Ali ash-Shishani: “Like all Chechens in Syria, I miss Chechnya”

Ali ash-Shishani photo from personal archive

Malhama Tactical” is a military organization based in the north of the country in order to support the Syrian resistance. The organization, which was founded by young people from the post-Soviet space, has long attracted the attention of specialists and journalists working on the theme of the armed conflict in the Middle East. The fact is that the material of various media and case studies state that “Malhama Tactical” is often referred to as “the first Islamic PMC” (Private Military Company) in the Middle East. However, representatives of the organization themselves deny the fact. The leader of the organization Ali ash-Shishani told in an exclusive interview with about what “Malhama Tactical” is and what the goals of the organization are. He has not revealed his real name.

Ali, in various media and social networks “Malhama Tactical” (hereinafter referred to as MT) has been mentioned not only as the “first PMC”, but also as some “Central Asian armed formation” and even “Uzbek Jamaat”. What does your organization represent in reality? Is this a monoethnic entity?

— “Malhama Tactical” represents an elite voluntary military organization created by military instructors with experience in combat operations. The composition of MT from the first days of its existence is international. There are Caucasians, Syrians, immigrants from Central Asia, East and Southeast Asia, as well as immigrants from European countries.

Tell us more about the activities of MT. What are your goals?

MT is mainly engaged in military training of the Syrian resistance forces. Over the course of these years, approximately five thousand fighters have undergone this training, among them elite special forces, for example, the well-known Red Bands, and several dozen instructors from local rebel organizations have been trained as well. We have elaborated various courses, including courses on tactics, tactical and special training, shooting, tactical and fire training, physical training, tactical medicine, reconnaissance training, special courses for machine gunners and grenade launchers, etc. We are working now to develop new courses as well.

In addition to instructing, MT possesses experience as military advisers; MT has participated in the planning and preparation of some successful military operations of Syrian rebels, for example, in the Aleppo de-blockade operation in 2016.

The essence of MT’s activities is to qualitatively improve the Syrian resistance in military terms, as well as increasing the fighting efficiency of the resistance forces, increasing the effectiveness of soldiers and units and contributing to the reduction of losses among the rebels, fighting military incompetence in the ranks of resistance forces.

Our motives are to protect the oppressed people and the destruction of tyranny. The goal of “Malhama Tactical” in Syria is to turn the units of the Syrian resistance forces into a high-class army that will bring victory and freedom to the Syrian people. And while we are useful for achieving the goal, we will continue our work. We want the oppressed peoples to be liberated from tyrants, occupants and terrorists, and to live a free, dignified life on their land, so that their rights are respected and protected.

Does MT deal with training of fighters only, or does the organization have its own units performing combat operations?

Despite the fact that the main specialization of MT is instructing, our organization possesses extensive and versatile combat experience. We conduct operations and participate in battles when we see the expediency in it. MT has conducted successful sabotage and special operations, both independent and joint with other rebel organizations, and also participated in large offensive military operations. Of the recent episodes of MT activity at the front, participation in the battles during the four-month offensive campaign by the regime of Bashar Assad and Russia in the Hama province this year is worth noticing.

During these battles, our team successfully worked in artillery reconnaissance and air defense, and on August 14, we were able to shoot down the SU-22 fighter of the Assad regime, and the catapulted pilot was captured by our Syrian brothers from another organization.

We currently do not have separate combat units, and in solving combat missions we form combat units from the instructors themselves and their assistants. The reason for this is the lack of sufficient funding, since the constant maintenance of individual combat units involves additional costs.

How do the trainings and education undergo in the ranks of MT? Is it difficult for a recruit to get into your ranks? Do they have to pay for tuition?

The mode and the training program depend on the course, experience and level of preliminary training of the group that came to be trained, as well as the tasks that their leadership sets. We train both the most elite groups of the Syrian resistance forces and groups of new recruits, and accordingly, there is a different approach to different categories.

Our training is absolutely free. The cadets only need to bring with them the necessary weapons and ammunition, and notebooks with pens for theoretical lessons, and the leadership of the cadets needs to provide them with food for the duration of their training with us. As for the recruits for MT, in order to join our ranks, a person must have combat experience, necessary abilities and recommendations from someone we trust.

The video and photo materials that are published in the pages of MT in messengers and social networks often show substantial armament and equipment. How does the organization replenish its arsenal?

This armament and equipment are the total result of donations from individuals, assistance from some rebel commanders, and our own expenses.

In your opinion, how successful are the actions of the Syrian resistance forces and volunteers helping them? Why are Assad’s army and the coalition supporting it unable to establish control over Northern Syria?

The Syrian resistance has great potential for victory, but within it there are gaps that impede the effectiveness of the struggle and achievement of the victory of the Syrian revolution. Yet, the processes to correct the situation are being carried out.

The Assad regime and its allies cannot capture the north of Syria for many reasons, including the fact that Greater Idlib is the stronghold of the Syrian resistance today, represented not only by military organization, but also by the people, and this is a popular struggle. And it is impossible to defeat the entire people that fight as one. Greater Idlib is the current center of the Syrian people and its resistance; refugees and military units from all over Syria gathered here, who are motivated to fight and have all the opportunities to conduct the struggle successfully. The “Assadists” bear numerous losses in manpower and equipment with each of their major offensives, and all this is expensive for the regime. Due to the shortage of manpower, the Assad regime resorts to forced mobilization of youth in its ranks and uses them as cannon fodder against the rebels, which negatively affects the moral spirit of the “Assadists”. The deep economic crisis of the regime and its allies also plays its role.

Do you have a plan of actions in case the army of Bashar Assad and the coalition supporting it still establish control over the northern provinces in Syria? Will you continue to fight?

We believe that this will not happen, and the north will withstand. In any case, we will not abandon people and we will fight for them as long as they need us and as long as we are able to help them.

Is MT an independent structure or is it in a coalition with some other organization? For example, in the media, MT is sometimes called the “subdivision” of al-Qaeda, or on the contrary, there are rumors that the “Malhama Tactical” represents a “project” of Turkey and acts exclusively in the interests of Turkey.

— “Malhama Tactical” is an independent structure. And we have absolutely nothing to do with al-Qaeda.

As for Turkey, then the answer is again no; MT is not its project. MT is an independent, self-reliant project. As for anyone’s interests, we act solely in the interests of the oppressed people. And if any state is interested in supporting Syrian resistance or in resisting the imperialist project of Russia, then we have the same interests with this state. Nevertheless, not a single state provides support to MT. Yet, we are open for cooperation with allied countries against a common enemy – Putin’s Russia and Assad regime.

How active is Turkey’s participation in the processes in Syria? Does Ankara provide any support to the resistance?

Yes, it does. Turkey has made a great contribution to the Syrian resistance. Firstly, this is humanitarian aid to the Syrian people – the supply of food, basic necessities, gas supplies, etc. Secondly, this is the supply of weapons and ammunition for the Syrian resistance.

Tell us about yourself. Why have you decided to go to Syria and join the fight against Assad?

I am a Muslim, a Chechen, born and raised in Chechnya. My childhood passed under Russian bombardments and mopping-up. Before the start of the Syrian revolution, I lived in occupied Chechnya under a tyrannical regime. I dreamed of fighting against it. However, due to the lack of any opportunities for struggle, I was forced to endure the oppression of the people. When the revolution in Syria began, it attracted my attention. I closely watched the situation. Everything was clear – Assad’s tyrannical regime was openly exterminating the Syrian people, who rightly went out to overthrow this criminal regime. The whole world has seen this terrible genocide to which the Syrian people have been exposed to. And I could not remain just an outside spectator, watching all of this, while remembering how our people in Chechnya were exposed to similar genocide. And I knew through reading the Holy Quran what a high position the defenders of the oppressed occupy before the Almighty. Therefore, in 2013, I moved here.

The first organization I joined (in the same year – 2013) was the Jamaat Sayfullah Shishani of a famous Chechen from Pankisi (Pankisi Gorge, Georgia). In its composition, I took part in military operations not only against the Assad regime and Iranian forces, but also against the so-called “Islamic State” in 2014.

Have you taken part in wars on the territory of Chechnya? What do you think about the current situation in the republic and in the Caucasus as a whole? What do you think needs to be changed there?

I haven’t taken part in the wars in Chechnya, since I am from a generation of children of the Chechen war. And the Chechen forest resistance was deep underground. Therefore, I did not have access to it.

As for the current situation in the Caucasus, Russia is pursuing its traditional occupation policy with respect to its colonies, in fact. Attempts to develop the North Caucasian peoples are blocked for fear of their strengthening. Russia is making efforts so that the Caucasian republics do not develop and the peoples live in hatred for each other, so that it is easier for Moscow to manage them and to keep the North Caucasus under control.

As for the situation in Chechnya, this is a special situation that distinguishes the country from the rest of the North Caucasus republics. Russia has put Chechnya under a special strict regime for the fact that Chechnya fought in the modern history of the North Caucasus for its freedom from Russian occupation. My homeland is conquered and occupied by Russia, the people have been exposed to another outright genocide, and then a repressive terrorist regime has been established, which to this day is strangling our people. Due to corruption, theft and robbery by the regime, the majority of the people live in poverty and assign all their resources to survival. Ordinary Chechens who are not members of Kadyrov’s caste do not have any rights in their own country and live in the great fear of the atrocities of the occupation regime. Total terror reigns, similar to some kind of dystopia.

The abductions of peaceful Chechens by security forces, secret prisons, torture and extrajudicial executions, the absolute impunity of pro-government criminals, fabrication of criminal cases against objectionable people, the absence of any law and the solution of all issues according to perverted Kadyrov’s “concepts” are the realities of today’s Chechnya.

What needs to be changed?” – It is necessary to de-occupy our country, eliminate the tyrannical regime and establish a fair Sharia state in Chechnya, which will respect the rights of the people and protect their interests. Full security of the Chechen people, respect for their rights and protection of their interests is impossible without their own independent state.

What are the features of life in the field conditions? What is most difficult for you (probably, like for other volunteers) to get used to under these conditions? Is there anything you miss in Syria?

The most difficult thing in such conditions is to survive the winter cold, and this becomes a severe test when you have to winter without normal heating and warm water. It is impossible to get used to it. It’s one thing when you solve a military task on a frosty winter night, and after that you return to a warm base, take a warm shower and sleep in warmth, but it’s another thing when you do not have such a warm base and you freeze for months. Heating and warm water here in winter are an expensive pleasure. As for the things I miss, I personally miss my family, my parents. Furthermore, like all Chechens here, I miss Chechnya.

Irakli Kiknadze, for

Translated by Ekaterine Jinoridze