HAMMOUD SAEED AL-MIKHLAFI LEADS THE FIGHT AGAINST THE HOUTHIS IN TAIZ
Nicholas A. Heras
Yemen’s third-largest city of Taiz, which has a population of more than one million people and is located in the southwestern region of the country, 180 kilometers northwest of Aden, is an active center of fighting between the Ansar Allah (Partisans of God—the Houthis) movement and local, anti-Houthi militias backed by a regional coalition led by Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE). Saudi Arabia and its allies accuse the Houthis of being a proxy for the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) and its allies, most prominently security forces loyal to the former Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh. The Saudi and UAE-led coalition is supporting the Yemeni anti-Houthi, anti-Saleh militia network under the Popular Resistance Committee (PRC) structure (YouTube, July 3; YouTube, June 17; YouTube, June 8; YouTube, June 5; YouTube, May 31; Khabar News Agency [Taiz], April 21; YouTube, April 21; al-Arabiya, March 26). Shaykh Hammoud Saeed al-Mikhlafi, the commander of the State Directive and Protection of the Peace Council, the organization that administers the PRCs in Taiz, has emerged as one of the most powerful anti-Houthi, anti-Saleh opposition leaders in Yemen (Yemen News Gate [Taiz], August 17; YouTube, August 3; YouTube, August 2; YouTube, May 5; al-Arabiya, April 30; YouTube, April 21; YouTube, April 16; Yemen Akhbar [Taiz], April 9). Al-Mikhlafi, as a prominent leader within the PRC network, frequently acknowledges Saudi support for anti-Houthi fighters in addition to expressing gratitude to Saudi Arabia for its military and humanitarian assistance and for leading the multi-national coalition that is conducting and air and ground campaign against the Houthis and their allies (YouTube, August 2; YouTube, April 21).
Al-Mikhlafi, 49, is a native of the village of al-Rahba in the Shara’ab al-Salam district of Taiz Governorate and a graduate of the Shari’a College in the University of Yemen in the capital Sana’a. He was a member of the Yemeni security forces under Saleh and was frequently imprisoned for Islamist activism and for participation in local, tribal armed conflict (New York Times, July 21, 2012; al-Masdar [Taiz], June 29, 2011). Although not born into a shaykhly lineage within his al-Mikhlaf tribe, which is a section of the Madhraj confederation and a powerful socio-political force in and around Taiz, Shaykh al-Mikhlafi has emerged as a local folk hero of considerable stature, earning him the honorary title of “Shaykh al-Mashaykh” (Shaykh of the Shaykhs), a status that makes him a particularly powerful actor in Taiz (Facebook; al-Masdar [Taiz], June 29, 2011).
Furthermore, al-Mikhlafi is a prominent local member of al-Islah, a national umbrella political party that is believed to be strongly influenced by the Muslim Brotherhood. Al-Islah was a longtime, if uneasy, ally of the Saleh government, and it also incorporates a significant number of tribally-mobilized political actors and Salafist activists. Al-Mikhlafi is considered to be a pragmatic Islamist and to be supportive of women’s social and economic rights, including the ability to receive an education and to be active participants in the workforce, in a manner similar to that practiced by the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood (Yemen News Gate [Taiz], August 17; al-Akhbar [Beirut], November 1, 2014; Al-Monitor, September 25, 2013; Al-Monitor, September 6, 2012; New York Times, July 21, 2012; al-Masdar [Taiz], June 29, 2011).
Al-Mikhlafi rose to prominence in Yemeni politics during the period of widespread, Arab Spring-inspired protests against the government starting in February 2011, during which time Taiz became a center of anti-Saleh activity that inspired nationwide opposition to the Saleh government (al-Jazeera, May 18, 2014; Al-Monitor, September 6, 2012; New York Times, July 21, 2012; al-Jazeera, December 23, 2011). He was a prominent organizer of armed opposition fighters who were mobilized to protect the anti-Saleh protestors in Taiz, a position of authority that gave al-Mikhlafi the stature to be the leader of an inter-tribal council that coordinated opposition against the Saleh government (al-Jazeera, May 18, 2014; YouTube, July 11, 2011; AFP, July 2, 2011; BBC, June 7, 2011; al-Masdar [Taiz], June 29, 2011). His coordinating role as leader of the local, anti-Saleh protests, and the armed opposition groups that bolstered them, and al-Mikhlafi’s religious studies and significant tribal support base provides him with strong political power, including serving as an unofficial and de facto judge and police commissioner, at the expense of Hadi government-appointed officials in Taiz (al-Jazeera, May 18, 2014; Al-Monitor, September 6, 2012; New York Times, July 21, 2012).
Although a powerful and popular local leader in the Taiz area, Shaykh al-Mikhlaf has also aroused controversy since 2011, particularly in connection with the continuing role of the militias loyal to him in the city and their involvement in armed disputes with rival tribes in neighboring Marib province (al-Jazeera, May 18, 2014). The October 2013 assassination of Shaykh al-Mikhlafi’s brother, Dr. Faisal al-Mikhlafi, an academic at the University of Taiz and also a prominent local member of al-Islah, was believed to be the result of tensions between al-Mikhlaf tribesmen loyal to Hammoud Saeed al-Mikhlafi and members of the Murad tribe in Marib (al-Jazeera, May 18, 2014; Barakish Net [Taiz and Marib], October 27, 2013; al-Masdar [Taiz], October 14, 2013). In spite of these tensions, Murad tribesmen in Marib issued a statement of strong support for Shaykh al-Mikhlafi in May, due to his command of the PRCs against the Houthis and their allies in the fighting in and around Taiz, indicative of the powerful symbolism with which his leadership of anti-Houthi forces has been imbued (al-Yaman al-Aan [Marib], May 31).
Among his constituency in Taiz, especially members of al-Mikhlaf tribe, Shaykh al-Mikhlafi is a figure of inspiration who has become the focus for anti-Houthi, anti-Saleh activism (YouTube, August 7; YouTube, July 30; YouTube, June16; YouTube, June 12; YouTube, June 3). Shaykh al-Mikhlafi’s public profile in the Arab world has also increased over the course of the civil war, particularly due to his willingness to participate in the reporting of al-Jazeera Mubasher, a satellite channel that covers breaking and live news stories, including significant war reporting, in the Arab world as part of the international al-Jazeera network. Via al-Jazeera Mubasher’s coverage from the front lines in Taiz, al-Mikhlafi and the local PRC brigades that he leads have been showcased to an international audience, branding Shaykh al-Mikhlafi as “al-Shaykh al-Muqawama” (Shaykh of the Resistance), and increasing his prominence as a leading commander of the anti-Houthi forces in Yemen (YouTube, July 3; YouTube, June 17; YouTube, June 8; YouTube, June 5; YouTube, May 31).
Al-Mikhlafi is the model of a local, anti-Houthi, anti-Saleh commander and politician that the Saudi- and UAE-led coalition is seeking to empower in Yemen’s civil war. Assuming he survives the conflict, he is likely to continue to be an important local actor in Taiz. However, his active leadership against the Houthis and their allies has turned him into a living symbol of resistance against Iranian encroachment in the Middle East, especially from the perspective of Arab audiences sympathetic to the Saudi- and UAE-led coalition’s assertion that the Houthis represent Iran’s expanding influence in the region.
ABU IBRAHIM AL-ALMANI: FIRST POLISH-BORN SUICIDE BOMBER DIES FIGHTING FOR ISLAMIC STATE
On August 12, media in Poland—a country that self-identifies as 90–95 percent Roman Catholic—announced the first ever case of a Polish suicide bomber fighting for the Islamic State. TVN24 broke the story by reporting that the Polish Internal Security Agency’s Counterterrorism Center had conclusively determined one of the four suicide bombers who died in a deadly June 13 attack in Baiji, Iraq, and who went by the nom de guerre Abu Ibrahim al-Almani (i.e. “the German”), was in fact 28-year-old Jacek S., who was born and grew up in northwest Poland but had lived in Germany for the past decade (TVN24 [Warsaw], August 12).  Though Jacek S. lived abroad when he was radicalized, news of Poland’s first suicide bomber has reignited a debate about Polish society’s resiliency to extremist foreign propaganda as well as questions pertaining to the government’s ability to deal with the situation.
The man who would eventually willingly kill himself for the cause of the “caliphate” was born in the town of Miastko, in Poland’s Western Pomeranian voivodeship (province), but he and his family lived in the nearby village of Kamnica, where they struggled financially. According to their former neighbors, Jacek’s father, who was of German descent, worked in the logging industry and moved the family to Germany in search of steady employment. Jacek’s mother was a seamstress by trade, but she did not work outside the home. Residents of Kamnica vaguely recall what Jacek S. was like as a youth, but remember him as essentially a “normal” boy who never seemed particularly religious (TVN24 [Warsaw] August 12; Polskatimes.pl, August 12; Dziennik Bałtycki [Gdańsk], August 12).
Jacek and his family, in 2005, permanently emigrated to Göttingen, Germany, where he acquired German citizenship. Soon, Jacek fell into self-destructive behavior. He did not complete further schooling and was unable or unwilling to hold a steady job. When employed, he worked in fast food establishments, but he eventually settled for accepting state welfare. He had some minor legal trouble over drug possession and driving without a license—though never over matters related to ideological extremism. Fed up with his son’s lifestyle choices, Jacek’s father apparently threw him out of the household (TVN24 [Warsaw], August 12; Polskatimes.pl, August 12; Dziennik Bałtycki [Gdańsk], August 12; TVN24 [Warsaw], August 13).
In 2014, Jacek S. converted to the Muslim faith, changed his name on social media sites to Ismail Slo and began to post pro-jihadist messages online. At this point, he started being exposed to recruitment messages from Islamic State–affiliated websites. Friends and family members recall that when he came to visit his hometown of Kamnica that summer, he had grown a beard and was particularly animated about his recent conversion to Islam; it was all he would talk about and could become rather aggressive in discussing its merits. By April 2015, Jacek S. disappeared from home and made his way, via Turkey, to Syria where he joined up with Islamic State and took on the jihadist name Abu Ibrahim (TVN24 [Warsaw] August 12; Polskatimes.pl, August 12; Dziennik Bałtycki [Gdańsk], August 12).
Upon enlisting in the militant group, Jacek S. trained as a suicide bomber and killed himself on June 13, in a battle over the strategic north-central Iraqi city of Baiji. He, along with three other international jihadist fighters from the United Kingdom, Kuwait and Palestine, drove vehicle-borne improvised explosive devices (VBIEDs) onto the grounds of the country’s largest oil refinery and blew themselves up. The suicide attack killed 11 individuals and injured 27. Due to the presence of the refinery in Baiji, and the city’s strategic position 250 kilometers north of Baghdad, Islamic State fighters have engaged, for months, in continual battles with the Iraqi military and Shiite militias for its control. Islamic State’s use of foreign fighters as suicide bombers in such battles fits into the organization’s overall strategy. As Tomasz Otłowski, a terrorism expert at the Warsaw-based Amicus Europae Foundation, points out: the influx of foreign fighters, who lack training and tend to be lousy fighters, leaves the Islamic State with a dilemma of how best to utilize them. Hence their use as suicide bombers. In addition, the organization can then publicize their existence and radical zeal in propaganda messaging (Göttinger Tageblatt, June 16; Wirtualna Polska [Warsaw], August 12).
Unlike many countries in Western Europe, Poland lacks a significant Muslim minority and receives hardly any migrants from the Middle East or North Africa; as a result Poland has, to date, not been at the forefront of Islamic State’s recruitment efforts. Nevertheless, the radicalization of Jacek S. was not an isolated incident. Although he represents the first ethnic Pole to have killed himself in a suicide attack for an Islamist cause, Polish authorities estimate there may be an additional 15 or so co-nationals currently fighting for Islamic State in the Middle East. Moreover, earlier this year, the media was inundated with stories connected to Karolina R., a 26-year-old Polish radicalized convert to Islam, from Bonn, Germany, who was arrested for collecting money for jihadist causes in March 2014, while her Muslim husband, and convert brother were fighting for Islamic State in Syria (Gazeta Wyborcza [Warsaw], February 5). These individuals, such as Jacek S. and Karolina R., seem to be undergoing radicalization pretty much exclusively abroad—mainly in Germany and the UK. This is probably due to the limited number of mosques inside Poland that could come under extremist ideological influence. Poland’s security agencies say they are effectively monitoring all such cases and cooperating with their security agency counterparts abroad, and are confident that in all cases, these Poles were living and radicalized outside the country and have no continuing ties to Polish society (TVN24 [Warsaw], August 12; Polskie Radio [Warsaw], August 12). However, the case of Jacek S. has shaken some into realizing that the war in far-off Syria may increasingly have reverberations at home (Głos Pomorza [Słupsk], August 13).
1. Jacek S.’s given last name is not publicly available, because media in Poland are legally barred from releasing the full names of individuals accused of a crime or of criminals who have died in order to protect the privacy of their living family members.
PROMINENT FSA COMMANDER LIEUTENANT COLONEL JAMIL RA’DUN (AND RECIPIENT OF U.S. MILITARY EQUIPMENT) ASSASSINATED IN TURKEY
Nicholas A. Heras
The strategic al-Ghab plain, a sectarian, diverse and fertile 63 kilometer long by 12 kilometer wide agricultural region that separates the predominately Alawite, al-Assad government loyal Lattakia Governorate from major regions of armed opposition control in northwestern Syria, including in Idlib and Hama governorates, is a major site of contestation between Syrian military forces and their auxiliaries and the armed opposition (Dam Press [Idlib and Hama], August 15; al-Arabiya, August 8). Ghurfat Amaliyat Jaysh al-Nasr (Army of Victory Operations Room), composed of predominately moderate Islamist Syrian rebel factions including affiliates of the Free Syrian Army, is waging a campaign against Syrian security forces on the al-Ghab plain, which encompasses the battlespace in southern Idlib and northwestern Hama governorates (al-Jazeera, August 6). On August 26, the overall commander of Jaysh al-Nasr, Lieutenant Colonel Jamil Ra’dun, the leader of Tajammu Suqur al-Ghab (Gathering of the Hawks of al-Ghab), one of the most prominent FSA-affiliated factions in northwestern Syria, was assassinated by a bomb planted in his car in the southeastern Turkish city of Antakya, near the Turkish-Syrian border (Al-Khabar Press [Antakya], August 28; Enab Baladi [Hama], August 26; All4Syria [Antakya], August 26; YouTube, August 3; Orient News [Dubai], May 7).
Indicative of his group’s significance to the moderate rebel movement in northwestern Syria, and the cohesiveness of its chain of command, under Ra’dun’s leadership, Suqur al-Ghab has been successfully vetted by the United States and its regional allies, including Turkey and Saudi Arabia, and has received shipments of TOW anti-tank missiles from these foreign actors (Enab Baladi [Antakya], August 26; Zaman al-Wasal [Hama], July 10; al-Quds al-Arabi, April 25). Tajammu Suqur al-Ghab fighters have deployed TOWs several times against Syrian military forces, particularly since the start of 2015, including in and around the strategically important towns of Jisr al-Shughur and Ariha in southwestern Idlib (YouTube, August 7; YouTube, August 2; YouTube, July 31; Enab Baladi [Hama], July 10; YouTube, June 5; al-Quds al-Arabi, April 25; McClatchy, April 25).
Ra’dun, 44, a Syrian military officer who defected from the air defense forces, was a native of the northern Hama Governorate village of Qal’at al-Madiq, which is located near the site of the ruins of the ancient city of Apamea (Today News [Antakya], August 26; Step Agency News [Hama], December 12, 2014). He stated that he defected from the Syrian military on January 8, 2012, and shortly after his defection, established Tajammu Suqur al-Ghab with several fellow defected Syrian military officers near Qal’at al-Madiq in February 2012. He said the rebel group was mobilized to protect peaceful protests against the al-Assad government from regime security forces (Orient News [Dubai], May 7; YouTube, February 11, 2012). Under his leadership, the group has developed into one of the most important FSA affiliates in northwestern Syria, and Ra’dun was presented as a commander who leads his troops from the front lines (YouTube, February 11; YouTube, February 10; YouTube, April 26, 2014; YouTube, February 21, 2014). Significantly, he asserted that Tajammu Suqur al-Ghab is present across the al-Ghab plain, has 12 affiliated brigades within its organization and was one of the first Syrian armed opposition groups to build a structure that was placed completely under the command of professional military officers who defected from the government. Presently, the Tajammu Suqur al-Ghab organization is believed to have the capability to mobilize 700-800 fighters (Orient News [Dubai], May 7).  The cohesion of the command structure of Tajammu Suqur al-Ghab that was built by Ra’dun and his colleagues will be tested after his death.
Since its formation, Tajammu Suqur al-Ghab has been an important participant in several Syrian armed opposition campaigns directed against the al-Assad government in the al-Ghab region and further away in the area of Aleppo, and in a manner similar to other FSA affiliates. These campaigns have involved coordination with Jabhat al-Nusra, Ahrar al-Sham al-Islamiya and the Fateh Halab (Conquest of Aleppo) coalition, led by Major Yassir Abd al-Rahim, an important commander in the Muslim Brotherhood-influenced organization Faylaq al-Sham (Levant Legion), and other allied Syrian Islamist rebel groups (Enab Baladi [Hama], July 10; YouTube, July 7; YouTube, July 2; al-Arabi al-Jadeed, May 13; Enab Baladi [Hama], April 25; al-Quds al-Arabi, April 25; McClatchy, April 25; Militant Leadership Monitor, March 2015). Tajammu Suqur al-Ghab also cooperates with rebel forces gathered under the militant Islamist Jaysh al-Fateh (Conquering Army) coalition, including al-Qaeda in Syria organization Jabhat al-Nusra and major militant Salafist organization Ahrar al-Sham al-Islamiya (Islamic Movement of the Free Ones of the Levant), which are also threatening al-Assad government control over al-Ghab (al-Arabi al-Jadeed, August 14; al-Jazeera, August 10; YouTube, August 9).
Reflecting Tajammu Suqur al-Ghab’s position among northwestern Syria’s moderate rebels, Ra’dun was the overall commander of Jaysh al-Nasr, served in the Hama governorate branch of the Syrian Revolutionary Command Council and had been a spokesman for the Syrian armed opposition movement with Arabic media, particularly in providing strategic briefings on the developing rebel campaign in al-Ghab (YouTube, August 3; al-Quds al-Arabi, April 25; YouTube, April 23; YouTube, April 23; YouTube, August 24, 2014; al-Wasat News [Hama], March 30, 2014). He was also an outspoken advocate for the Syrian revolutionary movement to be led by armed opposition commanders inside of Syria—not by exiles living outside of the country—and called for a united Syrian armed opposition movement against both the al-Assad government and the Islamic State (Hama News Center, June 25; al-Etihad Press [Hama], June 1).
Under his leadership, Tajammu Suqur al-Ghab cultivated this image of being a guarantor of the security of the local community and a protector of the Syrian revolutionary movement, although its administration of Qal’at al-Madiq has occasionally been met with criticism by local residents (YouTube, June 28, 2013; YouTube, June 27, 2013; YouTube, June 21, 2013; McClatchy, November 30, 2012). Addressing concerns over the intentions of the Syrian rebel offensive in al-Ghab towards members of al-Assad government loyalist sectarian minority communities (such as Alawites), Ra’dun asserted that Tajammu Suqur al-Ghab is not fighting a sectarian war, is Syrian nationalist and that Alawite civilians will not be targeted for their communal identity (al-Quds al-Arabi, April 25; YouTube, June 27, 2013). In April 2015, a car bomb planted in Ra’dun’s car was detected by Turkish police in the city of Reyhanli, Turkey, the location of an active Syrian armed opposition organization, and was removed before it could be activated (YouTube, April 4; YouTube, April 3). Tajammu Suqur al-Ghab accused security forces loyal to the al-Assad government of planting explosives in order to eliminate prominent leaders of the moderate armed opposition organized under the FSA (al-Etihad Press [Hama], June 1; YouTube, April 4).
Ra’dun was a significant Syrian moderate rebel commander, and under his leadership Tajammu Suqur al-Ghab enjoyed the sustained patronage of foreign benefactors. His assassination, if it was conducted by the al-Assad government, is also significant because the Assad regime is particularly concerned with the rise of strong, moderate rebel leaders like Lieutenant Colonel Ra’dun, because such leaders threaten the regime’s narrative that the entire armed opposition movement is led by ideological extremists. Further, certain foreign actors in the Syrian civil war, such as the United States, are seeking out rebel commanders that can establish a consistent, cohesive and coordinated armed opposition campaign, while maintaining their armed opposition organizations’ positions against fierce competition and possible violent confrontations with more militant Islamist and Salafist groups such as Jabhat al-Nusra. The assassination of Ra’dun, who fit this profile, is a significant setback for this effort. In the aftermath of the assassination of Lieutenant Colonel Ra’dun, the long-term success of Tajammu Suqur al-Ghab will depend on its leadership’s ability to negotiate the treacherous politics of Syria’s rebel factions, while demonstrating to allied armed opposition groups that Tajammu Suqur al-Ghab remains an authentically Syrian revolutionary movement and will not betray them in order to secure American support, and convincing potential foreign backers such as the United States and its allies that the group has staying power and will have impact on the course of the civil war, up to and including a potential post-Assad transitional phase.
1. Author’s personal interview with Syrian activist from al-Ghab in Hama governorate in Washington, DC, on August 18, 2015.