August 2014 Briefs
Publication: Militant Leadership Monitor Volume: 5 Issue: 8
FSA AFFILIATE LED BY ABU THABIT WORKS WITH OTHER GROUPS TO FREE ALEPPO
Nicholas A. Heras
Free Syrian Army (FSA) affiliate Kata’ib Syuuf al-Shabaa (Swords of Aleppo Brigades), one of the strongest Aleppo-area militias, is actively combatting both the Assad regime’s campaign to encircle the city of Aleppo and the Islamic State’s ongoing offensive against other militant organizations (al-Arabiya [Dubai], August 16; Al-Monitor, July 23; al-Safir [Beirut], August 17; AP, August 13; al-Mokhtsar [Riyadh], February 21, 2013).  Abd al-Jabar Usu (a.k.a. “Abu Thabit”) is the leader of Kata’ib Syuuf al-Shabaa. Under his leadership, Kata’ib Syuuf al-Shabaa has emerged as one of the most important FSA factions in the Aleppo area and one of the few willing to work with other groups. Kata’ib Syuuf al-Shabaa is believed to have approximately 700 fighters.
Abu Thabit, a man in his 30s, is from the town of Hayan, a northwestern suburb of Aleppo city, which along with its neighboring town of Andan, serves as the headquarters for Kata’ib Syuuf al-Shabaa. He has a reputation as a hard fighter and a diplomatic commander who actively maintains communication and seeks joint operations with other Aleppo-area opposition groups.  He asserts that he was one of the first rebel fighters in the region of Aleppo city and that Hayan and Andan wholly support the FSA.  Abu Thabit’s younger brother and deputy commander, Ahmad Turki Usu (a.k.a. “Abu Marwan”), was abducted by ISIS foreign fighters from Andan in December 2013 and is being held for ransom (Buratha News Agency [Baghdad], December 19, 2013).  Abu Thabit has been publicly critical of rebel in-fighting that weakens the armed opposition against the Syrian military and of the inefficient distribution of weapons and other forms of assistance from Turkey via the FSA’s Aleppo Military Council to local affiliates including his own (AP, November 17, 2013).
Under Abu Thabit, Kata’ib Syuuf al-Shabaa participated in the Syrian armed opposition’s first campaigns inside the city of Aleppo in the summer of 2012. The group was particularly active in and around the city’s southwestern neighborhoods of Salah al-Din and Sayf al-Dawla.  He allowed international media to accompany his brigade on the frontlines in Salah al-Din in August 2012, providing an insight into the urban conflict that was occurring in Aleppo (Reuters, August 12, 2012). The brigades also participated in the armed opposition’s large, coordinated siege against the regime-held Aleppo Central Prison, located on a strategic highway in the immediate northern Aleppo suburbs, which was broken by the Syrian military in May 2013 (AP, May 23; Elaph [London], September 19, 2013). The group, however, has received the most attention for its participation in the large, successful rebel offensive on the Syrian Air Force’s Minagh base northwest of Aleppo city. 
Kata’ib Syuuf al-Shabaa has also been an active participant in the armed opposition’s campaign against the Shi’a-majority, pro-Assad towns of Nubul and Zahra, which are near Hayan and which have been staging sites for the Syrian military and its auxiliaries’ ongoing operation in Aleppo governorate (al-Hayat, June 14; Aksalser [Damascus], April 27, 2013; for more information on the conflict in and around Nubul and Zahra, see Terrorism Monitor, June 27, 2013).  In response, the Syrian military has targeted the organization with a variety of weapons, including the infamously destructive barrel bombs (AP, December 18, 2013).  In June, Kata’ib Syuuf al-Shabaa, in cooperation with the militant Salafist organization Harakat Ahrar al-Sham al-Islamiya (Islamic Movement of the Free Ones of Syria) and other armed opposition groups, announced the start of a new campaign against Nubul and Zahra called Ghurfat Amaliyat Sada al-Shabaa (“Resonance of Aleppo Operations Room”) in response to what the rebels say is the Syrian military’s use of the towns as staging points to strike at civilians in Aleppo governorate opposition areas.  Abu Thabit is reportedly serving as the overall commander of the Resonance of the Aleppo Operations Room (Sada al-Sham [Istanbul], June 17).
Currently, the separate Islamic State and Syrian military offensives in Aleppo are putting strong pressure on non-ISIS Syrian armed opposition organizations, particularly al-Jabhat al-Islamiya (Islamic Front-IF)’s powerful affiliate Liwa al-Tawhid (Divine Unity Brigade), the FSA and other groups (Daily Sabah [Istanbul], August 15; AFP, August 13; Al-Monitor, July 11). Kata’ib Syuuf al-Shabaa is one of the more important armed groups reinforcing Liwa al-Tawhid in its current battle to protect its stronghold, the town of Marea north of Aleppo, from the advance (al-Safir [Beirut], August 17; AP, August 13; al-Mokhtsar [Riyadh], February 21, 2013). Under Abu Thabit’s leadership, Kata’ib Syuuf al-Shabaa is representative of a potentially successful model of an FSA affiliate whose fighters are drawn from local communities. The group has a socio-political ideology that reflects local cultural mores and it fights together with a number of factions, including militant Islamist and Salafist armed opposition groups. The fighting in Aleppo is likely to increase Abu Thabit’s importance as a local rebel commander.
1. “Al-Shabaa” is a common local nickname for Aleppo that references the white marble used to construct many of the city’s historic buildings.
2. Author’s interviews with Syrians with strong knowledge of the conflict in the Aleppo area that live in Gaziantep, Turkey and return frequently to Aleppo. Interviews conducted on Skype on August 12 and 14, 2014.
3. “Exclusive Interview: Commander of the Swords of Aleppo Brigades about the Abduction of Katiba Ali bin Abi Talib’s Commander,” Halab Today TV YouTube page, December 23, 2013, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6fSeE-U794I.
5. “Aleppo, Saif al-Dawla: The Champions of the Free Army, Katiba Swords of Aleppo,” Ameer Aleppo YouTube page, August 19, 2012; “The Syrian Revolution Page Accompanies Katiba Swords of Aleppo in Aleppo,” Syrian Revolution Page YouTube page, August 18, 2012, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hZklPsjYfww; “Aleppo: Swords of Aleppo Brigade Roaming in Saif al-Dawla After its Liberation,” Swords of Aleppo Brigades YouTube page, August 7, 2012, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ko8UCH8CWaE; “Aleppo, July 20, 2012: Swords of Aleppo Battalion in Salah al-Din Neighborhood,” Nana Baba YouTube, July 21, 2012, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=77R-sDfmMLY.
6. See the Swords of Aleppo Brigades YouTube page for the importance that it placed on its activities fighting for control of Minagh airbase; “Aleppo Swords Brigades’ Commander Abu Thabit’s Response to al-Assad’s Speech,” Aleppo Alhadth YouTube page, January 6, 2013, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AMBBPJY6E1w; “Interview with One of the Commanders of the Aleppo Swords Brigade,” Conquering al-Assad YouTube page, January 2, 2013, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_nc64NhB6RE.
7. “Swords of Aleppo Brigade Targeting Shabiha Gatherings in Nubul and Zahra,” Aleppo Media Center YouTube page, June 11, 2013, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FUxOM-MiDR4; “Swapping Shi’a Captives by the Courage of the Heroes of the Aleppo Swords Brigades,” Aleppo Swords Brigades YouTube page, March 3, 2013, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Eeu8f_JVIu4.
8. “Shahba Press: Remnants Left by the Bombing Triggered on Hayan Town Last Night,” Shaba Press YouTube page, July 15, 2014,
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CPprqtDTQuY; “Shahba Press: Andan-Remnants of the Great Destruction Caused by the Barrels,” Shahba Press YouTube page, March 26, 2014, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TMaw2nxiRXY.
9. “Statement of the Formation of the ‘Operations Room of the Resonance of al-Shabaa and the Start of Military Operations upon Nubul and Zahra’.” Fduaus YouTube page, June 12, 2014, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kbmgbAJnljE.
AKRAM AL-KA’ABI AND HARAKAT AL-NUJABA: IRAQI SHI’A MILITIA TAKES ON THE ISLAMIC STATE
Nicholas A. Heras
As the military commander and secretary-general of Harakat al-Nujaba (Movement of the Outstanding), Shaykh Akram al-Ka’abi (a.k.a. “Shaykh of the Mujahideen”) is leading this Shi’a militia in the fight against the Islamic State in Iraq. Al-Ka’abi is a seasoned guerilla leader who actively led and participated in operations against Coalition forces in Iraq (al-Akhbar [Beirut], January 20, 2012; al-Ahed News Agency [Beirut], March 25, 2010). Harakat al-Nujaba, sometimes referred to as Harakat Hezbollah al-Nujaba (Movement of the Outstanding of the Party of God), is reported to be composed of fighters affiliated with the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) and presents itself as a Shi’a jihadist organization active in the defense of the Sayyida Zaynab Shrine in the southern Damascus’ suburbs (al-Qabas [Kuwait City], January 12). [1, 2] The recent, predominately Sunni armed opposition campaign in northern Iraq spearheaded by the Islamic State has led to the deployment of predominately Iraqi Shi’a militias to supplement the Iraqi military, some of which have been fighting against the armed opposition and militant Salafist groups in Syria (The Daily Beast, July 16; Wall Street Journal, June 17; Al-Monitor, March 24).
A native of Najaf, Iraq, al-Ka’abi was a student of the late Iraqi Ayatollah Muhammad Muhammad Sadiq al-Sadr and then served as the primary military commander for the ayatollah’s son, Muqtada al-Sadr, in the Jaysh al-Mahdi (JAM – Mahdi Army). He participated in the April and August 2004 fighting between JAM and Coalition forces in Najaf in 2004 (Majalla, February 8, 2010). He is also reported to have coordinated JAM operations against British forces in the southeastern city of Amara near the Iraqi-Iranian border at the same time (al-Hayat, April 1, 2009). As an aide to Muqtada al-Sadr, it is reported that Shaykh al-Ka’abi personally intervened to secure the release of British journalist James Brandon, who had been kidnapped by fighters associated with JAM in August 2004.  Al-Ka’abi’s role in handling the 2004 hostage-taking stood in contrast to his later public defense of the role that Asa’ib Ahl al-Haq (League of the Righteous), a group that he is currently affiliated with and that Harakat al-Nujaba has operational ties to, played in the kidnapping of five British nationals from the Iraqi Finance Ministry in June 2007 (al-Sharq al-Awsat, June 6, 2013; al-Arabiya [Dubai], June 1, 2011). He left Muqtada al-Sadr’s organization in 2004, after disagreeing with al-Sadr’s decision to stand down JAM and reduce its military role against the Coalition occupation. After leaving JAM, al-Ka’abi became one of the most important leaders within Asa’ib Ahl al-Haq (League of the Righteous), particularly in planning its military operations, a position that he holds to the present time (al-Akhbar [Beirut], January 20, 2012; al-Sharq al-Awsat, January 29, 2011; al-Ahed News Agency [Beirut], March 25, 2010; Majalla, February 8, 2010).
Al-Ka’abi’s role as a fighting cleric is a common theme in Harakat al-Nujaba propaganda, which showcases his presence in Syria with the group and his participation in its training.  The group has not stated how much time he has spent in Syria, or when he first traveled there. Harakat al-Nujaba also presents him wearing military fatigues and clerical garb serving a variety of roles in Syria, including guard duty at one of its forward operating bases, leading fighters in prayer, conducting meetings with fighters and visiting wounded fighters in the hospital. 
As a result of the prominent role of Shi’a militias such as Asa’ib Ahl al Haq in Iraq’s security forces, a process which has been heightened since the Iraqi armed opposition and Islamic State campaign began in June, Shaykh al-Ka’abi is likely to remain an important Shi’a commander. While maintaining his close ties to Asa’ib Ahl al-Haq, Shaykh al-Ka’abi is positioning Harakat al-Nujaba, with its continuing organizational experience waging jihad in protection of the Sayyida Zaynab Shrine, as a potent force in Iraqi Shi’a socio-politics. His reputation within the wider Iraqi Shi’a militia movement is built on the narrative that he is an effective and committed military commander and jihadist. However, the extent of his ability to influence political decision-making within the Iraqi Shi’a community independent of his military role is still questionable.
1. See the Harakat al-Nujaba Facebook page, “Harakat Nujaba’ Military Information,” for
updates on its operations in Iraq and Syria, https://ar-ar.facebook.com/pages/%D8%A7%D9%84%D8%A7%D8%B9%D9%84%D8%A7%D9%85-%D8%A7%D9%84%D8%AD%D8%B1%D8%A8%D9%8A-%D9%84%D8%AD%D8%B1%D9%83%D8%A9-%D8%A7%D9%84%D9%86%D8%AC%D8%A8%D8%A7%D8%A1/541941835914005; “His Eminence Sheikh of the Mujahideen Akram al-Ka’abi Inspects the Mujahideen Movement of the Outstanding,” Harakat al-Nujaba website, July 28, 2014, https://www.alnujaba.org/news.php?News=43; “Ali al-Shatti” Twitter page, June 24, 2014, https://twitter.com/Ali_Aldor/status/481190981996261376.
2. “Heroes of Harakat al-Nujaba from Maysan in Damascus,” Fida al-Madhab YouTube page, December 14, 2013, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AAnJqSYSjiU.
3. “British Journalist Freed,” Reporters Without Borders, August 13, 2004, https://en.rsf.org/iraq-british-journalist-freed-13-08-2004,11132.html.
4. “The Mujahid Shaykh Akram al-Ka’abi in Syria,” Harakat al-Nujaba YouTube page, September 24, 2013, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AkVidZfwCek.
5. “Shaykh Akram al-Ka’abi, Secretary-General of Hezbollah al-Nujaba,” Fida al-Madhab YouTube page, December 14, 2013, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rNZSPVxDznI.