Uploaded onto YouTube on October 8, 2013 was a 1 minute and 40 seconds long video claiming to show members of Lebanese Hizballah brutally executing, “wounded Syrians”.
The film was shocking for more than its sadistic contents. Accusations of Lebanese Hizballah carrying out massacres and executions have been part and parcel of the pro-Syrian rebel narrative for some time. Yet, despite claims of that variety and daily doses of ultra-violence pouring endlessly onto the web for the past two years from pro-rebel and anti-Assad sides of the spectrum; little, in terms of videotaped human rights violations by Hizballah or by their allied Syria-based Iraqi Shia militias, could be found online.
Owing in large part to these groups’ Iranian-proxy status and clear religiously-based order, the aforementioned Shia Islamist organizations function in a far more militarily professional manner. Additionally, Lebanese Hizballah and their Iranian-backed Iraqi cohorts, operate advanced messaging and propaganda initiatives. In turn, this has allowed for them to successfully present their narratives and images to a wide audience.
Furthermore, there has been some criticism regarding the veracity and authenticity of the video clip. In part this is due to claims that the audio for the clip could not be verified and may be taken from other sources.
Nevertheless, after close analysis, this clip may be the first substantial video evidence demonstrating Lebanese Hizballah and/or other Shia militia (primarily staffed by Iraqis) groups in Syria of conducting blatant human rights abuses.
This piece will attempt to go through the evidence presented in the video by assessing the main data-points and other factors which have been at play in Shia militia circles and details found in the video:
- Uniforms, headbands, and ribbons worn by the fighters.
- The Lebanese accent of the shooters and those speaking
- The discussion of Iranian revolutionary concepts adopted by Hizballah.
- Trends in Hizballah and among fellow Iranian-backed Shia Islamist groups for filming and photographing dead rebels.
- Assessing where the video originated.
- An increase in the posting of brutal images featuring dead rebels by Shia Islamist groups in Syria.
A Rough Transcript of the Film
With the traffic from short wave radios and the lack of visible speech by particular fighters, the task of writing a highly accurate transcription was made somewhat difficult. Additionally, I did not write what was being said during the radio transmissions. Regardless, this is what could be picked-up:
Fighter to other militants: “Move it! Move it! Move it!” *The fighters run around a van to the vehicle’s trunk.* (0.01-0.05)
*Radio traffic* (0.05-0.14)
A chant from off camera: “fi sabil Allah” (0.11)
*The fighters pull what appear to be wounded men, most likely Syrians, from the back of a van or minibus. There’s heavy radio traffic obscuring what the fighters are saying.* (0.12-0.30)
A fighter says: “Fi sabil Allah” (0.20-0.21)
*Three men are pulled from the back of the van.* (0.20.-0.35)
*One of the men is immediately shot.* (0.35-0.37)
*Another man is pulled from the van.* (0.37-0.54)
A supposed militant says: “Bring him down.” (Meaning a man from the back of the van). (0.44)
A more hushed voice chimes in and says: “Hold on! Wait! Wait!” (0.53-0.54)
*This man is shot multiple times in the head.* (0.57-1.01)
Screaming voice off camera: “O guys!” (1.01)
Another fighter’s voice: “Enough” (1.02)
Said by another person (possibly the cameraman or a fighter to another fighter. Even added to the video’s context it can be viewed as a compliment or as sarcasm): “You’re a tough one.” (1.05-1.06) (some have speculated that the accent used is Syrian, still this section of speech is not definitive enough to be deemed Syrian).
One of the fighters: “That one is mine…The killer of the martyr Yahiya is mine!” (Meaning the fighter had selected a person on the ground to shoot) (1.06-1.10)
Another fighter says: “I am *inaudible* on my own (1.10-1.12)
In the background another fighter says: “Hizballah” (1.10-12)
Another voice (possibly a fighter): “Why are you using this rhetoric?” (1.12-1.13)
*What appears to be wounded a man is pulled from the back of the van.* (1.11-1.16)
Another Militant: “O! For the martyr Yahiya!” (1.16-1.19)
*Inaudible speech in background* (1.16-19)
A clearer voice says: “Come, come.” (1.16-1.19)
*The fighter who pulled down the man kicks him and is stopped by another militant.* (1.16-1.20)
Fighter referred to as ‘Hajj’ (speaking Lebanese dialect): “Wait. Wait. We are performing our taklif and we are not seeking personal vengeance.” *This fighter goes off camera and another comes to the fore and shoots the man on the ground.* (1:23-1:36)
Another fighter off-screen says: "fine, fine, Hajj. fi sabil Allah.” (1.28)
Another militant: "No! The martyr Yahiya! No!” (1.29-1.35)
*A rifle is fired by a militant who comes into frame at the man writhing on the ground* (1.35-1.38)
Off-screen militant: “Move it [“yallah”, in Lebanese slang], let’s go." (1.38-1.40)
Criticism of the Clip
Extremely graphic - Figure : A Kata'ib Sayyid al-Shuhada photograph of a rebel with his ribcage blown open. The caption for this picture included a, "Hahahahahaha".
Criticism of the Clip
Found on some pro-Assad and pro-Hizballah websites was a piece criticizing the movie by Mr. Ahmed M. Yassin. In an interesting twist, the author blames the Syrian army and/or the National Defense Forces (a Syrian state-supported militia-style group trained by Iran and Hizballah). He also correctly states that the actions of those in the video would constitute a war crime.
Yassin starts out by saying the radio transmissions are taken from a clip involving Hizballah fighters in Qusayr and their headquarters in May, 2013. These clips were provided in the article. When compared, it is extremely hard to tell whether there is any credibility to this criticism. Additionally, if the radio traffic was faked, that would necessitate the other audio sections were also added later. Still, the author does not come to this conclusion. Plus, the audio tends to match with the actions seen in the film.
Yassin added to this by claiming the uniforms seen in the video do not match the type worn by Hizballah. According to the author, this was due to the green and brown colors not being as “dark” as some previously utilized by Hizballah. An example from the 2006 Hizballah-Israel War is offered as supporting evidence for this claim. Additionally, the author also claims that the pants are not the same as those Hizballah. However, rationally speaking, it’s not hard, nor is it unheard of fighters (in professional or paramilitary organizations) altering their uniforms. (See explanation covering uniforms used by Hizballah and other Shia militias below).
The piece also stated that “fi sabil Allah” would not be used by an ideologically educated Hizballah fighter in the context of “killing” (a term used during the film) for Allah. Only “fighting” in a justified and sanctioned war for Allah (see explanation below regarding this phrase). Though, this minor linguistic distinction appears to be more about splitting hairs, rather than establishing the statements made in the video as spurious.
Where Did the Video Come From?
The clip was first uploaded to a YouTube account belonging to a website called NewLebanon.info. This site appears to present itself as a more independent (as opposed to being tied to the main Shia parties, Hizballah or Harakat Amal) Shia-oriented news provider in Lebanon.
After the video was posted, NewLebanon.info published a piece defending its authenticity. In it, they argued that even if the audio was added later, defenders of Hizballah had no explanation for the material shown in the video. This form of defense also leaves holes for further criticism, particularly regarding the images presented in the video. Essentially, NewLebanon.info’s case rests on the assumption the fighters shown were Hizballah members. However, with the little information available, sans audio, it would be impossible to confirm whether the fighters were from Hizballah or not.
The Ayatollah’s New Clothes
Some viewers of the video have come to the conclusion that the fighters shown in the clip must be Hizballah members due to the presence of yellow ribbons tied to their battle fatigues. While this sounds like an argument based on an odd piece of minutia, Syrian rebel groups, their supporters, and onlookers have repeatedly stated that yellow ribbons are a clear identity marker for Hizballah members in Syria.
Additionally, one of the fighters in the video is wearing a green headband as he drags wounded and possibly dead bodies from the back of a van. This may be another sign he may belong to a Shia organization.
It is true that the variety of Shia militia groups backing the Assad regime have been photographed and recorded wearing plain headbands or those featuring religious slogans (most often, they are colored black, green, red, or yellow).
Additionally, there is quite a lot of history of yellow ribbon decorations symbolizing Khomeinist causes. In the early 90s, Iranian protesters would go to Mecca and protest the U.S. and Israel wearing their yellow ribbons and bands.
More recently, Hizballah fighters have also been recorded in Syria with yellow-ribbons tied to their uniforms. In Lebanon, the group used yellow-ribbon wearing street-toughs when intimating and attacking their Shia opposition. Members of the Iranian-backed Iraqi Shia groups, Asa’ib Ahl al-Haq and Kata’ib Sayyid al-Shuhada, often feature their fighters in Syria wearing these types of adornments. Liwa’a ‘Ammar Ibn Yasir (see videos marked: “LAIY Fighters With A Captured Rebel & Engaged In Combat” and “LAIY Fighters Record Syrian Rebels They Killed”), another Shia militia group formed primarily from Asa’ib Ahl al-Haq and Kata’ib Hizballah members, has also been filmed with their members wearing green headbands featuring Shia religious slogans and yellow ribbons.
The emphasis on these color combinations has roots which trace back to Hizballah’s official party colors, yellow and green, which are featured on the group’s flag (though, in most occasions, yellow is more normally associated with Hizballah). Green also finds its place into the color spectrum of Shia Islamists since it is the color of Islam and the Ahl al-Bayt (the descendants of the Prophet Muhammed to whom Shia pay special devotion).
While markers such as these serve as interesting circumstantial evidence pointing to Lebanese Hizballah involvement, they are hardly enough to establish that fighters from Hizballah or Iraqi Shia militia members were in the video. Shia militia groups operating in Syria and militias directly controlled by the regime of Bashar al-Assad have donned many different styles of colored ribbons as identity markers. Members of Liwa’a al-Imam al-Hasan, a primarily Iraqi Shia militia which operates in conjunction with Hizballah in Rif Dimashq, has been recorded wearing red and yellow ribbons. Assad’s own Ba’ath Party militia, Kata’ib al-Ba’ath and the National Defense Forces have also been shown wearing red (in an ironic twist, the video link actually has a Lebanese Hizballah song playing in the background) and yellow ribbons.
Ribbons and headbands aside, there is also the issue of the taped fighters’ uniforms. The pattern, appears to be modeled off of or an actual U.S. M81 Woodland Pattern Battle Dress Uniform (BDU). This uniform type is seen quite regularly on Lebanese Hizballah members and with other Shia militiamen operating in Syria. Additionally, Woodland Pattern types are widely available across the Middle East. Hizballah’s main backer, Iran, has even manufactured its own varieties. This style of uniform is also commonly worn by Hizballah and other Shia militias fighting in Syria.
|Figure : A Kata'ib Sayyid Shuhada member in a Woodland Pattern-style BDU (covered in dust) and with a headband featuring a Shia slogan ("Husayn ya aba al-shuhada"or “Husayn O father of the martyrs”)|
|Figure : Lebanese Hizballah’s Mahdi Yaghi. His death in Syria was announced on October 1, 2013. Note his woodland pattern-style uniform and the headband.|
|Figure : A Hizballah figher who was kiilled in September during a fight in Ba'albek, Lebanon. He too wears the woodland pattern-type camouflage.|
Khomeinism Rears Its Head
Throughout the clip, “In the path of Allah” (“fi sabil Allah”, also transliterated as, “fi sabillah”) is said a number of times, underlining a religious message from executioners. In the context of the video, the phrase is used as another religious justification for the killings. While this phrase is important for Sunni and Shia Muslims alike, particularly those waging jihad, it has a special place in Hizballah propaganda and in the party’s background. One of Hizballah’s earliest songs, “Ya Aba Abdillah”, repeats the phrase as part of the lyrics. When Hizballah’s “martyrs” have been announced, the slogan finds its way into online commemorations. As a long-arm for Iran’s Islamic Revolution, the group itself is also cast as following “in the path of Allah”. Thus, the “Party of Allah”, is presented as executing his will on earth.
One of the filmed Hizballah members pauses to state the goals of the executions and possible chide another fighter who kicked a prisoner. In a very clear Lebanese accent he states, “We are performing our taklif and we are not seeking personal vengeance”. The mention of performance of a taklif is one of the most important sections of the video demonstrating these fighters likely originated from Hizballah.
In a June USA Today article which covered Hizballah’s involvement in Syria, a Hizballah fighter noted, "Everyone who is sent to fight in Syria has received a 'Taklif Sharii'". USA Today added the taklif sharii is “a religious command that means he will go to heaven if killed.” Nevertheless, the taklif sharii is more than just a religious edict which guarantees a martyred fighter’s spot in heavenly paradise. It is a religious obligation put forth by a cleric and must be followed. In fact, it is a form of religious ruling which underpins the Khomeinist ideology guiding Iran, Hizballah, and all of the main Iraqi Shia organizations sending militiamen to Syria.
Augustus Richard Norton noted that Hizballah’s adherence to taklif sharii is a theological legal ruling, “as though commanded by Allah”. According to Mohammed Sherri, an Al-Manar (Hizballah’s official TV channel) commentator, “once a taklif is issued, violating it is similar to any sin, like murder or adultery, or not praying or fasting.” In traditional Shi’ism, the taklif sharii was rarely issued and normally did not deal with political issues. The concept was actually revived as an important Shia idea by the father of Iran’s Revolution, Grand Ayatollah Khomeini and as an important support for his form of clerical rule, Wilayat al-Faqih (in Persian it’s known as Velayat e-Faqih). In effect, the issuing of a taklif sharii by a high ranking Shia cleric, in this case Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei—The “Spiritual leader” of Hizballah and the other Iraqi Shia groups, is a direct order coming from Allah.
Prior to and during the Iraq War (2003), Iran facilitated the creation of so-called, “special groups” and political organizations loyal to Wilayat al-Faqih. Hizballah is also a firm supporter of the Wilayat al-Faqih ideology. Iraq’s “special groups” of yesteryear are now fully formed political and militant organizations. Included among these organizations are Iraq’s Asa’ib Ahl al-Haq, Kata’ib Hizballah, the Badr Organization, and Kata’ib Sayyid al-Shuhada—All suppliers of Shia fighters to Syria.
Journalist Nicholas Blanford notes that new Hizballah members, “absorb the principles of the Islamic revolution in Iran, obedience to the wali al-faqih [the head of an Islamic state, according to the system of wilayat al-faqih, which holds that the preeminent religious authority should be the supreme ruler]”. The same is true for these Iraqi Shia fighters who cooperate with Hizballah in Syria.
All of these organizations received a takif sharii from Iranian and higher-level local clerics to fight in Syria. Thus, this concept’s appearance in the clip’s dialogue underlines that the fighters are not simply “Shia volunteers”, but ideologically trained fighters.
The Propaganda of Brutality
Ideology is not the only factor pointing to Hizballah’s involvement in the video. Staged photographs featuring dead rebel fighters is also hardly a new form of propaganda for Hizballah and allied Shia Islamist organizations. In fact, a prominent face for Hizballah “martyrdom” in Syria, Hajj Ali Jamal al-Jashi (A.K.A. Haidar) was filmed prior to his death (announced in April, 2013) posing next dead rebel fighters (it’s important to note that the footage seen after Jashi is shown supposedly comes from a Hizballah “night time ambush” in Syria in September).
The message presented is clear, the rebels are being “punished” (a common term on Shia militia social media on captions for dead rebels) for daring to oppose the “Resistance” of Hizballah and its allied regional organizations. Still, Hizballah and their social media sites do not often post the more graphic varieties photographs of dead rebels and has rarely posted photographs of its fighters with the dead. Nevertheless, this is not the case for other Iraqi Shia organizations fighting in Syria and the posting of these types of photos onto Shia Islamist social media has been an increasing trend.
The executions also bear a striking resemblance to photographs released by other allied Shia militia organizations. In some respects, it can be argued that Kata’ib Sayyid al-Shuhada has almost fetishized the posting of gruesome photographs of dead rebels, at times featuring piles of dead, and of their own fighters posing with the bodies (see the section marked, “Gruesome Uploads: KSS Promotes Their Kills”). Nearly 20 percent (37) of the 207 photographs posted by Kata’ib Sayyid al-Shuhada’s official Facebook page are of dead rebels. Asa’ib Ahl al-Haq also occasionally posts photographs of dead rebels. In April and May, Liwa’a Abu Fadl al-Abbas also posted graphic photographs of their dead enemies. These same pictures have circulated around social media circles which promote Shia Islamist militias in Syria.
Since piles of dead bodies are often photographed together in open fields and other areas, it can be assumed they have been piled there and then photographed. This allows for Hizballah and their allied organizations to issue a more effective message. With these photos, they can bluntly demonstrate they are having success in the field and that they have contempt for their enemies.
|Figure : This photograph purportedly shows a member of Liwa’a Abu Fadl al-Abbas stepping on the head of a captured Syrian rebel. The picture has circulated on pro-Shia militia social media pages since April.|
|Figure : Another photograph posted in April supposedly showing Liwa'a Abu Fadl al-Abbas members standing over a dead rebel. This is a newer version of the photo with a new logo posted in the upper-right corner.|
|Figure : Two Kata'ib Sayyid al-Shuhada militiamen pose with the bodies of dead rebels. One of the Shia militiamen has his boot on the face of a dead rebel.|
|Figure : Another photo supposedly showing a Shia militiaman with his foot on the body of a "Nusra Front terrorist" in Damascus.|
|Figure : Asa'ib Ahl al-Haq's Liwa'a Kafil Zaynab (AAH-LKZ) posted this and a number of photos featuring killed rebels and using them as examples of AAH-LKZ’s combat effectiveness.|
|Figure : A photo of dead rebel bodies from a pro-Shia militia Facebook page. The picture is credited to Kata'ib Sayyid al-Shuhada. However, it has been posted by other Shia miitia groups.|
Attempting to conclude which organization the militants in the video came from, based simply on their uniforms and ribbons, is a futile exercise. This is particularly the case in Syria where weapons systems, uniforms, and a wide variety of equipment can and has easily traded hands.
However, when placed in a wider context with the fighters speaking in Lebanese accents and discussing important Khomeinist ideological concepts (which are of key importance to Hizballah) helps establish the possibility that fighters from Hizballah were involved. Since Hizballah and its allied organizations have taken to posting brutal imagery, featuring piles of dead rebel fighters, the clip may have shown what could have been a prelude to posts of that nature or another example (this time, involving Shia fighters) of a heightened level of brutality present in Syria.
Unfortunately, as with many YouTube clips emanating from Syria, more evidence is needed to make a definitive calls about the clip in question. Though, based on the large amount of circumstantial data, it is highly likely these were Hizballah fighters executing a number of men.