Syria’s Jihadists Linked to Organized Crime
The al Qaeda-affiliated groups in Syria have started working with crime syndicates and racketeering thugs for kidnappings, arms-smuggling, and widespread looting.
Syria’s insurgent militias are becoming ever more enmeshed with organized crime, blurring the line between insurgents and racketeers and undermining the rebels’ efforts to maintain sagging popular support for the uprising against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.
And it isn’t only militias affiliated with the Western-backed Free Syrian Army or Islamist militias profiting from the chaos and lawlessness to plunder and smuggle, extort and kidnap—the villainy is also being perpetrated by al Qaeda-affiliated jihadists, who present themselves as paragons of strict Islamic virtue and argue the spate of executions they have presided over are done to enforce morality.
Both of the al Qaeda affiliate operating in Syria—Jabhat al-Nusra and the Islamic State of Iraq and al Sham, or ISIS—have folded within their ranks groups widely seen as crime syndicates and insurgent leaders who at heart are racketeers, say European intelligence sources. They point to four battalions that have shifted allegiance in recent months from the FSA-aligned Ahfad al Rasoul Brigade to al-Nusra and this week realigned once again, this time siding with ISIS.
One of the battalions, Liwa Allah Akbar, is led by Saddam al-Jamal, who was, until his defection, the FSA’s top commander on the eastern front, and who earlier this week announced that he was joining ISIS on the grounds that the FSA had become a puppet of Western and Arab intelligence services.
In a 30-minute video uploaded to YouTube, al-Jamal called on all rebels to dissociate themselves from the Western and Gulf-backed Syrian National Coalition and its military arm, the FSA, because of their opposition to the jihadists and because they want “to prevent the Sharia of Allah from being established in the land.” He complained in the interview that, while working with the FSA, he had to “meet with the apostates of Qatar and Saudi Arabia and with the infidels of Western nations such as America and France in order to receive arms and ammo or cash.”
But according to a Kurdish militia commander who has fought six battles against al-Jamal this year and managed to seize his headquarters at the border town of Ras al-Ayn, the Liwa Allah Akbar leader has had a checkered criminal history as an arms and drugs trafficker and been astute in the past at nurturing and playing off ties with both Syrian and Turkish intelligence when it served his purposes.
“He isn’t himself at heart an Islamist,” says Giwan Ibrahim, a top commander with the Kurdish People’s Protection Units, or YPG. “He has the mentality of a Mafioso and not someone who has the mind of an ideological fighter.”
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