Syria militants working with organized crime syndicates: American newspaper

Syria militants working with organized crime syndicates: American newspaper
Tue Dec 10, 2013 12:33:42

The al-Qaeda-affiliated groups in Syria have started working with crime syndicates and racketeering thugs for kidnappings, arms-smuggling, and widespread looting, an American newspaper says.

Syria’s militants 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 the Syrian government, The Daily Beast reported on Monday.

And it isn’t only militias affiliated with the Western-backed the so-called Free Syrian Army or extremist militias profiting from the chaos and lawlessness to plunder and smuggle, extort and kidnap—the villainy is also being perpetrated by al-Qaeda-affiliated extremists.

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 ISIL 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 militants to dissociate themselves from the Western and Persian Gulf-backed Syrian National Coalition and its military arm, the FSA, because of their opposition to the extremists 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 (YPG). “He has the mentality of a Mafioso and not someone who has the mind of an ideological fighter.”

The picture Ibrahim paints of al-Jamal is of a pirate and a personality not that dissimilar from the North African extremist leader-cum-trafficker Mokhtar Belmokhtar, the mastermind behind the bloody hostage standoff earlier this year at a natural gas complex in Algeria.

Belmokhtar earned the nickname “Marlboro Man” for his extensive tobacco smuggling. And he too is suspected of having developed connections with intelligence services to help advance his criminal enterprises, including the kidnapping of foreigners for ransom.

Of al-Jamal, Ibrahim says, his men follow him because they are rewarded with loot, women and cash. Because of funding and weapons-supply challenges, al-Nusra Front and ISIL are increasingly open to dealing with cross-border crime groups and the likes of al-Jamal.

“The jihadists are not as strong as you think and they have a lot of problems, especially with their funding and they are trying to get any means of supply. There are some severe divisions at the top and there are a lot disagreements caused by these new groups in their midst,” he says.

The extremists aren’t the only ones who are blurring the line between insurgency and crime in an effort to generate revenue for arms and paying militants.

Criminality has worsened dramatically in the last year in militant-held territory, say refugees and those still living in northern and eastern Syria, who paint a bleak picture of mounting criminality—from extortion to kidnapping and the seizing of property—as civilians scramble to overcome shortages of food, water and fuel and prepare themselves for the hardships of a looming winter.

Hussein, a 45-year-old father of four from Tal Rifat, a town north of Aleppo, complains of rampant plundering by militias. “They are out for themselves,” he says. Militants controlling checkpoints and border crossings demand higher and higher fees for transporting goods and often demand a large share of what is being carried, he says. Hussein runs a small transport business.

Criminals are often more skilled logistically at smuggling weapons and ammunition, securing communication equipment and shifting money through banks. They also have the networks able to traffic in plundered goods and equipment.

In August, UNESCO warned of extensive plundering of Syria’s rich cultural heritage and the looting of artifacts from archaeological sites for export. UNESCO’s assistant director-general for culture, Francesco Bandarin, told reporters that organized, armed gangs involving hundreds of hired men were exploiting the lack of security at archaeological sites.

UN officials say the looters often work hand-in-hand with militias. Syria has more than 10,000 archaeological sites left by Greeks, Romans and Ottomans and others, and Interpol, the European police agency, says dozens of ancient mosaics and artifacts from Syria have turned up on the international art market.

But looting isn’t restricted to ancient sites. The Syrian foreign ministry earlier this year complained that militants had plundered a thousand factories in and around Aleppo, Syria’s largest city and its onetime commercial hub, and transported equipment, machinery and raw materials into Turkey for sale.


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