In early August 2017, Malhama Tactical, an unusual militant group operating in Syria and sometimes labelled the “Blackwater of jihad,” issued a statement in which it hinted at a planned expansion into China and alluded to the experiences of China’s Uighur population in the western Chinese province of Xinjiang.
The message is a departure from the group’s previous statements, which have been aimed at the Syrian government and its allies — Russia and Iran. It is likely only rhetoric, as the Malhama Tactical’s operations have so far been confined to the Syrian conflict, where its battle-hardened Chechen fighters have turned the training of young jihadists into a profitable business.
However, the group claims to have added Chinese fighters to its ranks. While for now its proposed expansion into Xinjiang appears fanciful, it is possible Malhama Tactical ultimately has bolder ambitions.
Jihadist Training Force
The Malhama Tactical group is run for profit and advertises itself on social media networks as the first jihadist private military training company. In January 2017, it even posted a job opening on Facebook for instructors with military experience interested in joining a “fun and friendly team” and who were willing to conduct “professional training sessions on military theory and practice” for inexperienced fighters.
The group is comprised of a dozen jihadist veterans from Russia’s Muslim republics of Chechnya, Dagestan and Tatarstan, as well as other former Soviet-countries such as Belarus and Uzbekistan, and some native Arabic-speaking fighters.
Online video clips posted by the group show professionally kitted-out mercenaries armed with AK-47s, Stayer AUG assault rifles and the ubiquitous rocket-propelled grenade launchers (RPGs). In one film, the group addresses prospective jihadists in Russian, explaining how to become a professional fighter for Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (formerly known as Jabhat Fateh al-Sham and Jabhat al-Nusra) and its allies fighting in Syria. This is complemented by well-produced video footage showing assaults against Syrian government loyalists, recorded in high-definition by commercial aerial drones and accompanied by a soundtrack of Arabic music.
In videos posted on YouTube, Facebook and VKontakte (a Russian equivalent to Facebook), Malhama Tactical claims to offer training in military tactics and weapons maintenance, as well as offering advice and analysis. It also provides online guides for insurgents on how to maintain and build weapons (Gazeta.ru, March 12).
Most of Malhama Tactical’s online training materials are in Russian, with only a few items in Arabic. The modus operandi of its publications is that of the Chechen guerrilla — in one online manual, prospective fighters are taught how to construct a “khattabka grenade,” a Chechen insurgent modification of the commonly used Russian grenade launcher cartridges.
Origins and Leadership
The group was founded in March 2016 by a 23-year-old ethnic Uzbek named Abu Rofiq. According to Verdens Gang, a Norwegian tabloid newspaper, he was born in Uzbekistan and moved to Russia as a young man, where he grew up in Moscow (Verdens Gang, January 18). He seems to have had military training — a Russian newspaper claimed he enlisted in the Russian army as a common soldier, or possibly a cook — though he appears to have later spent time in Russia’s elite Vozdushno-Desantnye Voyska (VDV) or air-landing force (Gazeta.ru, March 12).
In August 2013, he travelled to Syria, where he joined Jamaat Saifullah ash-Shishani (a.k.a. Katiba Sayfullah), a Chechen militant unit that operated under the auspices of Jabhat al-Nusra. In 2014, he was appointed to run a training camp belonging to al-Qaeda in Aleppo and worked as an instructor for new recruits.
He led the Malhama Tactical until February 2017, when a Russian airstrike brought an end to his career. Abu Rofiq, his wife and infant son were all reportedly killed in Idlib on February 7 (Gazeta.ru, March 12).
The group has continued, however, under the leadership of Abu Salman Belarussi. His appointment was announced on the group’s Twitter page on May 5. According to an online statement released by the group, Abu Salman Belarussi, like Abu Rofiq, is of military pedigree, having been a senior sergeant of the 103rd Guards Airborne Brigade of the Special Operations Forces of Belarus based in the Vitebsk Region.
Non-Aligned and For-Profit
The fact the group advertises itself as a professional training unit and not as an active fighting force has unleashed the ire of other militants. Islamic State (IS) supporters on various social media platforms frequently criticize Malhama Tactical’s yearning for profits as a perversion of the true call for jihad. Complaints that Malhama Tactical deliberately avoids direct participation in the conflict are visible in comments and posts made by various IS supporters and fighters on Twitter, Facebook and other blogging websites.
Instead, Malhama Tactical has worked with a range of jihadist groups, despite avoiding pledging allegiance to any particular one. It has worked with Hayat Tahrir al-Sham, Ahrar al-Sham, the Chechen-led militant group Ajnad al-Kavkaz, which is fighting in Syria’s Latakia province, the Turkistan Islamic Party (TIP) in Syria and Ansorul Jihad, a Central Asian militant unit.
In February 2017, a video posted by Ansorul Jihad on YouTube featured scenes of the group’s members conducting “joint tactical training” with the Malhama Tactical in northern Syria. Ansorul Jihad, founded by Abu Umayr Turkistani in 2016, is an independent militant unit in Syria fighting against the Syrian government forces, and its predominantly ethnic Uzbek and Central Asian fighters share cultural commonalities with members of Malhama Tactical.
The video featured a group of more than ten masked fighters practicing military tactical drills and undergoing weapons and physical training in a ruined building. The fighters performed exercises with small arms and grenades, as well as with the insurgent weapon of choice, the RPG.
Similarly in 2016, Malhama Tactical was involved in a number of major operations launched by Jaish al-Fatah and its other jihadist allies against Syrian government forces in the north of Syria, including participating in the battle for the 1070 al-Hamdaniyah Housing Project in Aleppo in August 2016 (al-Masdar News, February 7). It also took part in the battle in the east of Aleppo in the fall of 2016, which ended with the invasion of the Dahiyat al-Assad and Minyan districts (al-Masdar News, February 7).
Malhama Tactical’s main area of operations is in Syria’s ravaged cities of Idlib and Aleppo. Throughout 2017, Malhama Tactical trained militants from Hayat Tahrir al-Sham, Ajnad al-Kavkaz and their affiliated groups in modern guerrilla warfare, advancing their capabilities against the Syrian military.
From May 2016 to May 2017, Malhama Tactical produced and posted about 37 instructional videos providing guidance on a wide range of military exercises, including on-battlefield medical response, target practice, military assault courses, the use of rocket-propelled grenades and ambush tactics.
Funding and Finance
Profit is supposedly Malhama Tactical’s main motivation. Its direct income is from training fighters, but it also relies on online donations. The group has made numerous fund-raising appeals through Twitter, Telegram, Facebook, YouTube and Russian social-networking sites like VKontakte and Odnoklassniki (Classmates).
The group uses electronic online payment services for its crowd-funding calls, including platforms like Wallet One and QIWI Koshelek. It has even used crypto-currencies. In the past, when Abu Rofiq operated as a trainer for Jamaat Saifullah ash-Shishani (a.k.a. Katiba Sayfullah), he reportedly requested donations via QIWI Koshelek, a Russian online payment system (RFE, September 26, 2015).
In September 2015, Abu Rofiq made two separate appeals to raise donations to help the group purchase equipment and “assist those who are in need.” He instructed would-be supporters to contact him privately for details on how to donate. Most recently, group members have begun crowd funding using the crypto currency Bitcoin (Ria Fan, May 28).
The online support base is growing with nearly 2,400 subscribers and 250,676 views on YouTube, as well as 600 members on its public Facebook page. On Twitter, the group has more than 1,500 followers. In January 2017, a member of Malhama Tactical used Twitter to call for anonymous donations and give an account number with Wallet One, a Johannesburg-registered international payment system.
While the group’s online financial network is developing, local donations — even in the form of livestock — appear to be welcome. In November 2016, on its Twitter page, the group claimed to have received a sheep from an unnamed local Syrian as a token of his support.
Malhama’s Expansion Plans: China
In March 2017, a video issued by the group indicated that Malhama Tactical’s military strength is increasing. The videos showcased more than 30 militants in the group, an increase from the initial core unit of a dozen trainers. It also has fighters from Arab countries, Turkey, the Maldives and China.
Malhama Tactical has trained low-skilled Uighur fighters belonging to the Turkistan Islamic Party’s division in the Levant (TIP-L) and participated alongside TIP-L in operations against the Syrian regime in southern Aleppo in September 2016 (CSEF Russia, March 2). The group claims that not only Uighurs, but also Han Chinese are among its trainees.
In April 2017, the group published an online photo of two new fighters in its ranks. One of them, a trainer/translator who is a Mandarin Chinese speaker, was identified as “Yunus Kitaets” (Yunus from China).
The threat of a Malhama Tactical-led jihad to China seems fanciful at present. However, in its message published on Twitter in August, the group warned: “O our brothers in Turkistan [Xinjiang]! We have not forgotten about you. You are our beloved brothers. We promise that the help will come to you. Allah is with us. There is no blessing in those who, after all of these, say that the time of battles has not come. Now, the time of battles has come!” 
The ripples of Malhama Tactical’s threat to Beijing are expanding from Syria to Xinjiang. If the group has the capacity to shape angry Uighur youth into elite fighters, then it is going to be able to threaten not only the Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region, but also the land corridors along Beijing’s Belt and Road initiative.
There is perhaps some irony here as Blackwater founder Eric Prince has positioned himself as key to Beijing’s effort to secure the Belt and Road initiative via his Hong Kong-registered private military company, Frontier Services Group.
Tackling the Threat
If Messrs Prince and Abu Rofiq have anything in common, it is the recognition of, and ability to, capitalize on the international private military security market. Malhama Tactical is a commercial enterprise — preventing future terrorist cells from benefiting from its capabilities starts with countering the group’s financial support.
Tracing and following the money trail to Malhama Tactical is fundamental to preventing it from augmenting the capabilities of other militant threats. Also of paramount importance is countering the online narrative of “Boys’ Own” adventurism in conflict zones that such groups promote.
 Author translation from the Russian.