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The Whispers Below: Islamic Front Tries to Break Stalemate with Massive Tunnel Bombs

Using old-fashioned subterranean explosives and new-fangled social media techniques, anti-Assad groups fight on in Aleppo.
May 30, 2014, 12:28pm
Image via Agence France Presse

Deep underground beneath Aleppo, Syria, a rebel commander speaks to the camera. He introduces himself and his colleagues as they make preparations to detonate several tons of high explosives under enemy positions.

“We are now with the brother Abu Mus'ab inside the 75 meter long tunnel. The center of the explosion will be the Carlton Hotel, operations headquarters of the regime in the old city of Aleppo… We promised to show them in Aleppo military work that has never been seen before, since the revolution."

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Syria's three-year-old conflict has become a confusing war of attrition. The regime has recently reclaimed the rebel stronghold of Homs after essentially wiping it off the map, and up to 70 percent of Aleppo’s inhabitants have fled what was once the nation’s economic capital. Infighting among rebels, which has claimed thousands of lives, is now considered status quo. Extremist group the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), notorious for beheadings, has imposed a year-long reign of terror on the population of the north, and the regime has resorted to chlorine gas and barrel bomb attacks on civilians.

US citizen commits a suicide attack in Syria's Idlib province. Read more now.

In this chaotic context, the population of northern Syria has grown desperate for an alternative group to emerge as a dominant force against both the Assad regime and ISIS. In 2013, the creation of a new coalition called the Islamic Front was announced. The new alliance is essentially a loose collection of different types of Islamists formed with Saudi financing as counterweight to the rising tide of more extreme al-Qaeda affiliates. On January 3 of this year, the Islamic Front rose to prominence not because of its battle against the regime, but due to a declaration of war against ISIS. The coalition fighters were surprisingly effective in ejecting ISIS from Aleppo province and restoring a far less strict interpretation of Sharia law.

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Rebels have faced serious losses from the regime and infighting. In this environment, the Islamic Front is eager to prove itself against the regime, looking for tactical victories on the battlefield and propaganda victories on social media. For the time being, tunnel bombing is the tactic of choice, inspiring terror in regime forces and building legitimacy for the new Islamist alliance among Syrians.

In another video, the fighters make good on their prior threat to take out the regime headquarters. To wild shouts of Allahu Akbar, quite literally tons of debris can be seen flying hundreds of feet into the air as the hotel is eradicated. A watermark of the Islamic Front logo is fixed in the corner of the screen for the duration of the video. A postmortem announcement of the attack indicates that fourteen government troops were killed and their headquarters rendered inoperable. This signifies a major blow, as the hotel was being used as a command and control center for the Aleppo Citadel, the stronghold of regime forces in the divided city. The psychological impact of destroying a regime headquarters from below cannot be overstated.

Amateur video shows shows an explosion that destroyed the Carlton Hotel in Aleppo, Syria, earlier this month.

On the same day, May 6, in the province of Idlib, fighters from the Islamic Front lay in wait, filming a government checkpoint that had hindered their movement in the area for months. Another massive detonation erupts, destroying the green countryside and killing thirty government troops. One week later, yet another video is posted to YouTube — another tunnel bomb is set off under a government checkpoint in Idlib province. Again, the logo of the Islamic Front is prominently watermarked on the upper left corner of the screen.

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This tactic is certainly not new. Tunnel bombs were used by Saladin’s army during the Siege of Jerusalem in 1187, by both sides during World War I, famously by the Vietcong against American forces, and more recently by the al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigade in Palestine and by Hezbollah in Lebanon.

What is unprecedented in the Syrian context is the increasingly dominant role of social media. YouTube and Facebook have become the primary forums for rebel groups' self-promotion and claiming responsibility for attacks. In his dispatch from the underground, a commander is keen to emphasize what group he comes from and how hard his men worked to destroy their target:

“We've been in this tunnel for about two and a half months, since we [Suqour al Sham, an Islamic Front faction] arrived to Aleppo. We are 10 meters under the surface, and we've been working 24 hours by working eight-hour shifts… We have hit water… and once, we were discovered by the regime forces who set off a mine.”

A car bomb near Turkey's border with Syria kills dozens. Read more here.

The fighters using the tactic are acutely aware of its historical and psychological significance. They have given themselves code names intended to elicit fear in government troops who, using a counter-tunneling method used since World War I, may be trying to listen in with microphones dug into the earth. In Islamic and Arabic mythology, jinn are powerful creatures of smokeless fire and body made by Allah and generally perceived as spirits that whisper in people’s ears causing them to act for good or ill, so “we called ourselves jinn names,” says the rebel commander, “like Holako, Yahoos, Yahook, Nassar — names similar to jinn names, so we can scare them in case they hear us.”

Tunnel bombing is one of many evolving and brutal tactics in a war that is pushing the limits of technology and human suffering, that has seen oil drums turned into bombs and social media turned into a propaganda weapon. A war with no end in sight that the Islamic Front hopes it can win.

Follow Patrick Hilsman on Twitter @PatrickHilsman