An Ahrar al Sham fighter guards the front lines in southern Aleppo.
On Jan. 15, the Department of Justice announced that Amin al Baroudi, a naturalized US citizen from Syria, pleaded guilty to violating the US government’s sanctions against Syria.
Baroudi and his co-conspirators exported American “tactical equipment to Syria for the purpose of supplying and arming Ahrar al Sham and other insurgent groups in Syria whose stated goal is to overthrow the Assad government and install an Islamic state,” according to the DOJ.
Baroudi and his unnamed collaborators purchased “tens of thousands of dollars of goods from companies and vendors in the United States, consisting largely of tactical equipment such as sniper rifle scopes, night vision rifle scopes, night vision goggles, laser bore sighters, speed loaders and bullet proof vests.” Traveling via commercial flights to Turkey, they “then transported the goods into Syria or provided them to others for transport.”
A statement of facts released along with the DOJ’s announcement outlines some of the details of these transactions between 2011 and 2013.
In December 2011, Baroudi communicated with a co-conspirator known as “T.S.,” whom Baroudi “knew to be associated with Ahrar al Sham.” The pair discussed exporting “US-origin goods, such as telephones, sniper rifle scopes, and night vision goggles, to Syria by carrying the goods in a suitcase on a flight from the United States to Turkey.”
Then, in July 2012, another co-conspirator known as “R.J.” traveled “aboard commercial flights from Los Angeles International Airport to Istanbul … with a variety of US-origin goods with the intent to provide the goods to individuals and entities in Syria.” R.J. later reported to Baroudi that “he had delivered at least some of the goods to” T.S.
On Feb. 14, 2013, Baroudi checked 14 bags of luggage – with a combined weight of 619 lbs – for commercial flights between Los Angeles International Airport and Gaizientep, Turkey, filled with “more US-origin tactical equipment which he intended to supply to rebel forces in Syria.” Baroudi declared to the airline that his luggage contained “clothes.”
The statement of facts also cites a document created by Baroudi in January 2013. The file “listed various supplies” for use in Syria. One entry referred to “3-9x30mm high quality rifle scopes.” The document included notes such as: “Proven to be real good in our environment,” “Sent 100s of them, used in ldlib and Halab [v]ery successfully,” and “People loved them and always asking for more.”
Idlib and Halab (Aleppo) are two cities in Syria where Ahrar al Sham continues to fight. In March 2015, Ahrar al Sham and the Al Nusrah Front, an arm of al Qaeda, announced that they had jointly established the Jaish al Fath coalition, which included several other rebel organizations as well. Jaish al Fath quickly overran the city of Idlib and swept through the surrounding area.
Ahrar al Sham launched a public relations campaign in the West last year. In an op-ed published by the Washington Post on July 10, 2015, for example, an Ahrar al Sham official denied that his group had “organizational links to” al Qaeda. But this claim is not credible.
Indeed, the DOJ specifically cites the relationship between Ahrar al Sham and Al Nusrah (referred to as “Jabhat al-Nusrah”) in its announcement.
“Ahrar al-Sham frequently fights alongside Jabhat al-Nusrah, which has been designated by the U.S. State Department as a foreign terrorist organization and operates as al-Qaeda’s official branch in Syria,” the DOJ noted.
In addition to Jaish al Fath, Al Nusrah and Ahrar al Sham have formed coalitions throughout Syria to battle their common enemies, especially the Assad regime and the Islamic State.
Moreover, Ahrar al Sham has been seeded with senior al Qaeda operatives. Ayman al Zawahiri’s top representative in Syria was Abu Khalid al Suri. A longtime al Qaeda operative, al Suri was killed in February 2014. In addition to serving al Qaeda, al Suri was also one of Ahrar al Sham’s most influential leaders.
After al Suri was killed, presumably at the hands of the Islamic State, Zawahiri released a glowing eulogy in which he described al Suri as his “advisor.” Other known al Qaeda jihadists have joined and led Ahrar al Sham as well.
In August of last year, Ahrar al Sham issued a eulogy for Mullah Omar, the Taliban’s founder and first emir. Ahrar al Sham said Mullah Omar was an “example of a believer,” who “reminded us of the true meanings of jihad and sincerity [or devotion].” Omar “taught us how to build the [Islamic] Emirate in the hearts of the people before it becomes a reality on the ground,” Ahrar al Sham explained. Describing Omar as the “blessed commander,” the group said his “blessed movement” (the Taliban) was poised for a comeback in Afghanistan due to his stewardship. [See LWJ report, Jihadists in Syria honor Mullah Omar, praise Taliban’s radical state.]
Baroudi was, therefore, providing supplies to an al Qaeda-linked group. Ironically, according to the statement of facts, some of the sanctions Baroudi violated actually targeted Bashar al Assad’s government. Ahrar al Sham is one of Assad’s strongest enemies on the ground in Syria.
Baroudi, formerly of Irvine, Calif., faces a maximum of 20 years in prison when sentenced on May 6, 2016.