LEADERSHIP DISPUTE ERUPTS IN SYRIAN-BACKED MILITIA DEFENDING SHIITE SHRINE
Nicholas A. Heras
Abu Ajeeb (a.k.a. Abu Ajeel) is the nom de guerre of the Syrian military commander and secretary general of the Shiite armed group known as the Abu al-Fadhal al-Abbas Brigade to Defend the Holy Shrine of Sayida Zeinab. The Brigade was formed in the late summer of 2012 to protect the Shrine of Sayida Zainab from attack and potential desecration by militant Salafist opposition fighters (al-Hayat, March 3). Sayida Zeinab is a large, working-class, Shiite-majority area in southern Damascus that is a major pilgrimage site for Shiite Muslims from around the world and is home to a large number of nationalities, including Syrians, Iraqis, Iranians, Pakistanis, Afghanis, Lebanese and Sunni Palestinians. Sayida Zeinab is located near several areas of southern Damascus disputed by opposition and pro-government residents.
Shaykh Qasim al-Ta’i, an important Iraqi Shiite cleric from Najaf who was formerly a disciple of Grand Ayatollah Muhammad Sadeq al-Sadr and a part of the clerical leadership that supported his son Muqtada al-Sadr, is said to have helped encourage the formation of the Abu al-Fadhal al-Abbas Brigade from Iraqi Shiite volunteers (Ur News [Iraq], April 11). Shaykh al-Ta’I, who has several offices in the Sayida Zeinab area, stated that he would prefer that the Brigade remain a defensive force for the shrine and avoid engaging in the Syrian civil war (Najaf News [Iraq], April 10). Abu Ajeeb’s leadership of the Abu al-Fadhal al-Abbas Brigade is sanctioned by Shaykh al-Ta’i (al-Sharq al-Awsat, April 17).
The Abu al-Fadhal al-Abbas Brigade is comprised of Shiite fighters from the Sayida Zeinab area and Shiite youth who are not aligned with any particular militia (Reuters, March 3). The group also includes fighters from a wide range of Shiite militant groups such as the Lebanese Hezbollah, the Iraqi Mahdi Army, the Iraqi Badr Brigades, Iraqi Asa’ib Ahl al-Haq (League of the Righteous Ones) and the Iraqi Hezbollah Battalion that have received training and support from the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC). The fact that foreign Shiite fighters have come to protect the shrine indicates the possibility that Syria will become the major battleground between Shiites and Sunnis in the greater Middle East (al-Sharq [Damascus], May 4; Reuters, October 16, 2012).
Tension is growing between some Iraqi and Syrian fighters in the Abu al-Fadhal al-Abbas Brigade over the right of Abu Ajeeb to command, which has reportedly led to skirmishes within the group (Reuters, June 20). In spite of the large number of foreign fighters in the brigade, the uncertainty of Abu Ajeeb’s origins makes him a figure of controversy. His opponents in the Syrian opposition have alleged that Abu Ajeeb was a vegetable seller from the northwestern governorate of Idlib near the Turkish border, who recently moved to the mixed ethnic and sectarian neighborhood of al-Zyabeyeh, due south of the Sayida Zeinab area.  The Idlib governorate consists of two major Shiite villages, Fu’aa and Kifarya, either of which may be the home town of Abu Ajeeb. Both of the villages are reputed to be staunchly pro-Assad and are situated in a region of Idlib where they are surrounded by pro-opposition Sunni villages. The sectarian and political tension between the Shiite villages and their Sunnis neighbors was demonstrated recently the kidnappings of approximately 235 people from both sides (al-Safir [Beirut], February 22).
Fighters from the al-Qaeda affiliated Jabhat al-Nusra Front asserted in early April that they had captured Abu Ajeeb while fighting for control of sections of Sayida Zainab (Aksalser, April 2).  This claim has been contradicted by a video released in late May of Abu Ajeeb participating in Shiite rituals during a funeral at the Shrine of Sayida Zeinab.  According to Syrian opposition reports, Abu Ajeeb and several of his fighters escaped capture from Jabhat al-Nusra by dressing as women when they fled the area (Oxygen [Zabadani], May 20).
In spite of the highly sectarian context in which he is fighting, Abu Ajeeb has attempted to downplay the sectarian motivations of the brigade in his interviews. Abu Ajeeb has asserted that the war and sectarianism was brought to Syria by foreign fighters, such as from Tunisia, Libya and Afghanistan who purposely target the Sayida Zeinab Shrine. He also stated that the Sayida Zeinab Shrine should not be thought of in sectarian terms and that it belongs to all of Islam because Zainab was the granddaughter of the Prophet Muhammad (Russia Today Arabic, March 24).
1. Free Syrian Army Forum, March 31, Available at: https://syrianarmyfree.com/vb/showthread.php?p=366221.
2. Jihadist Media Platform Forum, April 3, Available at: https://alplatformmedia.com/vb/showthread.php?t=22005.
3. “Abu al-Fadhal Brigade Commander Participates in a Funeral inside the Sanctuary of Sayyida Zainab,” al-Koofi Channel, May 31, Available at: https://syriavideo.net/video/81230/.
MNLA LEADER BILAL AG ACHERIF NEGOTIATES A CEASEFIRE WITH THE MALIAN GOVERNMENT
Nicholas A. Heras
Bilal ag Acherif was born into the powerful Tuareg Ifoghas tribe in 1977 in the Adrar de Ifoghas area of Mali’s northeastern Kidal region. He attended college in Libya in 1993, returning to Mali in 2010. Ag Acherif was made the secretary-general of the Mouvement National de Libération de l’Azawad (MNLA – National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad) in October 2011 (Africa Report [Paris], July 5, 2012).
The Malian government agreed to preliminary terms of a ceasefire on June 18 with the MNLA and the Mouvement Arabe de l’Azawad (MAA – Arab Movement of Azawad) in northern Mali. The preliminary terms of the ceasefire state that the Malian military would be allowed to enter the northeastern city of Kidal to prepare and secure the area for the planned presidential election on July 28. Negotiations over the degree of autonomy to be given to the Azawad region are expected to resume after the elections (Agence France Presse, June 19). As one of the most powerful Malian Tuareg leaders, Bilal ag Acherif, was the MNLA’s chief negotiator during the peace talks (Xinhua, June 18).
The MNLA initially took control of Kidal from the Malian government in January 2012 to liberate the Tuaregs in northern Mali from the Malian government, who the MNLA accused of: “Fifty years of bad governance, political and military corruption, financial collusion, endangering the existence of the people of Azawad and endangering sub-regional stability and international peace.” 
After gaining control of the region on April 6, 2012, the MNLA declared the independence of northern Mali. The MNLA lost control of the region in late June 2012 to al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), the Movement for Unity and Jihad in West Africa (MUJWA) and Ansar al-Din (Reuters, June 28, 2012). Ag Acherif was wounded during the fighting and went into exile in Burkina Faso where he received medical treatment (Actualités [Bamako], July 3, 2012).
Following his evacuation to Burkina Faso, Ag Acherif adopted the role of the MNLA’s ambassador to the international community. Ag Acherif called for the creation of an autonomous Azawad state during negotiations with the Malian government and declared that Azawad is not a just a Tuareg enclave, but one that can also accommodate its ethnic Arab, Songhai and Fulani residents (Le Matin [Algiers], November 29). In November 2012, Acherif traveled to Paris with an MNLA delegation where he spent several days meeting with French officials. During the meetings, Acherif reaffirmed that the MNLA was ready to assist regional security forces in confronting the militant Salafist fighters in northern Mali and to work toward political negotiations with the Malian government, the MNLA’s former ally Ansar al-Din and any Islamist groups that stopped working with al-Qaeda (Le Figaro [Paris], November 29, 2012). The MNLA regained control of Kidal under the military leadership of Muhammad ag Najim when the French army forced MUJWA and Ansar al-Din out of the city in January (Reuters, January 28).
Although Ag Acherif is the secretary-general and nominal leader of the MNLA, his power within the movement and in its area of strength in the Kidal region is not as complete as that of MNLA military commander Muhammad ag Najim, a former Colonel in the Libyan military under the government of Mu’ammar Qaddafi (Jeune Afrique [Paris], June 4). Assertions of a rivalry between Acherif and Najim are tempered by reports that the two men are friends and allies within the MNLA, based on their common experience of living in Libya (Africa Report [Bamako], July 5, 2012).
In spite of the MNLA’s conflict with militant Salafist groups within Mali, Ag Acherif has taken a pragmatic approach to the MNLA’s relations with militant Salafist groups in northern Mali, particularly the Salafist Tuareg organization Ansar al-Din (Supporters of Religion). Prior to the Salafist seizure of power in the region, Acherif and Najim had agreed to share power with Ansar al-Din’s leader Iyad ag Ghali of Azawad and to defend it from attack by the Malian government (Africa Report [Paris], July 5, 2012). Earlier in the year, Ag Acherif had asserted that the MNLA would work with Ansar al-Din in order to promote the unity of the Azawad people (al-Akhbar [Nouakchott], January 22, 2012).
1. "Declaration of Independence of Azawad," Mouvement National de Liberation de l’Azawad, April 6, 2012, Available at: https://www.webcitation.org/6BTul59wU.