Syrian student turns a bombmaker for fighters

Updated 26 December 2012

Syrian student turns a bombmaker for fighters

ALEPPO: “We don’t have rocket launchers, but I can make a bomb out of practically anything,” says a proud Abu Hudeifa, a university dropout turned member of a jihad group fighting in Aleppo, northern Syria.
“I connect two cables to the vehicle battery, and when they make contact ... boom!” says the 24-year-old, who confesses a deep hatred for President Bashar Assad, as he shows off an old Russian-made rocket mounted on a pickup truck.
Born in the town of Marea in Aleppo province, which has seen fierce fighting between rebels and regime forces for several months — Abu Hudeifa has joined the Al-Nusra Front, blacklisted by Washington as a “terrorist” group.
He, however, bears no anger toward the United States and the focus of his hatred is clear.
“I don’t hate the US or the West... I just want Assad to leave my country and to stop killing people. That’s why I joined Al-Nusra,” he tells AFP.
Not much is known about Sunni Al-Nusra Front except that it is a jihadist group with roots in Iraq and has claimed some of the deadliest attacks against Assad’s forces in the conflict roiling Syria.
Analysts say the group believes that the fight against Assad is a religious struggle to oust a regime dominated by members of Alawite community, an offshoot of Shiite Islam to which the president belongs. Some 80 percent of Syria’s population is Sunni. Many also believe that for months now Al-Nusra Front has been spearheading the anti-Assad rebellion even as the main rebel Free Syrian Army struggles to overcome divisions in its ranks.
Abu Hudeifa, who learnt his bombmaking skills from his older brother Ammar, says he joined the group for its adeptness at combat and not for its extremist ideology.
“Thanks to Al-Nusra, we will win the war ... only Al-Nusra is ready to fight to the death.”
Ammar says his younger brother is only a fighter like him and not an extremist, like other members of Al-Nusra Front.
“My brother is much more open-minded than all the men in his group. He is no radical ... He’s just a fighter, like me,” says Ammar, 28, who himself is a member of a mainstream rebel group and has swapped bomb-making for filming battles.
As children, Abu Hudeifa and Ammar spent long hours taking apart and then fixing remote-controlled car toys or any gadgets they could lay their hands on.
“I’ve always been good at fixing things,” says Abu Hudeifa.
“When my mother’s washing machine or fridge stopped working, or when my father’s car broke down, I’d get my toolbox out and get working ... Now my brother and I put our knowledge to practice in war,” says Abu Hudeifa, who has sharp features and a short beard.
The brothers take great pride in their inventiveness, which however, has not been without cost. Abu Hudeifa has lost three fingers when a small plastic explosive blew up too early.
“We’ve made devices from scratch. I’ve made remote-controlled bombs that exploded as army vehicles drove past,” he says.
“We’ve also packed pressure cookers with explosives. We close them tight with screws, heat them up for hours, then lay them on the road. When they explode, the cooker breaks up into shrapnel.
“They’re very effective. We’ve even managed to destroy many army vehicles’ armor that way,” Abu Hudeifa says.
The two brothers share a raging hatred toward Assad for very personal reasons.
Ammar’s wife was killed instantly when a rocket fired by regime soldiers struck the car she was traveling in.
“I’ll never forget my brother’s face when he heard his wife had been killed,” says Abu Hudeifa.
The two also share the pain of being separated from their parents who fled their home for neighboring Turkey when violence swept northern Syria.
“I want revenge ... I want to make Assad pay for my parents’ misery in a refugee camp across the border. They are freezing to death,” says Abu Hudeifa.
“I’m tired of watching friends and family being buried.”

Fears of violence surround Muqtada Al-Sadr’s rise to kingmaker

Iraqis work on a poster of Shiite cleric Moqtada Sadr at a printing shop in Sadr City, east of the Baghdad on May 23, 2018.(AFP / AHMAD AL-RUBAYE)
Updated 10 min 14 sec ago

Fears of violence surround Muqtada Al-Sadr’s rise to kingmaker

  • Many are still haunted by the brutality and extortion meted out by the cleric’s Mehdi Army
  • In 2008, after the Mehdi Army took control of many Shiite cities and Shiites were increasingly the target of killings and extortion, Al-Sadr denied that he had anything to do with the illegal activities of his fighters and decided to freeze the Mehdi Army

BAGHDAD: Muqtada Al-Sadr, the radical cleric now playing the role of kingmaker in Iraq, recently accused rivals of seeking to prevent him from forming a government and suggested his life was in danger.

Within hours, hundreds of his young supporters had gathered in front of his house in Najaf last week baying for blood. 

Videos circulated showing the men and their families carrying rocket-propelled grenade launchers and threatening to “burn” everything if “anyone hit Al-Sadr or robbed” him of his right to form the next administration. 

“If you try to touch Mr. Muqtada, you will not be left with anything, even the baby: We will kill him in his bed,” one of the men said. “We will shake the earth under your feet.”

The success of Al-Sadr’s Sairoon alliance in elections this month has raised fears that the cleric’s millions of obsessive followers, known as Sadrists, may spark violence if the government-forming process runs into trouble. For many Iraqis, the memories of the atrocities of Al-Sadr’s militia, the Mehdi Army, in the years after Saddam Hussein’s downfall, are all too fresh. 

Most Sadrists are regarded as fanatics, badly educated, usually unemployed and from some of Iraq’s poorest areas. They see Muqtada Al-Sadr as a saint for whom they must sacrifice their lives. They also believe his ideas should not be contradicted or discussed, and his opponents deserve death or severe injury.

“All signs indicate that the situation is getting worse,” Mustafa, a Shiite human rights activist, told Arab News while monitoring the reactions of Al-Sadr’s followers on social media. 

“I will wait a little, if they (Sadrists) form the government I will leave the country. I am ready to clean the bathrooms in any country to get away from them.

“They will hunt us one by one and will not stop until they terminate us.”

Sadrists were originally followers of Muqtada’s father, Grand Ayatollah Mohammed Al-Sadr, who was killed in 1999 after defying Saddam Hussein.

After the 2003 US-led invasion toppled the dictator, Muqtada Al-Sadr formed his armed wing, the Mehdi Army “to fight the occupiers and their allies,” including translators, journalists and activists. 

The poor and unemployed young Sadrists represented the backbone of the Mehdi Army.

After numerous battles against US troops and Iraqi security forces, the Mehdi Army became deeply involved in the sectarian war that tore Iraq apart between 2006 and 2008.

The role played by Sadrists in curbing mass killings carried out by radical Sunni militant groups against Shiites in that period strengthened their sense of superiority over the rest of the Shiite factions. The government’s inability to stand up to them prompted thousands of Sadrists to turn on fellow Shiites, targeting them in robberies or extorting their money. 

In 2008, after the Mehdi Army took control of many Shiite cities, including a large part of Baghdad, and Shiites were increasingly the target of killings and extortion, Al-Sadr denied that he had anything to do with the illegal activities of his fighters and decided to freeze the Mehdi Army.

At the same time, the Iraqi government, in cooperation with US troops, launched a military campaign to hunt down Al-Sadr’s fighters across the country. 

Since then, the cleric has sought to play a role in reshaping the political process and correcting the mistakes made by the Shiite political forces in recent years. He reinvented himself as the chief “sponsor of reform.”

The Sairoon alliance, formed and sponsored by Al-Sadr, won the highest number of votes in the May 12 parliamentary election, with 54 MPs. 

His Shiite rival, the pro-Iranian list of Al-Fattah, came second with 47 seats. 

Immediately after the official results were announced, Al-Sadr introduced himself as a power broker, and proceeded to negotiate with all the winning blocs except the State of Law Alliance of Nuri Al-Maliki, the divisive former prime minister.

He plans to form the biggest parliamentary bloc which has the exclusive right to form the government. 

The fears among Iraqi people and political parties over Al-Sadr’s new prominence intensified when he said he wanted to form a “patriarchal government” under his supervision. 

The comments triggered widespread discussion and criticism among Iraqis who have recalled the period between 2006 and 2008 when Al- Sadr’s followers imposed their vision on others by force.

“Whoever monitors Sadr’s statements knows that the patriarchal government according to Sadr means forming a government subject to Sadr’s will and authority as he is the father who gave birth to this government,” a professor of political science at the University of Baghdad told Arab News.

“People are scared. It does not matter if Al-Sadr will succeed in forming the government or not, a wave of violence in the process of formation may erupt at any moment.

“Will cafes and shops put pictures of Al-Sadr in their facades to show their loyalty and avoid the oppression of his followers as it was 2006? Are we going to see the Mehdi Army control the Shiite street?”

The tweet last week that sparked protesters to gather at his home was the first of several by Al-Sadr, hinting that he may be targeted. 

“Our victory has upset many people,” he said, before asking people to read Al-Fatihah, a Qur’anic verse indicating he may be killed at any moment and asking followers to pray for him.

“We are moving on to make reform and we will not compromise,” he said.