After more than a year, the issue of the kidnapped Lebanese men in the Syrian town of Azaz returned to the forefront, following the recent abduction of the two Turkish pilots in Lebanon. The abduction of the Turkish pilots is seen as a new way of pressuring the Turkish government, which is widely believed to have significant influence on the kidnappers. Some sources have gone as far as to say that the kidnapped Lebanese are in the custody of the Turkish intelligence services.
In conjunction with the abduction of the Turkish pilots, the leadership of the Northern Storm Brigade was swift to issue a statement about the kidnapped Lebanese.
“The leadership of the brigade is dealing with the matter of the abducted. There is nothing to negotiate about except the detainees in Syrian prisons. The leadership is ready to release a group of the abducted in return for the immediate release of 127 female prisoners,” the statement said, referencing a previous agreement regarding the kidnappers, which was said to be the result of the concerted efforts of Abbas Ibrahim, head of the Lebanese General Security.
The kidnappers demanded that the Syrian authorities release a list of female prisoners in exchange for the release of the Lebanese abductees. So, what is the story of the Northern Storm Brigade? How was it formed and who is its founder, Abu Ibrahim?
Ammar al-Dadikhi, known as Abu Ibrahim, was born in 1961, in the city of Azaz in the northern countryside of the Aleppo province. Azaz was famous for being one of the most active centers of smuggling in Syria. The Azaz families were “mafias” smuggling everything from the nearby Turkish border, including guns and drugs.
These families used to be the center of power in the city, and the Dadikhi family was not among their network.
Ibrahim al-Dadikhi, Ammar’s father, used to own large areas of agricultural land and many stores that sold paint, cement and tools in Azaz’s markets. He had a good reputation and his sons used to help him run his businesses, except for Ammar, who was described as being silent and introverted at the time.
Ammar preferred working in smuggling to helping his father with his business. He bought a diesel-powered pickup truck with a bed cover, which served as the best means of transport for smuggling on the road. He began collaborating with renowned tobacco smugglers, who were known back then by the name of Shabiha [thugs].
Ammar used to distribute tobacco in the regions affiliated with Azaz, down to the town of Rakka and the Turkish border. The relationship between the tobacco smugglers and the Syrian security services was strange. Sometimes, the security officers would receive bribes to facilitate the passage of tobacco smugglers, while at other times they would chase and clash with them. As a result of these campaigns that were waged against smugglers from time to time, several arrest warrants were issued against Ammar, although he used to have “good” relations with security officers in the region.
Abu Ibrahim the “rebel”
Azaz, which is adjacent to the Bab al-Salam border crossing, is seen as a border town par excellence. Its economy depends primarily on the smuggling operations, which are usually rife in the border towns.
In April 2011, seven people went to the streets chanting slogans against the regime in what people called a “demonstration.” This phenomenon was repeated with a slight increase in the number of demonstrators. A meeting was held at the home Haj Fadel Kenno, one of Azaz’s notables and a member of the Syrian parliament, to define Azaz’s position towards the movement, especially given that most of the demonstrators were related to Kenno.
The notables decided to try to calm the situation and convince demonstrators to renege on their movement, but to no avail. The security officers watched protesters without approaching them. However, after the demonstrations were over, they would raid some houses and arrest protesters, who were transferred to the Criminal Security, which in turn would refer them to the judiciary.
Despite the growing numbers of protests and demonstrations, Abu Ibrahim did not participate in any of them. Yet, he made his first appearance on the Syrian scene in September 2011, in conjunction with the start of the militarizing of the city, when he began forming armed groups.
Back then, Abu Ibrahim formed the Northern Storm Brigade, which included 220 fighters and was led by a defected lieutenant, related to Brig. Gen. Rustom Ghazali.
Abu Ibrahim revealed another side of him, one that is extremely violent and cruel. He ordered his militants to bring a bulldozer and dig a big pit in the mountain, turning it into a prison where those who incurred the wrath of Abu Ibrahim would be thrown!
At the time, Azaz’s government hospital had recently been renovated after having been supplied with the latest medical equipment at a cost of over one billion Syrian pounds ($200,000). When Azaz fell in the hands of armed groups, a group of “rebel doctors” took over the hospital, turning it into a field hospital offering free treatment to those wounded in clashes. Abu Ibrahim ordered his fighters to storm the hospital, looting it and expelling everybody from it. Doctors were arrested and imprisoned in the mountain pit.
Later on, he rented the National Hospital, which was owned by Azaz Orphanage, and declared that he would provide free medical consultation!
During that period, the number of militants affiliated with Abu Ibrahim increased with the increased funds he had acquired as a result of looting the properties of prominent families in Azaz, most notably the Waysi family, which was historically known as being opposed to the regime, since it was affiliated with the Baath al-Iraq Organization.
Nevertheless, the family was known for drug trade and manufacturing. It used to have strong but suspicious relations with security officers. The family’s men used to have tremendous influence in the town of Azaz.
Despite the ferocity of the family’s men and their excellent arming, Abu Ibrahim managed to eliminate most of them and loot their properties, as he did to many other prominent families in Azaz.
Abu Ibrahim managed to procure medium-grade weapons, including heavy machine guns and others. He also made sure to shower his men and aides with money, so that they would pledge blind allegiance to him. He managed in record time to emerge as a leader of a group of gunmen that imposed its presence in the region, outstripping other fledgling groups that were less aggressive and less armed.
With the decline of the authority of the Syrian state in the region, armed groups raced to take over the border crossing at Bab al-Salam. Yet, everybody was surprised when the Northern Storm Brigade seized it.
Rumors spread that military security forces withdrew from the crossing, handing it over to Abu Ibrahim’s militants.
Abu Ibrahim used his control of the crossing to impose fees on truck drivers, making sure to kidnap travelers who appeared to be wealthy, and demanding ransoms.
A family member of one of the abducted told As-Safir that the ransom they paid to secure the release of their children was deposited in a bank account in Switzerland in the name of Abu Ibrahim.
Abu Ibrahim had four main aides, namely and according to their respective importance: Samir Amouri, a former teacher; Tarek Diab Hajula, a former worker in a roastery; Munir Hassoun, an imam of a mosque in Azaz; and Mohammad Shawqi al-Shish, a motorcycle mechanic. Later on, a fifth assistant joined them: Ismail Sali, known as Abu Hadi. Sali has a criminal record and was prevented from applying for official job postings.
The Northern Storm Brigade had never engaged in actual military battles until the military airport of Ming was besieged. Some link the step taken by Abu Ibrahim to the strong ties formed with Turkish intelligence agencies. Another story recounts that this siege was a mere “theatrical act agreed upon with the friends of Abu Ibrahim in the Syrian security agency.”
The most prominent event, through which the name of Abu Ibrahim and the brigade really shined, was the abduction of 11 Lebanese pilgrims in May 2012, before releasing two of them at separate times.
Last February, Abu Ibrahim was shot in the calf by a DShK machine gun near the Ming airport. Sources told As-Safir that this was the result of friendly fire. Subsequently, Abu Ibrahim’s leg muscles were seriously injured and it took him 20 minutes to reach the closest medical point. The doctor suggested amputating his leg. However, he was unconscious at the time and none of his companions agreed to take a decision on his behalf for fear of his reaction, and thus they refused to amputate it.
There are two stories about the fate of Abu Ibrahim, which come from a source within the brigade. The first speaks of Abu Ibrahim being transported to France through Turkey, where he died. His body was then transported back to Syria and buried in Azaz. The second story claims that his death was faked for “security reasons” to take him out of the scene.
According to the latter, which is most likely true, Abu Ibrahim’s injury was intentional and was not aimed at killing him. He is moving on with his life and his wealth was divided between himself and the brigade.
After the absence of Abu Ibrahim, the most influential man in the brigade has become Samir Amuri, Abu Ibrahim’s right hand. Amuri entered into an agreement with the leader of the al-Tawhid brigade, Abdul Kader al-Saleh — known as “Hajji Mari” — and one of the leaderships of the al-Fatah brigade in Tal Rifaat to share the administration of the Bab al-Salam crossing. They imposed a daily fee of 20,000 Syrian pounds, or $1000, on every truck that passes through the crossing. Additionally, a group has split from the Northern Storm Brigade and formed a group by the name of “Sham Swords Brigade,” led by Hadi Salo, the son of the fifth assistant of Abu Ibrahim.
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