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    Malhama Tactical: Extremists for Hire

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    1. Intro

    Malhama Tactical is a young but highly active “jihad based” private military contractor (PMC). The name “Malhama” is derived from Hadith literature describing end-time events. The group is relatively small in comparison to Western PMCs; however, it saw relative success in Syria, its primary area of operations. Malhalma mainly acts as a training and consulting group for other organizations.

    Although its known to engage in combat on occasion. In 2017 ForeignPolicy labeled them the “Blackwater of jihad”, a reference to the highly controversial American PMC. However, this is unfair for two reasons. It’s unfair to millions of peaceful Muslims worldwide. In Arabic, the term jihad basically means a struggle, and usually not a militant one but unfortunately, it has become synonymous with terrorism. Secondly, it is unfair because, atrocities aside, at least Blackwater was a competent fighting force.

    3 men from malhama pose for a picture in combat gear.
    Malhama Tactical members. (Retrieved via Malhama_Tactical_ on Instagram)

    2. History of Malhama

    Malhama Tactical was officially formed in 2016, however its origins were half a decade in the making. The group was formed by a 24-year-old named Sukhrob Muratovich Baltabaev. Baltabaev is as enigmatic as he is wanted by the Russian government. Allegedly, he is originally from Uzbekistan but moved to Russia to join the VDV. The VDV is supposed to be an elite airborne component of the Russian military, although recent events in Ukraine leave that point up for debate. Nevertheless, Baltabaev gained some semblance of combat training while serving in the Russian military. However, he was discharged due to a herniated disk and began working as a computer programmer. (Source) In 2013 he left Russia to fight in Syria against Bashar al Assad’s Russian-backed regime. 

    Around this time, he began to go by his kunya Abu Rafiq al-Tartarstani. Kunyas are a familial name of sorts, Baltabaev’s kunya roughly translates to Father of Rafiq, the Tartarstani. However, it is highly unlikely that this is a legitimate kunya. Often fake kunyas will be adopted as a nom de guerre, or war name, as a means of maintaining anonymity.

    Baltabaev operated in Syria under the name Abu Rafiq for three years while fighting with various anti-Assad insurgent groups. During this time, he maintained a status as a freelance fighter, never swearing allegiance to any one particular group. In 2017 Abu Rafiq decided to go into business for himself, establishing Malhama Tactical. (Source)

    2.1. Malhama is Hiring

    Abu Rafiq established the company but needed additional personnel to make the business successful. Where else would a new radicalized private military company recruit new members but Facebook? In 2016 Abu Rafiq posted a listing on Facebook actively recruiting new members. The company was described as “fun and friendly”, offering great salary and benefits such as paid vacation time and “one day off per week. As comical as its recruiting practices were, it paid off. By the end of 2016, the group had ten members recruited from Muslim-majority republics in the Caucuses such as Chechnya and Dagestan.

    2.2.  New Contracts

    The group managed to procure contracts from a wide variety of sources throughout Syria and Central Asia. The group primarily acted as trainers and as consultants. It worked with :

    • Jabhat Fatech al Sham (formerly Al-Nusra Front/Al-Qaeda in Syria)
    • Turkistan Islamic party (a militant group of Uighur Muslims from China’s Xinjiang province)
    • Anrar al-Sham (Islamic Movement of the Freemen of the Levant)
    • Sariya Mukawama Sha’biya (SMS – The Popular Resistance Brigades)
    • Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS – Organization for the Liberation of the Levant)

    The group trained and even fought alongside all of these groups. By the end of 2017, the group was ready to expand business, stating that it was willing to work “wherever Sunnis are oppressed”. (Source)

    2.3. The Death of Abu Rafiq

    As one might expect, the Russian government was not particularly fond of Abu Rafiq. He was a former Russian soldier turned jihadist fighting alongside groups the Russian government deemed terrorist organizations. Subsequently, Abu Rafiq was deemed a terrorist threat and the Russians began to try and kill him. In early 2017, the Russians launched an airstrike on Abu Rafiq’s home in Syria. However, he was out of his house when the missile struck. (Source) There is some uncertainty about the events that followed in 2017. Some sources state that subsequent Russian airstrikes managed to kill Abu Rafiq. While others state that Abu Rafiq simply changed his name to avoid detection. 

    The group was taken over by a man using the name Ali Shishani. Shishani is allegedly from Chechnya and was radicalized by the two Chechen wars for independence from Russia. He was inspired to help fight against the Assad regime in Syria and joined Malhama in 2016. In a video interview, he could be seen wearing an Ichkeria flag patch on his combat top. Ichkeria is the independent state that anti-Russian Chechens are seeking to establish. During an interview, Ali Shishani stated that Malhama has made significant improvements since he took control of the organization.

    Malhama leader taking a selfie in Syria.
    Abu Rafiq. (Source)

    2.4.  The Birth of Abu Salman 

    Here’s where it gets interesting. In 2018 OGN TV produced a YouTube video where they interviewed a man using the kunya “Abu Salman al-Bulgari”. The video was discussing Malhama Tactical’s role in a Hayat Tahrir al-Sham raid on a Syrian base. Abu Salman was labeled as a trainer for Malhama. However, in 2019 Abu Rafiq revealed that he was still alive using the new pseudonym of Abu Salman specifical to throw off Russian intelligence. (Source) This indicates four possibilities:

    1. Abu Rafiq (Abu Salman) stepped down from leadership to maintain a lower profile.
    2. Abu Rafiq is dead, and someone is claiming to be him.
    3. Abu Rafiq is alive and still controlling Malhama with Shishani acting as a front man.
    4. Abu Rafiq is alive and pretending to be Shishani and Abu Salman.

    Malhama leader in full kit.
    Abu Salman. (Source)

    What exactly happened to Abu Rafiq is unclear, perhaps there is some truth in all of the possibilities. Most likely he never died, since despite the mask he wears in interviews he has incredibly recognizable eyes and hair. Plus, facial recognition software confirmed that Abu Rafiq and Abu Salman are the same person. (Source) It is within the realm of possibility that Abu Rafiq realized his new identity as Salman was compromised and adopted the Shishani persona. The timeline matches, it seems to be standard practice for him, and Shishani is always seen wearing sunglasses now (the eyes gave Abu Rafiq/Salman away). Either way, it is some of either the best or worst tradecraft of all time.

    Man in combat shirt with hat and face covered.
    Malhama’s former leader Ali Shishani with an Ichkeria Republic flag patch. (Retrieved via Malhama_Tactical_ on Instagram)

    2.5. Malhama Today

    The company seems to have gone off the grid after late 2021. Up to this point it allegedly had up to 50 trainers working for the company and it was getting paid in bitcoin. (Source, Source) Until now the company had received most of their funding from the Indonesian Abu Ahmed Foundation, an aid foundation that secretly funded pro-al-Qaeda militant groups in Syria. (Source) Allegedly Shishani stepped down as leader in October of 2021. It’s unclear who the new leader is and what the future holds for the company. The notoriety the group garnered in Syria led to multiple off-shoots such as Albanian Tactical (a spin-off of Xhemati Alban) and Yurturgh Tactical (a spin-off of Turkistan Islamic party). However, for Malhama Tactical it is uncertain if it will reopen for business. (Source)

    3.  Political Views of Malhama

    Malhama’s political views are quite interesting and probably not what one might expect. First, the company is extremely anti-ISIS. It once even fought against them in 2017. (Source) Further, it considers ISIS to be a terrorist organization, along with both the Russian and Syrian governments. The group has even considered returning to Eastern Europe to fight against the Russians in the Ukraine conflict, although that was prior to the 2022 invasion. Interestingly, the company complies with all ceasefires declared during the Syrian conflict. It stated that Malhama didn’t have the authority to break a ceasefire.

    1. Overall, it considers Turkey to be an ally in the Syrian conflict and believes that all the rebel factions need to unite into a singular military and political entity.
    2. Even the Ichkeria patches it wears are a political statement against the Russian government and their prior wars in Chechnya.
    3. Lastly, the group is willing to expand its operations to wherever Sunnis are oppressed, believing that all people should live “with honor and with compliance of Sharia”. (Source)

    However, most of Abu Rafiq’s speeches regarding Islam show a very shallow knowledge of the subject. (Source)

    4. Gear of Malhama

    Malhama Tactical is surprisingly well-equipped when compared to other groups and even regional military powers. Its trainers and trainees can be seen with a variety of AK platforms, which are often sporting red dot optics. A force multiplier rarely seen within the Russian military, let alone extremist organizations.

    4.1. Weapons

    Malhama Tactical can be seen utilizing a wide variety of weapons. The Syrian conflict is rife with fighters using firearms from across the globe and Malhama is no different. It utilizes a wide variety of assault rifles, light machine guns, and more specialized weapons.

    WeaponTypeCalibreEffective RangeWeight
    AKMCarbine7.62x39mm350m3.3 kg (7.3lb)
    AK-74Carbine5.45x39mm500m3.07 kg (6.8lb)
    AK-74MCarbine5.45x39mm500m3.4 kg (7.5lb)
    AUGRifle5.56x45mm550m3.6 kg ( 7.9lb)
    M16 A2Rifle5.56x45mm550m3.8 kg (8.3lb)
    Mosin Nagant“Sniper” Rifle7.62x54mmR600m~4.5 kg (10lb)
    PK/PKMLight Machinegun7.62x54mmR1000m9 kg (20lb)
    AGS 30Grenade Machinegun30x29mm grenade2100m16 kg (35lb)
    RPG-7Rocket Launcher40mm rocket w/ multiple warheads330m6.3 kg (14lb)
    RPG-18Rocket Launcher64mm HEAT warhead200m2.6 kg (5.7lb)
    RPG-22Rocket Launcher72.5mm HEAT warhead200m2.8 kg (6.2lb)
    RGD-5Hand GrenadeN/A20m kill radius310g (0.7lb)

    4.1.1. AKs

    Malhama primarily utilizes AK pattern rifles, ranging from the AKM to the AK-74M. What is most interesting about its AKs is how it is outfitted. While red dot sights are rare even in the Russian military, it appears to be an almost standard issue for the company. Granted most appear to be cheap airsoft quality. However, one individual was seen utilizing an AK-74M with an EOTech EXPS holographic sight and a G33 magnifier. (Source) An American-made sighting system that costs more than the rifle it was put on. Another interesting point is that it will sometimes utilize suppressors and flash cans on its AKs. These provide greater signature reduction than the muzzle breaks that are standard on AKs. Additionally, members can be seen with Magpul aftermarket furniture on their AKs.

    Malhama member with an AK74M.
    Malhama member with a painted AK-74M. (Retrieved via Malhama_Tactical_ on Instagram)

    4.1.2. PK Machine Gun

    The use of PK variants is not surprising, they are a common sight in Syria with an easy supply of ammunition to keep them fed. The PK is a general-purpose belt-fed machine gun. It includes an integrated bipod but can be set up on a tripod for firing out to extended ranges. These types of machine guns are not designed for assaulting objectives. Instead, it is meant to establish local support by fire. Allowing the assaulting element to maneuver onto the objective by providing covering fire on known and suspected targets.

    PK on white background.
    PK machine gun. (Source)

    4.1.3.  AGS 30 Atlan

    The AGS 30 is a belt-fed grenade machine gun developed by the Soviets and is still in production today. The weapon is fired from a tripod and is capable of both direct and indirect fire.

    • Direct fire is how you would engage a target with a rifle: you can visually see the target and fire upon it.
    • Indirect fire is how systems like mortars and artillery work:
      1. The operator of the weapon system is given a fire mission over the radio, indicating the enemy’s position on a map.
      2. Then the operators of the indirect fire weapon will calculate the distance and direction from their position to the enemy.
      3. They then launch rounds vertically, allowing them to fly over buildings and cover the enemy’s position.

    Using a special grenade, the AGS 30 can perform hasty indirect fire missions. Malhama Tactical can be seen training this function of the weapon.

    4.1.4. RPG 7, 18, and 22

    The RPG 7 is an incredibly simple yet ingenious design. Essentially it is just a tube with a fire control group and some sights stuck to it. The tube is reusable, allowing the operator to carry multiple rockets with a variety of warheads. Rocket types include the most recognizable High Explosive Anti-Tank (HEAT) rocket, a two-stage HEAT rocket, a fragmentation rocket, and a thermobaric rocket. However, the rocket is not particularly accurate at extended ranges with only a roughly 50% chance of hitting its target at 200 meters.

    RPG 7 on white background.
    RPG-7 with a HEAT rocket. (Source)

    The RPG 18 and 22 are iterative designs of one another. They both function similarly to the American M72 LAW. Meaning that it is a single-use rocket stored in an expanding tube. When the operator is ready to fire, they simply expand the tube and flip up the sights. The RPG 22 functions almost identically to the 18. The primary difference is that the RPG 22 utilizes a larger diameter rocket and thus, has a larger explosive payload.

    RPG 18s laid on floor.
    RPG 18 expanded and cut away. (Source)

    4.2. Equipment

    Malhama Tactical uses a variety of interesting equipment that has evolved throughout the years. Initially, the company operated in a rag-tag manner, with members utilizing whatever gear it could find. Making members mostly indistinguishable from other fighters in Syria. Malhama utilized an assortment of chest rigs to hold their ammo and other mission-essential gear.

    However, as time has progressed, the company has made a clear attempt to legitimize itself. Now members can most often be seen with their “standard issue” tan plate carriers. They appear to be a knockoff of the London Bridge Trading 6094 plate carrier that saw significant use with US special operations in the early 2000s. Unlike other groups, Malhama does appear to actually have protective plates in their plate carriers.

    • Additionally, members can also be seen wearing PAGST and MICH-style ballistic helmets. Sometimes members utilize helmets that have been modified into high-cut helmets, mirroring Western special operations forces.
    • The company has also transitioned away from wearing a hodge-podge of various camouflage clothing pieces. Now members can be seen wearing all tan copies of the Crye Precision G3 combat uniform.
    • Lastly, the uniform wouldn’t be complete with the Malhama merch. Most members appear to wear a Malhama Tactical patch on one shoulder and a Republic of Ichkeria flag on the other.

    Malhama member with a weapons stand.
    Malhama member with a company patch. (Retrieved via Malhama_Tactical_ on Instagram) 

    4.3. Electronics

    The company also utilizes a variety of electronics to conduct its operations. Members can often be seen with some sort of Motorola-style radio on their left shoulders. It’s highly unlikely that these radios offer any sort of encryption and are almost certainly unsecure. Members are often seen with active hearing protection produced by American companies. These headsets dampen sounds over a certain decibel level but will amplify sounds such as voices.

    This allows the user to maintain better situational awareness and communicate easier while still protecting their hearing. Lastly, the company is a big proponent of optics on weapons. Almost every AK Malhama possesses seems to have some sort of red dot optic with considerable variation in quality. The company has even posted a picture of a night vision weapon sight on its Instagram page.

    Equipment and ammo on a tile floor.
    Night vision optic, AKM magazines, and ammo acquired by Malhama. (Retrieved via Malhama_Tactical_ on Instagram)

    5. Tactics

    5.1. Ground Warfare Training

    Malhama Tactical’s legitimacy as trainers is dubious at best. Keep in mind that Abu Fariq formed the company when he was 24 and left the Russian military to fight in Syria three years prior. Meaning that he left the Russian military at 20-21 years of age. If he was in the VDV he was not in it for very long, however, that claim is questionable as well. Video footage of the company training militants in Syria shows a distinct lack of skill. Trainees can be seen firing RPG-7s into the right berm of their practice range, clearly missing any target. Another form of target practice involves having someone toss a rock into the air and then shooting. A flashy and impressive feat, but one of questionable practicality. (Source) Some of what Malhama Tactical trains isn’t necessarily bad, but the vast majority of it is less than impressive.

    5.1.1. Machine Gun Theory

    The company’s PK course is also laughably bad. Video footage shows trainees hip and shoulder firing their PK and PKM machine guns, a tactic only useful in emergency situations. The students can barely hit their targets, and when they’re shooting from the bipod it’s not very impressive either. In US doctrine, machine gun squads usually work in teams of two to establish a support by fire. Each team is composed of 2-4 members.

    1. The most senior of the team is the assistant gunner (AG).
    2. The next senior is the gunner himself
    3. Followed by the ammo bearers (AB).

    The AG helps feed the links into the gun, often adding additional links to the gunner’s belt while they are firing. Additionally, the AG will change barrels and help designate targets for the gunner while the ABs dispense the ammo they’re carrying and provide security for the support by fire.

    It’s the machinegun squad leaders’ job to “talk the guns” and give orders to shift and lift their fire. Talking the guns involves ensuring the continuity of fire. If the support by fire goes down, then the assaulting element may be killed. Malhama Tactical’s videos do not seem to be focused on machine gun theory, rather they focus on the basic operation of the gun.

    5.1.2. Room Clearing

    Malhama’s room clearing and urban combat training is about as impressive as the rest of their training material. Students will often bunch up when entering and moving through kill zones. Trainees routinely point their barrels directly at one another while manoeuvring through hallways, a cardinal sin in the US military. When targets do present themselves, the students will often jump back in fear and begin firing from the hip. Whether this is due to poor trainees or trainers is hard to say but including it in company promotional materials is less than impressive.

    Malhama member trains another man in CQB.
    Malhama Tactical training an organization on CQB. (Retrieved via Malhama_Tactical_ on Instagram)

    5.1.3. First Aid

    Arguably the company’s least impressive area of training is medical care. One training video demonstrates trainees providing medical care to a simulated casualty. There are a few questionable things that occurred during the video. Additionally, in the footage, the medic’s aid bag is set up like a yard sale. There is no rhyme or reason for the set up of his bag. Setting that aside, the medical care is not great. The US military teaches its medics TC3 or Tactical Combat Casualty Care. TC3 has three primary phases and an algorithm to guide the medic through treating a casualty. The phases are in this order:

    1. Care Under Fire
    2. Tactical Field Care
    3. Tactical Evacuation Care

    Care under fire is almost exclusively getting the casualty away from where they were injured. Sometimes this includes putting on a hasty tourniquet, but usually, if the casualty was shot there then the medic can get shot there too. So most medical interventions are applied during tactical field care. This is when the algorithm comes into play. It is known as MARCH-E.

    • Massive Hemorrhaging
    • Airway
    • Respirations
    • Circulation
    • Hypothermia
    • Everything Else

    There are multiple steps within each of the six steps that help guide a medic during their trauma assessment. It begins with what is most likely to kill a combat casualty and works towards what is least likely to kill them. A medic will try to get through this once before moving the patient again. Medics will generally just keep cycling through the algorithm, ensuring their interventions are holding and the patient is steady. Once the mission allows for it, a medivac will be called, and the medic will begin to prep the patient for transport.

    5.1.3.1. Why Does This Matter

    In the video, the medic is seen injecting something into the patient’s arm, presumably some sort of painkiller. While this isn’t totally egregious under normal circumstances, he’s injecting into an arm with a tourniquet on it. Painkillers won’t save the patient’s life and in some cases, like with morphine, it will increase the patient’s chances of dying. However, it doesn’t do any good if the blood isn’t even circulating in the limb, to begin with. The most interesting thing about all of this is that it is not secret knowledge known only to US military medics. All of the training manuals and information are available online.

    Man poses in combat gear with rifle.
    Malhama member in their latest gear. (Retrieved via Malhama_Tactical_ on Instagram)

    5.2. Social Media

    Four years ago, the group was highly active on all forms of social media. They possessed:

    • Twitter account
    • YouTube channel
    • Facebook page
    • Russian VK account
    • Instagram profile

    Their YouTube account contained videos demonstrating small unit tactics and improvised explosive-making tutorials. Unsurprisingly, YouTube terminated the account for violating community guidelines and Twitter followed suit. The only account they still have active is their Instagram account, in which they regularly posted training videos and new equipment for the last five months of 2021.

    Its account could’ve been easily mistaken for a Russian or Western PMC’s Instagram if the post weren’t in Arabic. Social media is clearly an important tool for the company. They have utilized it to promote their business and even to crowd-fund the company when business dried up after Aleppo fell to the government. (Source)

    6. Malhama’s Known Combat Operations

    Despite Malhama’s outwardly appearing visually similar to Western special operations forces, they rarely engage in direct combat. The company prefers to bill itself as a training outfit rather than an operational one. However, on rare occasions, Malhama will join in on the fighting. In 2017 the company got into a skirmish with ISIS in a city known as Hama, south of Aleppo.

    Perhaps their best-known combat operation was against a Syrian and Russian Reconciliation Center. The Russian Reconciliation Center for Syria (RRCS) is a peace treaty/humanitarian effort led by the Russians to try and end the conflict. In late 2018 Malhama Tactical led a joint operation with Hayat Tahrir al-Sham, against one of RRCS’s operations centres. The group trained for four months to attack the compound.

    The months of training culminated in a Malhama-led night raid which resulted in the deaths of 25 people. 18 Syrian military members, four of whom were high-ranking officials, and seven Russian military members. (Source) The group was able to escape without any casualties of their own.

    Although they initially thought one of theirs had died, they just left him behind when they departed. (Source) By definition, this was a successful operation, but it is unclear whether they attacked a fortified outpost or humanitarian aid distribution center.

    Malhama Tactical members. (Retrieved via Malhama_Tactical_ on Instagram)

    7. Conclusion

    On the surface, Malhama Tactical has the appearance of a high-speed extremist training group that’s willing to kick down doors if needed. However, when one digs deeper into the group the façade quickly deteriorates. The company has undoubtedly seen success and clearly is better funded than most of its peers.

    However, teaching the most basic tactics to untrained insurgents is hardly impressive. Additionally, the company’s founder tries to change his name to avoid detection but can’t help but show himself on camera for interviews. The company’s various social media profiles and branded merchandise are more in line with a company trying to turn a profit. Malhama Tactical appears to be more about money, adventure, and clout. The company’s branding of Islamic ideology seems like more of a marketing tool rather than a genuine extremist jihad.

    Jordan Smith
    Jordan Smith
    Jordan is currently working on his undergraduate degree at Georgetown University's School of Foreign Service. He is majoring in International Politics with a concentration in Security Studies and a minor in Russian language.

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