NOTE: For prior parts in the Hizballah Cavalcade series you can view an archive of it all here.

Khamenei’s Cannon: .50 Caliber Anti-Material Rifles & Shia Fighters in Syria

By Phillip Smyth

Untitled455

Figure 1: Combatants from Liwa’a ‘Ammar Ibn Yasir. The fighter on the left likely holds an Iranian-copy of the HS.50 rifle.

Since April 2013, around the same time Liwa’a Abu Fadl al-Abbas was first gaining broader exposure and name-recognition, another sub-trend started to appear in the photos showing Shia Islamist fighters in Syria. This trend remained minor and occasional. However, starting in October, there have been increasing examples of foreign Shia Islamist fighters being pictured with long range bolt-action anti-material rifles.[1]

It is possible these weapons were the bolt-action HS.50, .50 caliber (12.7x99mm) rifles produced by Austria’s Steyr Mannlicher. According to The Telegraph, 800 of the rifles were shipped to Iran in 2007.[2] However, according to the Brown Moses Blog, it is far more probable that these rifles are actually Iranian copies which were shipped to Syria.[3] Since the winter of 2012, pro-Iranian social media has also praised the Iranian-made copy of the rifle.[4] Still, serial numbers on the weapons are often hidden, making absolute confirmation difficult.

The original Steyr Mannlicher sale of these long-range weapons caused worries among British and U.S. policymakers and military personnel due to the fear they would be supplied to Iranian-created and supplied Shi’a Islamist “special groups” in Iraq. These groups included Asa’ib Ahl al-Haq and Kata’ib Hizballah. Both of these organizations are now sending forces to Syria.

Anti-material sniper rifles of this caliber have found a welcome place in Western military services. The U.S. military fields the M107 semi-automatic .50 caliber rifle as do a number of other militaries. In October, 2012 one of these weapons killed a Taliban member in Afghanistan from a distance of 2,475 meters.[5]

Presently in Syria, these types of rifles have been used by both rebels and pro-Assad forces. Nevertheless, the outfitting of highly organized foreign Shia fighter manned organizations may demonstrate a shift in tactics and training.

Groups using the rifle in Syria span the full spectrum of organizations backed by Iran. Lebanese Hizballah has been a primary poster of images with the weapon. Additionally, Iraq-based Harakat Hizballah al-Nujaba’s (a front for Kata’ib Hizballah and Asa’ib Ahl al-Haq) Syria-based front militias, Liwa’a ‘Ammar Ibn Yasir and Liwa’a al-Hamad have posted photos of their militants with the rifle. Iraq’s Badr Organization’s Quwet Shahid Muhammed Baqir Sadr and Kata’ib Sayyid al-Shuhada have posted their own images of their fighters with the HS.50 type rifle. Other Shia fighters from unnamed organizations have also been pictured with the weapon.

Films featuring Shia militia groups using the HS. 50 type rifles in combat in Syria have been extremely rare. Usually only photos are posted.

The first film showing Shia Islamist militias in Syria using the rifle was posted to Facebook and YouTube pages associated with the Badr Organization’s Quwet Shahid Baqir Sadr (BOQSBS), the group’s expeditionary unit in Syria. The BOQSBS has also been a main poster of high-quality images showing their combatants wielding these types of anti-material rifles. Around a minute of footage showing BOQSBS fighters using the weapon was inserted into a much longer film made to demonstrate the group’s activities in Syria (see below at minute markers 1:59-2:23).

Due to the high level of operational security employed by these groups, potential failures or successes of the rifle in combat are often not showcased. Operations using the rifle have also not been detailed on the many social media pages run by Iranian-backed Shia militia groups inside Syria. In fact, the rifle has rarely been named or described by Shia Islamist militia pages. Nevertheless, these rifles have become a regular feature in images featuring fallen fighters.

Such a capability, even if deliberately showcased for propaganda purposes, should be taken seriously by regional and global military forces. Iranian equipped and trained snipers, utilizing smaller caliber rifles, demonstrated a lethal efficiency during the Iraq War (2003). Their utilization of smaller caliber-wielding snipers (particularly using the SVD-type rifles) demonstrates a concentration on sniping tactics.

Some Possible Reasons Why the Rifles Are Appearing More

  • Propaganda Purposes: Some of the photos of fighters holding the rifle appear to be posed images meant to showcase the size of the weapon (representing power) in comparison to the fighter. Additionally, since it is probably a copy, showing the rifle in operations overseas is a sign that Iranian-made weapons are of a high quality. Proxy organizations may also see the rifle as a symbol of advancement and as a sign they are comparable to first-world armies. The weapon may also be a sign to rebel groups that Shia militants have more advanced capabilities.
  • General Incorporation into the Order of Battle: The rifle could have possibly become more prolific with increased foreign-manned Shia militia operations.
  • Offensive Operations: Since the start of main offensives in October and increase in numbers of Shia fighters, it is possible the rifle has found more use and acceptance by fighters.

The Rifle & Its Shia Islamist Users

Lebanese Hizballah:

Untitled456 Untitled457

Figure 2: Lebanese Hizballah’s Ali al-Hadi Nuwn shown holding the weapon on his shoulder. (Left)

Figure 3: Another posed-photo of Lebanese Hizballah’s Ali al-Hadi Nuwn. In this picture he is taking aim with the .50 caliber rifle. (Right)

Untitled458

Figure 4: Hizballah commander Ja’afar Husayn Hashim with the rifle. He was reported to have been killed in Syria on November 1, 2013.

Untitled459

Figure 5: Hizballah’s Khadr Ahmed Matar, declared killed in Syria on December 20, is shown standing in the snow with the rifle.

Untitled460

Figure 6: Qasim Ghamloush is shown holding the .50 caliber rifle. His death was announced by Hizballah on December 7, 2013.

Untitled461

Figure 7: Ali Husayn Salah (A.K.A. Sheikh Hadi) is seen holding the rifle over his Kalashnikov-pattern weapon. Salah was also reported to have been killed in Syria on December 7, 2013.

Liwa’a al-Hamad:

Untitled462

Figure 8: An October photo of a fighter from Liwa’a al-Hamad taking aim with the HS.50-type rifle.

The Badr Organization – Quwet al-Shahid Muhammed Baqir Sadr

Untitled463

Figure 9: Following the announcement that the Badr Organization had created its own expeditionary force for Syria, this was one of the first photos they posted online.

Untitled464

Figure 10: A Badr Organization-Quwet al-Shahid Muhammed Baqir al-Sadr is shown holding the HS. 50 type rifle.

Liwa’a ‘Ammar Ibn Yasir:

Untitled465

Untitled466

 

Figure 11: A commander from Liwa’a Ammar Ibn Yasir is seen holding the .50 caliber rifle.

Kata’ib Sayyid al-Shuhada:

Untitled467

 

Fighters from Other Groups:

Untitled468

Figure 12: The Shia militia effort’s “first African martyr”  (Muhammed Suleiman al-Kuwni)  is shown holding the rifle.

Untitled469

Figure 13: A fighter from an unnamed Shia Islamist militia (likely Liwa’a ‘Ammar Ibn Yasir) take aim with his rifle.

Untitled470

Figure 14: Alla’ Ibrahim (possibly from Liwa’a Zulfiqar), an Iraqi Shi’a fighter buried on November 30, 2013 holds the rifle over his shoulder.

Untitled471

Figure 15: An edited shot of Alla’ Ibrahim shows him posting with the rifle.

Untitled472

Figure 16: A Shia fighter from an unnamed militia group is shown with the HS. 50-type rifle.


[1] The Oryx Blog has an excellent post on HS. 50-type rifles in Syria: http://spioenkop.blogspot.com/2013/04/syria-and-her-hs50s.html. The post is from April 27, 2013 and pictures of Liwa’a Abu Fadl al-Abbas members with the rifle.

[3] See: http://brown-moses.blogspot.com/2013/04/anti-material-rifles-in-syria.html. See also: http://www.thefirearmblog.com/blog/2012/07/16/mysterious-iranian-50-cals-part-3/. This post by The Firearms Blog should also be read when assessing the rifle in question.

NOTE: For prior parts in the Hizballah Cavalcade series you can view an archive of it all here.

Sariyya al-Tali’a al-Khurasani: A New Combat-Tested Shia Militia in Syria

By Phillip Smyth (psmyth@jihadology.net)

Untitled416Untitled417

Figure 1: The STK’s logo (left) and flag (right). The logo includes Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps’s symbol. A verse from the Quran, Quran 29:69 meaning, “And those who strive for us [in jihad] we will surely guide them to our [Islamic] ways”. Over the rifle the phrase reads, “The Islamic Resistance”.

Untitled418

Figure 2: Another logo used by the STK.

In late September, Sariyya al-Tali’a al-Khurasani (STK or The Vanguards of Khurasani Unit), also referred to as the Khurasani Unit, first made itself known to the world via Facebook. The group may draw their name from Abu Muslim al-Khurasani (A.K.A. Abu Muslim), an 8th century military leader who helped depose the Sunni Umayyad dynasty’s rule over the early Islamic caliphate.[1] The STK also claims to be based out of Arbil, Iraq, the capital of Iraqi Kurdistan. According to the Khurasani Unit’s own releases, it appears to exclusively operate in a military function in rural areas outside of Damascus, Syria.

Technically, the STK was first announced on September 24, 2013 on Facebook. However, it is possible the group’s first page was made “private” and another mirror page was setup in its stead. Thus, the initial announcement of the group’s existence was hidden. The mirror page which first helped formally announce STK’s creation was made on October 8, 2013. Both pages hold unique images from the group and promote the same general messages. As with other Shia militias in Syria, the group claims to defend the Sayyida Zaynab shrine and promotes general pro-Iranian pan-Shia narratives. The promotion of Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and of their own Shia identity through the posting of photos showing Shia clerics in their ranks is a regular theme.

Most of the STK’s imagery was posted in October. In fact, there were days when eight new images were posted on both of their Facebook sites. STK has also released extensive footage showing its fighters in combat inside Syria. This footage has included numerous photos of its fighters, including those of wounded members, and videos of the group engaged in combat. A particular feature of STK propaganda has been images showing the fighters posing with the group’s flag. Only the Badr Organization’s Syria unit, Quwet Shahid Baqir al-Sadr, has also engaged in extensive posting of images featuring their organization’s flag with their fighters in Syria.

While Shia Islamist organizations fighting in and contributing fighters to Syria have done little to hide their connections to Iran, STK went the extra step and actually repackaged Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps’ logo as their own. Their blatant promotion of Iran’s Supreme Leader in many of their posts leaves no illusions to which Shia clerical leader or ideology to which the group swears loyalty.

Unlike other Shia militias (E.G. Liwa’a ‘Ammar Ibn Yasir, Liwa’a al-Imam al-Hasan al-Mujtaba, and Liwa’a Abu Fadl al-Abbas) fighting in Syria, the STK has not stated which (if any) Iraqi Shia organizations have contributed fighters to the group.

The number of fighters in STK’s ranks is unknown, though their leadership has been identified. STK, has been reported to be fighting around Damascus’s Sayyida Zaynab Shrine and in the rural area near Damascus called Ghouta. Videos showing engagements featuring their fighters went viral among Syrian rebel supporters and Shia militia supporters online. In part, this has been due to the fact that their videos appear less staged (e.g. Shia militiamen firing a few rounds from a sniper rifle) and are much longer than others produced.

Untitled419

Figure 3: Two STK fighters pose in front of a truck holding the organization’s flag.

Ali al-Yasiri: The STK’s Commander

The immediate announcement of commanders for specific Shia fighting units in Syria is usually not a common theme. Less than two weeks after the first Facebook post made by the STK, it was announced by the group that their commander was named Ali al-Yasiri. Yasiri is shown in many photographs posted by the organization on its Facebook pages. Yasiri was also shown in photographs featuring Sayyid Muhammed Jawad al-Madrasi, a Shia cleric.[2]

Untitled420

Figure 4: Ali Yasiri is shown with Sayyid Jawad al-Madrasi. On Facebook, the group identified the cleric as, “Ajwad Madrasi”.

Untitled421

Figure 5: Yasiri and another unnamed STK fighter pose at Zaynab’s tomb.

Untitled422 

Figure 6: Yasiri and an unnamed fighter pose with an unnamed cleric at Zaynab’s tomb. All three figures have been featured in other photos released by STK.

Untitled423

Figure 7: Yasiri (left) and the same unnamed fighter pose together for a photo. The fighter on the right holds an SVD type sniper rifle.

STK’s Fighters & Equipment

Little information is available on the numbers of fighters STK has operating in the field. Judging from their photographs, the group has over twenty members. The arms the group uses mimic the varieties used by other Shia militias. Most of these weapons are Kalashnikov-type rifles, SVD-type sniper rifles, RPG-7s, and the PKM-type machine guns. The group has also been recorded using light mortars in clashes in rural areas outside of Damascus.

In addition to their small-arms, the militia’s uniforms appear to include types of U.S.-style digitized camouflage. Some of the group’s uniforms include M81-type woodland camouflage and Desert Camouflage Uniform-type patterns. Also, other unidentified types of camouflage patterns have been seen on the STK’s fighters.

Interestingly, many of the same faces are featured in photographs of STK fighters. In fact, one in particular, that of a Shia Islamic cleric wearing a black turban, can be spotted in many photos of STK militiamen. His inclusion may be a way the group demonstrates their Shia Islamic identity. The Badr Organization has also included clerics in their militia photos in a similar effort.

Untitled424

Figure 8: STK fighters pose for a photo in East Ghouta, Syria.

Untitled425

Figure 9: STK fighters pose with the group’s flag and light weapons.

Untitled426

Figure 10: STK fighters pose in their uniforms and headbands.

Untitled427

Figure 11: An STK machine gunner.

Untitled428

Figure 12: An STK fighter holds his rifle as he stands with other members of his organization.

Untitled429

Figure 13: STK fighters pose around an RPG-7 and the group’s banner.

Untitled430

Figure 14: STK militiamen pose for the camera. The fighter on the right holds an RPG-7.

Untitled431

Figure 15: STK fighters stand and kneel together with their weapons as they pose for photographs.

Untitled432

Figure 16: Older and younger fighters sitting together in Rif Dimashq.

Untitled433

Figure 17: STK fighters take a break during fighting. The photo appears to be taken in the same area where some videos of STK combat engagements occurred.

Untitled434

Figure 18: STK fighters, one appearing to be a Shia cleric, hold a mixture of small-arms.

Untitled435

Figure 19: STK militiamen and a fighter in a black turban (signifying clerical status and descent from the Islamic Prophet Muhammed) relax in Rif Dimashq.

Untitled436 

Figure 20: STK fighters at prayer time.

Untitled437 

Figure 21: STK fighters. The fighter on the left has an SVD-type sniper rifle.

Untitled438 

Figure 22: An injured fighter is shown with his compatriots and a Shia cleric.

Untitled439

Figure 23: The same injured fighter flashes a “V for victory” symbol from his bed.

STK on Film

STK’s combat videos were first released in October and were quickly disseminated on Shia militia social media. When Syrian rebels came across the films in the weeks after their release, often the fighters were incorrectly branded as members of Liwa’a Abu Fadl al-Abbas.

The first of the videos STK released shows the group fighting from a structure in Rif Dimashq. Save for the caption and titles on the videos posted, there was nothing which identified the fighters in the film as members of STK. In two other combat videos it show STK militiamen operating in East Ghouta section of Rif Dimashq, firing mortars, RPGs, rifles, and other weapons.


[1] Matthew S. Gordon, The Rise of Islam, (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 2005), Pp. 47-48.

[2] See al-Madrasi’s Facebook page: http://www.facebook.com/pages/%D8%A7%D9%84%D8%B3%D9%8A%D8%AF-%D9%85%D8%AD%D9%85%D8%AF-%D8%AC%D9%88%D8%A7%D8%AF-%D8%A7%D9%84%D9%85%D8%AF%D8%B1%D8%B3%D9%8A/178591738857323 The page has not been updated since 2012 and little information is available about the cleric online.

NOTE: For prior parts in the Hizballah Cavalcade series you can view an archive of it all here.

The Badr Organization’s Syrian Expeditionary Force: Quwet al-Shahid Muhammed Baqir al-Sadr

By Phillip Smyth (psmyth@jihadology.net)

Click here for a PDF version of this post

 Untitled403

Figure 1: The official logo for the Badr Organization’s Quwet al-Shahid Muhammed Baqir al-Sadr.

On July 13, 2013, Iraq’s Iranian-backed Badr Organization announced they had forces operating in Syria. Their announcement, made on a caption on the group’s “Military Wing” official Facebook page, noted that 1,500 Badr Organization fighters had been sent to Syria. Later, on July 21st, the Badr Organization announced their first casualty, Abu Dhar al-Sa’wdi. Seven days later, it was announced another Badr Organization fighter, Abu Sajad al-Hawli, was killed in Syria and that his funeral was held in Iraq (see below).

With the official July 28th declaration of Hawli’s death came the proclamation he was a member of Quwet al-Shahid Muhammed Baqir al-Sadr (BO-QSMBS). Though, at the time, the organization was simply referred to as, Quwet al-Shahid al-Sadr. The announcement of this Badr Organization sub-grouping followed the lead of their ally, the Iranian-backed Iraqi Shia Islamist organization, Asa’ib Ahl al-Haq (AAH) and their Liwa’a Kafeel Zaynab. Liwa’a Kafeel Zaynab was setup specifically to fight in Syria as a type of AAH expeditionary force. In effect, the BO-QSMBS serves a similar role.

BO-QSMBS’s Facebook page was started on August 19, 2013 while their official YouTube station was established on February 28, 2013. In both cases the admin name of “Abo Alhassan” was used and regularly finds a mention on photos and YouTube clips posted by the group. The first original photos which were not simultaneously or previously posted on other official, semi-official, or mirror Badr Organization Facebook pages began to appear on August 25, 2013.  However, most of BO-QSMBS’s causalities have been posted on the official Badr Organization Military Wing’s Facebook page, as opposed to the BO-QSMBS Facebook site.

BO-QSMBS is named after the late Grand Ayatollah Muhammed Baqir al-Sadr, the former leader of the Da’wa Movement in Iraq. Sadr, a Najaf, Iraq-based cleric, was instrumental in assisting with the creation of the Islamist ideology which would later be put into place in post-1979 revolutionary Iran by the late-Grand Ayatollah Khomeini. Sadr’s radical politics led him to be known by the name, “Khomeini of Iraq”.[1] In 1980, Sadr and his sister were both executed by the regime of Saddam Hussein.

BO-QSMBS has yet to post details about where they are fighting in Syria. However, based on their posted photographs, it is clear they are stationed in Damascus. As with other Shia Islamist organizations fighting in Syria, it is likely they have been deployed to fight on the East Ghouta front.

BO-QSMBS’s Weapons Systems

BO-QSMBS fighters utilize similar weapons systems as other Iraqi Shia organizations contributing fighters to Syria and Lebanese Hizballah. RPG-7s, PKM machine guns, SVD-style sniper rifles, Kalashnikov-pattern assault rifles, and M16-style assault rifles are the primary small-arms types featured by BO-QSMBS.  M16-pattern rifles, particularly the M4 carbine model, appear to be fitted with optics, which may mean they are used in a designated marksman role. Additionally, the M16-type rifles are featured in BO-QSMBS’s posts about combat units more often than they are with other Shia militias operating in Syria.

It is possible that the group is using the Iranian-copy of the Austrian Steyr HS.50, a .50 caliber, long-range anti-material sniper rifle.[2] This rifle has been shown in the hands of many different Iraqi Shia organizations operating in Syria and Lebanese Hizballah.

As with Asa’ib Ahl al-Haq’s Liwa’a Kafeel Zaynab, the Badr Organization’s fighters in Syria are shown using pickup trucks (possibly the same pickup trucks as AAH’s men. See the videos on the Hizballah Cavalcade post Asa’ib Ahl al-Haq’s Liwa’a Kafeel Zaynab).

Untitled404

Figure 2: A BO-QSMBS fighter with an HS.50 type rifle.

Untitled405

Figure 3: A combat unit of BO-QSMBS fighters. Note the 2 optics-mounted M4-style rifles.

Untitled406

Figure 4: Two Badr fighters pose in front of the Sayyida Zaynab shrine in Damascus. The fighter on the right is holding an M4-type carbine (the same pictured in the photo above).

Untitled407

Figure 5: A BO-QSMBS fighter with an RPG-7.

Untitled408

Figure 6: A BO-QSMBS fighter holds a PKM machine gun in aloft as the late Grand Ayatollah Muhammed Baqir al-Sadr looks down upon him.

Untitled409

Figure 7: Badr fighters pose in front of a red pickup truck.

Untitled410

Figure 8: Badr fighters ride into battle in a mud coated white pickup truck.

BO-QSMBS’s Messaging to the Shia

BO-QSMBS has posted photographs attempting to show that Shia Islamic clerics have joined them in their fight inside Syria. The effect of these images may be to show the broader Shia community that there is broad religious support for the group’s actions in Syria.

The interconnectedness between the Badr Organization, Shia Islamist Iran and Lebanese Hizballah is also a regular feature on their social media webpages. One BO-QSMBS photo claimed to show Lebanese Hizballah fighter, Mahdi Yaghi and a fighter from the BO-QSMBS. Photos of Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei and of Iranian Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps commander, Qassem Suleimani are regular features on BO-QSMBS’s Facebook page.

Untitled411

Figure 9: BO-QSMBS fighters stand in front of soda machines and a poster featuring Lebanese Hizballah leader, Sayyid Hassan Nasrallah.

Untitled412

Figure 10: A white turban wearing Shia cleric wearing combat fatigues stands in the center of BO-QSMBS fighters.

Untitled413

Figure 11: A black turbaned (denoting that he is descended from the Islamic Prophet Muhammed) Shia Islamic cleric stands in combat fatigues with Badr fighters.

Untitled414

Figure 12: BO-QSMBS claims this photo shows one of their fighters and Lebanese Hizballah’s Mahdi Yaghi. Yaghi was announced killed in Syria in October, 2013.

Untitled415

Figure 13: Lebanese Hizballah leader Sayyid Hassan Nasrallah and Iranian Surpreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei are pictured behind the Sayyida Zaynab shrine in Damascus.

Videos Released by the Group

A number of videos have been released by the BO-QSMBS. However, most of them are of poor quality and follow an established pattern seen with other Shia Islamist militias (all Iranian-backed) in Syria. Most of these videos utilize older footage previously released by other groups. In October, the footage of Abu Sajad al-Hawli was released by the Badr Organization. The video was placed on YouTube, Facebook, and official Badr websites.


[1] Patrick Cockburn, Muqtada Al-Sadr and the Battle for the Future of Iraq, (New York: Scribner, 2008), Pp. 27-35.