Posted by Aron Lund on Tuesday, December 18th, 2012
A group of jihadi foreign fighters in Syria has published photographs of militants posing with a Soviet-designed 9K38 Igla SAM system, a man-portable anti-aircraft weapon similar to the American Stinger missile. The recently established group, known as Kataeb al-Muhajerin, or ”the Migrants’ Brigades”, appears to have been created by Swedish volunteers, working alongside radical jihadi movements. Its logotype shows a map including Syria, Jordan, Israel and Palestine, the region known in Arabic as ”Sham”, or the Levant.
Earlier, on November 21, a group of Swedish Islamists calling themselves Mujahedeen Fi Ash Sham (”Holy Warriors in the Levant”) had published a Swedish-language video statement calling for a ”jihad” against the Assad regime, and encouraging Swedish Muslims to join them in Syria. (English transcript.) This network seems to have been present in the Turkish-Syrian border region for at least a few months. On a Facebook page, one member of the group has claimed that it is comprised of some forty people, including many from the city of Gothenburg. This figure may be too high: SÄPO, the Swedish security service, has indicated that there are indeed some Swedish volunteers fighting in Syria, but seems to put their number well below forty.
Kataeb al-Muhajerin evolved out of this network, although it may also include other members. ”Kataeb al-Muhajerin was launched on Facebook on December 1 by the Swedish Mujahedeen Fi Ash Sham”, explains Per Gudmundson, a journalist and editorial writer for the Svenska Dagbladet daily, who has tracked the online communication of Swedish jihadis. ”The following day, a separate Facebook account was set up.” Material from the group has also been posted to various online jihadi forums, such as Ansar al-Mujahedin and Hanein.
Using these channels, both the Mujahedin Fi Ash Sham group and Kataeb al-Muhajerin have been posting information about the same operations, including identical photographs. This indicates that the two groups either work very closely together, share members, or are in fact two faces of the same network. Ideologically, the group appears to be solidly salafi. A Facebook post condemns the Free Syrian Army (FSA) leadership for seeking democracy in Syria, arguing instead that Muslims must fight for an Islamic theocracy.
Recently, photographs and reports on websites connected to the network have shown members of Kataeb al-Muhajerin participating in the assault on the 111th Regiment at Sheikh Suleiman, north-west of Aleppo. That base was the last major pro-Assad stronghold in the northern Aleppo countryside, infamous for shelling the surrounding rebel-held villages. By the time Kataeb al-Muhajerin arrived in the area, Sheikh Suleiman had been under siege for weeks, surrounded and continually bombarded by a number of rebel groups active in the area. They had cut all roads to the base, and were using anti-air missiles and AA guns to prevent resupply by air. (Kataeb al-Muhajerin’s SAM missile pictures date from this period, immediately preceding the fall of the base. They seem to have been uploaded on December 7, 2012.)
The Sheikh Suleiman base was finally overrun on December 9, 2012, in a joint operation including several different groups. The force encircling the base prior to the attack included both jihadis, independent rebels, and FSA fighters from local villages. Correspondents speak of numerous foreign jihadis involved in the attack, including Uzbek fighters under the command of one “Abu Talha”. Some reports indicate that FSA units had been active in the siege, but that jihadi groups bolstered by foreign fighters then carried out the final attack. One statement mentions the attacking Islamist groups as Jabhat al-Nosra, Katibat al-Batar, Kataeb al-Muhajerin and Kataeb Muhajeri al-Sham.
While the other three organizations are small and virtually unknown, Jabhat el-Nosra is the most infamous of Syria’s extremist groups. This radical salafi-jihadi organization was recently designated a terrorist organization by the US Department of the Treasury, which accuses it of acting as a local front for Iraq’s al-Qaeda leadership. According to media reports, Jabhat al-Nosra fighters did most of the heavy lifting during the assault, having already claimed credit for downing a helicopter on November 27. In the days following the fall of Sheikh Suleiman, Jabhat al-Nosra seized the base for themselves, including the arms stockpile inside. They then set up a perimeter and prevented outsiders from entering without permission, including other rebels, although it appears that groups allied to them were allowed some access.
At least some of the Swedes in the Mujahedeen Fi Ash Sham/Kataeb al-Mujaherin network took part in the attack. They have posted propaganda images from the base in the aftermath of the battle, depicting themselves with the corpses of regime soldiers, guarding prisoners-of-war, and trying out heavy weapons from the base arsenal. They make no mention of Jabhat al-Nosra, but disparage the FSA’s role in the attack: ”Not only did the Free Syrian Army try to steal our spoils of war, but they have also claimed all the credit in the media…”
These images do not mean that the Swedes have joined Jabhat al-Nosra – most likely, they have not. Jabhat al-Nosra maintains a tight messaging discipline, releasing statements only through its own specialized media wing, al-Manara al-Beida. After a May 2012 controversy involving a fake Jabhat al-Nosra statement, the group has been particularly insistent on this, stressing that any statement on its behalf made outside of the al-Manara al-Beida framework should be considered a forgery. If Kataeb el-Muhajerin were formally part of Jabhat el-Nosra, it is unlikely that they could release statements separately, and under their own banner. It therefore seems likely that the Swedish Mujahedin network has set up shop in northern Syria on their own, and are working independently alongside other fighters who share their ideology, rather than as formal members of a larger group.
In the larger scheme of things, the Swedish group of fighters is tiny and will not be a major influence on the Syrian uprising. But the images posted by Kataeb al-Muhajerin after the attack include heavy weaponry, such as AA guns. ”Judging from the pictures, they’re very happy with the arms captured in Sheikh Suleiman”, notes Gudmundson, interviewed for Syria Comment via e-mail.
The pictures give an idea of the kind of weaponry now available to jihadis in northern Syria. The man shown carrying the Igla SAM launcher cannot be identified, and it is not clear whether he is a member of Kataeb al-Muhajerin or an allied group; probably the latter. But the photos themselves appear to be unique to Kataeb al-Muhajerin, proving that, at the very least, the group has been present where these arms were stored and used. If a small group of Swedish volunteer fighters now has such close access to anti-air missiles, then, clearly, so does Jabhat al-Nosra and other jihadi groups.
The United States and other governments have long worried about the proliferation of modern military technology and know-how among Syrian Islamist rebels, in particular anti-air missiles. They fear that such weapons could be turned against themselves in the future, whether in the Middle East or by returning foreign fighters. While helping to arm the rebellion, these states have therefore held back from providing such weapons to the Syrian rebels, despite their obvious need for a countermeasure to Assad’s air superiority. In recent months, anti-air weapons have started to appear in northern Syria anyway, whether as a result of this strategy being relaxed or for other reasons. However, pictures from Sheikh Suleiman show that heavy weaponry is also slipping into jihadi hands from the other direction – by being captured from Syrian regime stockpiles.