"Billionaire" Ahmad Afash: Pioneer, Thief and Founder of Free Syria Brigade

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Syrian rebel fighters drink tea around a firewood in a street of the northern Syrian city of Aleppo on December 8, 2013. (Photo: AFP - Mohammed Al-Khatieb).

By: Suhaib Anjarini

Published Friday, December 13, 2013

Earlier this month, the Free Syria Brigade issued a statement announcing its withdrawal from the 16th Division of the Free Syrian Army (FSA). Instead, it would work independently after "restructuring some sections of the Brigade,” in particular, "the dismissal of some of the abusive battalions." But how does the Free Syria Brigade define abuse? The answer for this question may be found in the story behind the brigade and its chief Ahmed Afash, know as the "great billionaire," due to his "revolutionary achievements."

About the "Founder"

Born to a family from Andan in March 1970, Ahmed Afash was born and raised in Aleppo. The residents of his neighborhood, al-Khalidiya, were mostly poor rural families from the nearby countryside. They began arriving in the late 1960s and settled on some of Khalidiya's lands, building humble homes.

His family – one of the poorest in the neighborhood – was given the name "Afshana.” Ahmed did not complete his compulsory education and worked odd jobs throughout his teenage years. He started out carrying cement bags to construction sites on his shoulders, which is when his relationship with "hallucinogenic pills" began.

He moved around with several cliques of ill repute, trying to become the feared leader of the pack, and managed to forge strong links with people in the countryside known as "the watchers." They were snitches for some security forces.

In due time, he became friends with one of the customs supervisors at al-Salameh border crossing [with Turkey]. Ahmed became his errand boy and thus his life unfolded until he reached the crossroads of "the revolution."

About the "Institution"

At the start of the "revolutionary mobilization" in Aleppo's countryside, Abu Ismail al-Raj, known as "the chief" in Andan, supported it with money and arms, spending millions from money he had made as a road paving contractor. Sources who used to be close to al-Raj maintain he was threatened by cutting off his dues from the public sector for contracting works he had implemented to the tune of 350 million Syrian Pounds (around US $7 million at the time). The sources indicate that al-Raj was supposed to "cooperate to control the mobilization."

According to the sources, for months, al-Raj succeeded in preventing the Syrian army from entering Andan and played a major role in releasing many detainees, spending millions of dollars in bribes. A while later, he was shot in his shoulder in al-Hamadaniya neighborhood. "It was a harsh warning by the air force intelligence," one of his supporters said at the time. "The chief was arrested after his injury and remained in detention for around a week. He was pressured to become an agent at the hands of the regime."

In February 2012, an armed group attacked al-Raj's car on the outskirts of Hritan and shot him dead. The head of the group, according to some sources, was none other than Ahmed Afash. Although the information had not been confirmed, it is certain that Afash's notoriety started to rise a little bit later.

He gathered around him a number of people with a bad reputation and took up "armed struggle," announcing the creation of the 500-man strong Free Andan Brigade, before changing the name to the Free Syria Brigade. They took control of Andan and its surroundings, after the group captured some tanks in their infamous attack on the town checkpoint. The tanks, despite being old, increased Afash’s influence and more people joined.

The Free Syria Brigade became one of the groups in the Aleppo Sharia Council, initiated by al-Nusra Front and joined by some of the most prominent armed groups, such as al-Tawhid Brigade and Ahrar al-Sham Movement.

In theory, the Brigade announced the withdrawal of its fighters from al-Bustan border crossing on 10 December, handing it to "battalions delegated by the Council." The Free Syria Brigade was also one of the founders of the FSA's 16th Division last September, withdrawing last November to avoid clashes with the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS). It issued a statement announcing "the transfer of headquarters of the eastern front command of the Brigade into Aleppo city and the redeployment of its first and second battalions to Aleppo to support the city and defend it from the regime's forces."

Afash in the "Glory Days"

Afash granted himself several rewards; the license plate for his S500 Mercedes – known as Shabah the car that became the infamous car of choice and lent its name to the shabbeeha – had the number 0001 and has Free Syria Brigade written across it. He always had armed bodyguards around him, even during military meetings with the other "brigade commanders," with two gunmen standing behind him.

One of those who met him maintained to Al-Akhbar that "he always spoke with a sweet tongue, leaving everyone he met with the impression that he would not disappoint them." However, "he would easily stab anyone in the back." One example is when he gave up on his "disciple" Khaled Hayani, "the little billionaire," who decided to confront ISIS.

In those "days of glory," Afash grabbed any opportunity to enrich himself, by confiscating, for example, large quantities of alcohol and selling it for cheap to merchants outside Aleppo, according to one merchant who received an offer to buy them by coincidence. Last April, Afash was hit by a mortar shell shrapnel, which entered his right lung. A little while later, he handed the leadership of the Brigade to his brother Mahmoud, retaining for himself its "political leadership."

A "Safe Haven" in Turkey

Sensing the unfolding threat in Aleppo and its countryside, emerging from ISIS in particular, he fled to Turkey, where he rented two whole floors at a hotel in Mersin along with his entourage. Recently, a Syrian opposition website leaked an electronic conversation between Afash's lover and one of his men.

His lover maintained that he is going through a bad time, cannot stop taking pills or drinking alcohol, and was admitted to the hospital once due to this. However, the Free Syria Brigade remains in some parts of Aleppo and its countryside, especially at the Bab al-Hadid roundabout, Andan, and al-Liramoun.

In its latest statement issued earlier this month, the Brigade announced that it "did not recognize any of the formations, gatherings, or governments established abroad, including the Syrian National Council, Syrian National Coalition, the Central Command, or the Military Council, and would not recognize any council or government created outside the country."

"We inform you that we did not receive any support from the abovementioned councils, neither arms nor money, and we only recognize those who struggle on Syrian soil and is on our side in our principle fight to topple the regime."

Afash stands accused by many from the opposition of being "an agent of air force intelligence" and having "hatched a fake battle around the air force building, while he was actually trying to avoid its storming." Some sources claim that "al-Nusra Front asked him to deliver the sector containing the air force intelligence and he asked for 500 million Syrian pounds in return, as an impossible condition."

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From Saudi Funding to Self Sufficiency

Ahmed Afash's men were known to be very loyal to him, thanks to the great sums of money spent on his group. Someone who had met him said he kept repeating, "I have 2,000 men, who cost me 2 million Liras a day." But these expenses do not include the cost of the trucks carrying DShK machine guns or mid-range weapons. It only covers the cost of ammunition, food, and other daily expenses.

Sources from inside the Brigade maintain to Al-Akhbar that Afash "received his funding from the Saudis, at first, and Saudi groups collecting donations for the mujahideen in Syria." As time went by, he started making a lot of money by stealing, and looting huge quantities of wheat stocks from warehouses in al-Liramoun. He also robbed several factories and warehouses in Liramoun and Hamra.

He became a pioneer of tashwil, a local term for stealing and plundering in the name of "revolution." Of course, he did not fail to join in the kidnapping spree, picking his victims from the wealthy and demanding huge ransoms.

This article is an edited translation from the Arabic Edition.

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