Syria’s insurgent militias are becoming ever more enmeshed with organized crime, blurring the line between insurgents and racketeers and undermining the rebels’ efforts to maintain sagging popular support for the uprising against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.
And it isn’t only militias affiliated with the Western-backed Free Syrian Army or Islamist militias profiting from the chaos and lawlessness to plunder and smuggle, extort and kidnap—the villainy is also being perpetrated by al Qaeda-affiliated jihadists, who present themselves as paragons of strict Islamic virtue and argue the spate of executions they have presided over are done to enforce morality.
Both of the al Qaeda affiliate operating in Syria—Jabhat al-Nusra and the Islamic State of Iraq and al Sham, or ISIS—have folded within their ranks groups widely seen as crime syndicates and insurgent leaders who at heart are racketeers, say European intelligence sources. They point to four battalions that have shifted allegiance in recent months from the FSA-aligned Ahfad al Rasoul Brigade to al-Nusra and this week realigned once again, this time siding with ISIS.
One of the battalions, Liwa Allah Akbar, is led by Saddam al-Jamal, who was, until his defection, the FSA’s top commander on the eastern front, and who earlier this week announced that he was joining ISIS on the grounds that the FSA had become a puppet of Western and Arab intelligence services.
In a 30-minute video uploaded to YouTube, al-Jamal called on all rebels to dissociate themselves from the Western and Gulf-backed Syrian National Coalition and its military arm, the FSA, because of their opposition to the jihadists and because they want “to prevent the Sharia of Allah from being established in the land.” He complained in the interview that, while working with the FSA, he had to “meet with the apostates of Qatar and Saudi Arabia and with the infidels of Western nations such as America and France in order to receive arms and ammo or cash.”
But according to a Kurdish militia commander who has fought six battles against al-Jamal this year and managed to seize his headquarters at the border town of Ras al-Ayn, the Liwa Allah Akbar leader has had a checkered criminal history as an arms and drugs trafficker and been astute in the past at nurturing and playing off ties with both Syrian and Turkish intelligence when it served his purposes.
“He isn’t himself at heart an Islamist,” says Giwan Ibrahim, a top commander with the Kurdish People’s Protection Units, or YPG. “He has the mentality of a Mafioso and not someone who has the mind of an ideological fighter.”
The picture Ibrahim paints of al-Jamal is of a pirate and a personality not that dissimilar from the North African jihadist leader-cum-trafficker Mokhtar Belmokhtar, the mastermind behind the bloody hostage standoff earlier this year at a natural gas complex in Algeria. Belmokhtar earned the nickname “Marlboro Man” for his extensive tobacco smuggling. And he too is suspected of having developed connections with intelligence services to help advance his criminal enterprises, including the kidnapping of foreigners for ransom.
Of al-Jamal, Ibrahim says, his men follow him because they are rewarded with loot, women and cash. Because of funding and weapons-supply challenges, al-Nusra and ISIS are increasingly open to dealing with cross-border crime groups and the likes of al-Jamal. “The jihadists are not as strong as you think and they have a lot of problems, especially with their funding and they are trying to get any means of supply. There are some severe divisions at the top and there are a lot disagreements caused by these new groups in their midst,” he says.
The jihadists aren’t the only ones who are blurring the line between insurgency and crime in an effort to generate revenue for arms and paying fighters. The increasing lawlessness and profiteering in rebel-held territory in northern and eastern Syria is undermining the battle for hearts and minds, with the racketeering adding to the disaffection of opposition activists and ordinary Syrians with a rebellion that has wrought widespread destruction and suffering and is just a few months shy of its third anniversary.
Anger with the corruption and cronyism of the Assad regime was one of the factors fueling the popular opposition to the government in the first place.
“The nexus between jihadists and organized crime is not a new one,” says Jonathan Schanzer, a Mideast expert with the Washington DC-based think tank, the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies. “we’ve seen this among other al Qaeda groups like Al Qaeda in the Maghreb. On the Shia Muslim side of the street, Hezbollah is known to be entrenched in the criminal underworld. Welcome to the world of pious crime in the name of religion.”
Criminality has worsened dramatically in the last year in rebel-held territory, say refugees and those still living in northern and eastern Syria, who paint a bleak picture of mounting criminality—from extortion to kidnapping and the seizing of property—as civilians scramble to overcome shortages of food, water and fuel and prepare themselves for the hardships of a looming winter.
Hussein, a 45-year-old father of four from Tal Rifat, a town north of Aleppo, complains of rampant plundering by rebel militias. “They are out for themselves,” he says. Rebels controlling checkpoints and border crossings demand higher and higher fees for transporting goods and often demand a large share of what is being carried, he says. Hussein runs a small transport business.
Rebels forging alliances of convenience with organized crime is often a feature of uprisings and civil wars and was rampant in the Balkans, where nationalists formed close ties with organized crime groups—with notable intertwining between the Kosovo Liberation Army and the Albanian mafia, a relationship that involved heroin trafficking and syndicated prostitution. A similar dynamic developed in Iraq and Afghanistan. The danger for rebels when they resort to crime and criminals to generate needed funding is that racketeering can take over and a profit motive starts to kick in.
Criminals are often more skilled logistically at smuggling weapons and ammunition, securing communication equipment and shifting money through banks. They also have the networks able to traffic in plundered goods and equipment.
In August, UNESCO warned of extensive plundering of Syria’s rich cultural heritage and the looting of artifacts from archaeological sites for export. UNESCO’s assistant director-general for culture, Francesco Bandarin, told reporters that organized, armed gangs involving hundreds of hired men were exploiting the lack of security at archaeological sites.
In order to demonstrate the scale of the looting, UNESCO displayed before-and-after satellite images of Apamea, renowned for its Hellenistic ruins and founded by a general serving with Alexander the Great. The images from prior to the war show the site surrounded by flat fields while the later images reveal hundreds of bulldozed holes.
UN officials say the looters often work hand-in-hand with rebel militias. Syria has more than 10,000 archaeological sites left by Greeks, Romans and Ottomans and others, and Interpol, the European police agency, says dozens of ancient mosaics and artifacts from Syria have turned up on the international art market.
But looting isn’t restricted to ancient sites. The Syrian foreign ministry earlier this year complained that rebels had plundered a thousand factories in and around Aleppo, Syria’s largest city and its onetime commercial hub, and transported equipment, machinery and raw materials into Turkey for sale.
Not that criminality is all on one side. The networks of thugs that the Assad regime uses to enforce and intimidate, known as the Shabiha, are exploiting the chaos for business opportunities too, say opposition activists, and are also resorting to plundering, extortion and profiteering.