presence very seriously. 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 militants 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.

Malhama’s YouTube and Facebook pages also showcase free online guides for jihadis, covering improvised grenade construction, weapon cleaning, room clearing, and urban combat, among other skills. The group’s instructors organize online training sessions — on subjects including battlefield first aid; the use of weapons, such as RPG-7s; hand signal systems for urban combat; and introductions on how to conduct ambushes — when in-person assistance and consulting is not possible.

Although Malhama Tactical charges for its services, Abu Rofiq insists he isn’t a mercenary. He says his group’s motivation transcends money. “Our goal is different; we are fighting for an concept,” he said — namely, jihad against Assad.

“We’ll see a lot more of this activity going forward in the decades to come,” said Sean McFate, an associate professor at the National Defense University and author of The Modern Mercenary, a book about private armies. For McFate, the growth of Malhama Tactical is a natural offshoot of the prolonged Syrian war, but the outfit’s mixture of extremist ideology with the privatization of war is a unique and troubling trend. “A jihadi group doing this is a modern level because if you’re talking about hardcore idealists paying for [military training], then that’s a milestone of modern warfare,” McFate said.

Abu Rofiq’s leadership has also brought him unwanted attention from the Russian government, which views him as a major terrorism threat. On Feb. 7, Russian airstrikes flattened Abu Rofiq’s apartment in Idlib, killing his wife, infant son, and several other civilians. Despite initial reports to the contrary, a local source confirmed that the airstrikes missed Abu Rofiq entirely. He had exited his apartment just moments before to help casualties from another nearby bombing.

In either case, Abu Rofiq’s jihadi PMC model has already had a significant effect on battles in northern Syria and could soon inspire copycat organizations outside the Middle East. Even if Abu Rofiq is killed and Malhama Tactical is destroyed, he’s already shaken up the war against Assad — and maybe even the future of the global military-industrial complex.

Neil Hauer, lead analyst for the SecDev Group in Ottawa, Canada, and Subkhan Khuriev contributed to this report.

Top Image Credit: Malhama Tactical Vkontakte page/Foreign Policy illustration

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Private Military Contractors

Road rules for gunslingers: How military contractors use their vehicles to fight

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The Chevy Tahoe leaves a white, chalky trail of dust as it careens towards Shoot House 2. There are four heavily armed men wearing body armor seated inside the SUV, wielding automatic rifles, 9mm pistols, and a shotgun. These weapons are loaded – and not with blanks.

The driver directs the vehicle off the dirt road and skids to a halt in front of the building. Even before the doors open, the tactics that will decide the gunfight ahead are already being implemented. The driver parks the vehicle with the rear facing the targeted building, so the team inside can dismount facing the door they mean to breach. This position also protects the driver in case the team loses the element of surprise and needs to retreat in a hurry.

Three men pop out of the Tahoe, each wearing body armor, and helmets. The rear opens and the last members of the team leap out: a dog handler and security canine on a leash. The men knock down the door and loose the dog to latch onto a man inside wearing a padded suit. The team sweeps the building, storming each room quickly. The pistols cough, and paper targets sport fresh holes. The concrete mix used to construct the walls of the building absorbs bullets. The operators flow from room to room while covering each other’s blind spots, popping off shots in a controlled dance of fire and maneuver.

A mix of auto journalists and company staff observe the exercise from a catwalk above the roofless, one story building. Chevy brought us here to reinforce the link between its SUVs and toughest clients: military operators who use the rigs on overseas missions.

Although a small percentage of total Tahoe sales go to these customers, the luster of Special Operations can help sell vehicles to domestic law enforcement, who need proven vehicles. The general public is also not immune to military chic: Some tinted windows, black steel wheels and footage of live-fire demonstrations should also help sales.

It’s also a rare opportunity to discuss the relationship between special operations troops and the automobiles they use in combat. This is the place where advice isn’t based on a movie or video game.

The range and the talent are courtesy of TigerSwan International, a security firm that trains police, US military and civilians on tactical gunfighting. Part of the training they do here centers on smooth exits from vehicles to get to gunfights, as well as times they must shoot from moving cars and trucks. “What people get here is real-life experience, to see what is fact versus fiction,” says Jim Reese, co-founder of TigerSwan. “Most of what they think they know is total B.S.”

Reese is a retired Delta Force operator. He founded TigerSwan in 2005 to “provide business intelligence, crisis management and global stability services to governments and businesses.” The firm recently made headlines when documents leaked that identified them as part of the security brought in to guard the Dakota Access Pipeline against protesters. They perform risk analysis, protect company executives, and help design secure facilities in risky places.

Supporters call them contractors. Detractors call them mercenaries. Both sides agree: the firm is staffed with shooters with experience on elite military teams. The gunmen at this event are all former members of Delta Force, an elite unit formed to conduct counterterrorism missions.

Chevy hired TigerSwan to host this demo on its sprawling training range, located 17 miles from Fort Bragg in North Carolina. The Range Complex, as the company calls it, is spread over 1,900 acres, plenty of room for the intensive combat exercises conducted here. The practice spaces encompass just 100 acres; the rest of the area is needed to make sure that errant bullets land harmlessly, outside of what’s called the Surface Danger Zone.

“Your vehicle can be the most lethal weapon on the battlefield, if it’s used the right way.”

Not many Hollywood myths survive for very long when discussing the best uses of vehicles in shootouts with professionals. For example, ducking behind a car for cover during a gunfight is a bad idea. “Most vehicles don’t make good pieces of cover,” Reese says. “Bullets go right through.”

He is in a good position to know: As an operator with Delta, which they call “The Unit,” Reese once caught a bullet in the wrist while driving his commander through Baghdad.

Training is another word for experience. It’s not a good idea to try something for the first time when lives are at stake. For example, training here includes the best way to drive a car away from a roadside ambush by gunmen. The first priority is to get away, to nullify the advantage the attackers gained by choosing the location. And that usually means driving forward. To do this safely means shooting out of the car’s windshield, to hit or scare the gunmen outside.

This is easier than it sounds. The ideal way to shoot out a front windshield is to make a hole with a few quick rounds, and then poke the barrel of the firearm through the hole to shoot back in earnest. But how many shots will it take to make that hole? Is the glass tempered? What’s the best body position inside a car to fire accurately?

Like anything, being a badass car gunman requires training so that your body acts without hesitation. “Practice, practice, practice,” Reese says. “Your vehicle can be the most lethal weapon on the battlefield, if it’s used the right way.”

Another lesson from the special ops world: Those behind the wheel don’t shoot. “The driver is the driver,” Reese sums up. They are responsible for watching everything ahead of the vehicle, scanning for upcoming threats and leery of any chokepoints. Others in the vehicle have their own sectors, areas they constantly watch for trouble. They call this “putting your head on a swivel.”

The hired guns of TigerSwan have been deployed across the world and have been subjected to nearly every threat to a vehicle you can imagine: roadside bombs, gunmen posted under overpasses, suicide bombers, motorcycle drive-bys. “They usually don’t even slow down,” says Rick, an operator with extensive experience in cartel-infested parts of South America, of motorcycle gunmen there. (Former operators ask that only their first names be used.)

Despite all of Chevy’s happy talk of delivering battle-ready SUVs, the first thing Delta Force does is tailor the vehicle for the conditions on the ground. That could mean using “bolt on” kits, supplied by third-party vendors. These vendors sometimes work with vehicle makers to ensure their solutions, like extra armor or weapons stations, will be easy to install.

Other enhancements are improvised on the spot. Two popular SUV mods in war zones emerge during separate conversations. One is cutting a hole in the roof to create a firing position. Rick says he first saw this in Beruit, where gunners wanted views above the tops of other vehicles. Others add that this became common in Iraq and Afghanistan as well. Delta operators even figured out a way to mount a heavy .50-caliber machine gun on top of the vehicle. Another popular modification: putting a seat in the rear, facing directly behind the SUV. This takes care of one of the few blind spots.

Eddie is a 23-year Army veteran with 17 years of service in Delta, and a recipient of two Bronze Stars and multiple Purple Hearts. He says any vehicle they receive in the field gets modified immediately. “We’ll do the tires, brakes, lights, everything,” he says. “In Afghanistan, we once replaced an SUV engine, and put in a diesel. Easier to get fuel.”

Special Operations troops such as Delta, the Navy SEALs, and the Air Force Special Tactics Squadron, are known for their specialized vehicles. But oftentimes it makes more sense to blend in, and that means using indigenous vehicles to get around. In some parts of the world that means pickup trucks, but in others the black SUV is common. “In Iraq, at first, these would stick out,” says Antek, who has 15 years of Delta experience. “But after a while they were common.”

After the sun sets, a handful of Z71 Midnight Edition Tahoes arrive. They’re marketed to look mean: a black mesh grill, dark painted DuraTrac tires and black bowties. The cross rails have an odd strip across the top, faintly glowing red. This is a reflector that glows like hot metal under night vision goggles, which amplifies what little light exists.

The TigerSwan operators load into Tahoe Z71s and drive into the night on a “ghost ride,” headlights extinguished and wearing night-vision headsets. In the lenses, the lightless dirt road is bathed in a green hue. Every insect becomes a brilliantly lit orb. Antek drives quickly but in control, gently drifting across turns and weaving in between heavy equipment and farm buildings.

He’s shot from moving vehicles before, at targets who shoot back. He has practical advice: Try not to do it unless you have a heavy machine gun mounted on the vehicle. “You won’t hit anything with a rifle or pistol, if you’ve got any speed,” he says.

The ghost ride, shoot house, and time on the gun ranges at the event are not very instructive when it comes to the merits of Chevy’s SUVs for this kind of work. They are popular, sold worldwide and common in US and foreign police units. But the real lesson is in the relationship between elite warriors and the mounts they ride.

“Of course we pay close attention to the vehicles we ride in,” Antek says. “They can save your life when you need them.”

This article originally appeared at Auto Blog. The author of the article is Joe Poppalardo.

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Careers

Jobs in Iraq

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Most of the time, people asking about contracting opportunities. Former soldiers, law enforcement specialists and others are usually interested in continuing their carrers somewhere abroad. This time, we are announcing the call from the HR Power consulting agency. HR Power is a security recruitment & vetting company specialized in sourcing ex-military professionals.

Jobs in Iraq

Team Leaders, Deputy Team Leaders (2IC) and Tier 2 Medics needed for an already awarded project in Basra, IRAQ.
The base requirements for the positions are as follows:

Team Leader, Deputy Team Leader (2IC)

  • 3+ years of Military Service
  • 12+ months previous PSD TL or DTL experience from Iraq
  • Close Protection certificate (SIA approved or equivalent)
  • Medical Qualification (FPOS, MIRA or equivalent)
  • Previous experience working as a PSD TL or PSD DTL (2IC), depending on the position you are applying to
  • Clean Criminal Background
  • Good English

T2 Medic

  • 5+ years of Military Service within a medical unit of the armed forces
  • 12+ months previous PSD TL or DTL experience from Iraq
  • Close Protection certificate (SIA approved or equivalent)
  • Proof of current status as a practicing medic
  • Clean Criminal Background
  • Good English

Deployment date: after the vetting process is completed and VISA received
Rotations 2 months on, 1 month off.

More details to follow after we receive your application. If you meet the requirements, please confirm your interest by sending your CV to security@hrpower.ee with the tag “Iraq17”.

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