A few days ago, after a year of promotions and calls for donations in the name of the jihad, Twitter suspended the Malhama Tactical leader’s account.
The Malhama Tactical was founded in May 2016, by Abu Rofiq (an Arabic pseudonym that means father of Rofiq), a 24-year-old Uzbek who was killed in a Russian airstrike on February 2017. The group is known as the first private military contractor team working exclusively for extremist groups and the first one operating on Syrian soil. It consists of more or less ten well-trained fighters from Uzbekistan and the Muslim-majority republics of the Russian Caucasus.
The team has been contracted to fight, provide training, and other battlefield consulting by groups like the Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham, also known as al-Qaeda in Syria.
Since 2016, the Malhama Tactical has been characterized by a strong presence on social media, video sharing platforms, and encrypted chats as Telegram, Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube. Before his death, Abu Rofiq used to post videos showing the group’s training courses or, covering his face by wearing a scarf, he used to describe Malhama Tactical’s ongoing jobs and future projects.
The group also placed job ads on Facebook, looking for recruits who were willing to “constantly engage, develop, and learn” and join a “fun and friendly team” with vacation allowance and a day off per week.
During an interview that the former leader of the military team released via Telegram to Foreign Policy[i], he explained that Malhama Tactical was willing to take work wherever Sunni Muslims were oppressed as in China, Myanmar or North Caucasus to continue fighting against the Russian government.
After Abu Rofiq’s death, the online presence of the group has been reduced for a while, until the group’s new commander, Abu Salman Belarus, a year ago, made his first public appearance on social media.
The new leader had even more followers than his predecessor, and used to translate his messages in English, Turkish and Russian (which was the only language used by the previous leader) and now is even planning to learn French.
Abu Salam Belarus, in an interview released on Telegram to the European Eye on Radicalization[ii] between July and August 2018, explained that Malhama Tactical is “primarily instructing insurgents in battle tactics, giving medical aid, working with armoured vehicles, mortars, sniper activity, and weapons modifications” and that they are currently “teaching fighters of HTS (Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham, also known as al-Qaeda in Syria) and other groups”. He also said that “quite a few of our students have become instructors, already working independently in different places”.
Bitcoin donations campaign
The Malhama Tactical, being the first jihadist private military contractor, has explicitly turned the jihad into a for-profit belief. Abu Salam Belarus on Twitter, among other contents, used to call quite often for donations in Bitcoin. Despite the very frequent donation requests, the Bitcoin address provided by the group only received the equivalent of more or less $50. After this awkward attempt to raise money, Abu Salam Belarus deleted all the tweets calling for Bitcoin donations, inviting his followers to contact him in private to receive the Bitcoin address to give financial aid.
Even though the group, in economic terms, is not relying only on Bitcoin, the case of the Malhama Tactical is relevant to either consolidate some of the information gathered so far or provide new elements to analyze the jihadists’ use of cryptocurrencies.
- A clear militaristic intent instead of a politically correct approach
Jihadist donation campaigns asking for cryptocurrencies are explicitly aimed at providing supplies, training facilities, and weapons for the mujahideen. A kind of communication strategy very different from those campaigns, remotely linked to a terrorist organization, calling for donations through the conventional banking system and usually disguised behind charitable or religious intents. The shift into a more explicit message is likely to be allowed by the anonymity provided by the blockchain or digital ledger technologies[iii].
- The limited use of cryptocurrencies is not always related to a lack of technical skills[iv]
Cryptocurrencies, Bitcoin in particular, are becoming a mainstream asset in legal markets. In fact, over time, their use is requiring less and less technical skills, causing an expansion of their catchment area which is also reaching terrorist supporters. Indeed, jihadist donation campaigns calling for cryptocurrencies are increasing in numbers since 2012[v]. Nevertheless, many legal users (and also jihadist supporters and religious leaders) are being skeptical about cryptocurrencies, due to the risks related to their price volatility and, for the same reasons, they are not yet spreading as a broadly exploited instrument for terrorism financing. But these concerns are only keeping Islamic terrorists from using cryptocurrencies as a store of value, not from exploiting them to move small or big amounts of money in complete anonymity and in a short range of time. In these terms, FinTech sector is allowing the creation of a potential, faster, substitute of the hawala[vi]
- One man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter
It is a truism that propaganda and communication are able to strengthen Islamic terrorists’ narrative, turning a small group using violence and religion to raise money, into an army bravely fighting against the takfir (infidels). The truth is that, behind the narrative and storytelling depicting a courageous leader who is defeating an oppressive regime, there is a global strategy aimed at getting the world attention. Freedom, self-determination and religion, added to an online friendly Western communication strategy (e.g. job ads or business-oriented catchy advertisements) are the pillars of this new type of jihadist brand.
Hence, even though calls for anonymous donations through cryptocurrencies are still explicitly militaristic, jihadist groups are always hiding behind lies, trying to represent themselves as romantic and appealing young warriors fighting in the name of liberation. But there’s no liberation in their intent. There’s only an oppressive, colonialist, and violent will that groups as Malhama Tactical, despite being very small, are promoting, financing, and fueling with bloodshed.
[i] R. Komar, C. Borys, E. Woods (February 10, 2017) The Blackwater of Jihad. Foreign Policy https://foreignpolicy.com/2017/02/10/the-world-first-jihadi-private-military-contractor-syria-russia-malhama-tactical/
[ii] P. Van Ostaeyen, N. Hauer (September 19, 2018) Interview with Abu Salman Belarus, Military Leader of Malhama Tactical. European Eye on Radicalization. https://eeradicalization.com/interview-with-abu-salman-belarus-military-leader-of-malhama-tactical/
[iii] International Institute on Counter-Terrorism Trends in Cyberspace. IDC Herzliya – International Institute for Counter-Terrorism (ICT)
[iv] S. Webb (November 23, 2018) MARKET BLOW UP – ISIS war chest decimated by Bitcoin crash after terror chiefs invested millions in collapsing cryptocurrency, an expert claims. The Irish Sun. https://www.thesun.ie/news/3424201/isis-war-chest-decimated-by-bitcoin-crash-after-terror-chiefs-invested-millions-in-collapsing-cryptocurrency/
[v] E. Azani N. Liv (January 30, 2018) Jihadists’ Use of Virtual Currency. IDC Herzliya – International Institute for Counter-Terrorism (ICT)
[vi] ITSTIME (June 7, 2018) Bitcoin and other types of cryptocurrency: modern and undetectable ways to finance terrorism. https://www.itstime.it/w/bitcoin-and-other-types-of-cryptocurrency-modern-and-undetectable-ways-to-finance-terrorism-by-daniele-maria-barone/