Originally written for and posted at Calibre Obscura. The site is excellent at analysis of foreign sniping tactics and equipment and one that you should be paying attention to on the regular. And on that note, you do have a copy of Fry the Brain, right? -NCS
Xhemati Alban is a small Sunni jihadi militant group operating in Idlib Governorate/North Aleppo, who are ethnically Albanians, though originating from Kosovo. They have recently released a video on their “sniper squad”, although the group as a whole has additional members and are not limited to snipers. It appears to be no more than 10 members at present. They are widely thought to be a sub group of Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham. Whilst an separate group to HTS they do fall under the operational control of the larger group. Their goals, ideology and weaponry are hence closely aligned with HTS.
The video is shot in a documentary style, with impressive sound, editing and quality overall. It explains a narrative of a sniper squads’ equipment, tactics, training and finally in operation in a city block. It’s similar to IS video production quality and has clearly been edited and filmed by talented individuals. The equipment shown is all very close to what is routinely used by groups such as these, and seem entirely plausible to be used daily, regardless of a level of exaggeration for propaganda purposes.
Following the this video from Xhemati Alban on their sniper squad, below is some interesting aspects that I’ve noticed. I’m also including some social media images that were not released as part of the video, but display further aspects of the small arms of this small group.
Note: This is an expansion of an earlier Twitter thread, with additional detail. It’s shorter and not as comprehensive.
This video is notable for the use of high-quality, improvised, and customised small arms, as well as the general professional appearance of the militants.
The great bulk of the platforms in use are Mosin-Nagant rifles, which are not known for their accuracy or ergonomics, to say the least. The Mosin-Nagant is a bolt-action, 5 round internal magazine fed, bolt-action rifle developed from 1882 to 1891, and then issued from 1891 through to shortly after the Second World War. Many millions were made, and these have permeated throughout the world, with Syria being no exception. These are also exceptionally inexpensive in Idlib, costing only in the region of $50, which may explain their use by Xhemiati Alban, given the very high cost of the optics.
In order to mitigate the notoriously stiff bolt, unimpressive accuracy, sub-par ergonomics, and lack of accessory support, these rifles have been upgraded with 7.62x54r PK series general-purpose machine gun barrels, which are likely new spares, and in much better condition than the original, shot through, possible pre-WW2 barrels.
They have also been re-bedded in custom stocks and threaded for muzzle devices, such as suppressors or flash hiders, which are seen in the video. Custom stocks allows the rifles to be to free floated, bedded, and generally improved. These rifles would still not have the ergonomics or accuracy that a “proper” rifle for this use would have, such as the common Steyr SSG 69 rifles. However, being said they seem effective. 1 MOA is claimed by the group, which may appear unrealistic, but given that Finnish upgrades of the Mosin platform- 7.62 Tkiv 85- which also replaces the stock and barrel, but keeps the rifles’ receiver- still perform to a satisfactory standard for the Finnish Armed Forces, this may only be a small exaggeration. Regardless, it appears that they perform to a perfectly acceptable standard.
There’s various stock styles shown- which seems to be personal preference, but all of which look similar to those either commercially available for Western platforms, and appear to be solidly constructed.
Other rifles are also shown- these rifles are barely mentioned. We see two other models in the video, including a SVD Dragunov, which is very common in rebel-held territory, and a AM-50 Sayyad (Iranian HS. 50 clone), which is generally considered an anti-Materiel rifle. A single Austrian Steyr SSG 69 is very briefly seen, and can also be seen in social media photos.
It’s not completely clear why these other rifles aren’t mentioned, but considering that both are considerably more “stock” than the customised Mosin Nagants, thereby carrying much lower propaganda value, perhaps it’s just a matter of appearances. They are all reasonable platforms for the use case.
The optics used on the Bolt-Action Rifles are claimed to be Meopta ZD 6-24×56, which are expensive scopes ($1500+) meant for long range engagements- the manufacturer claims it is a “precision long range riflescope developed for sniper rifles in order to achieve deadly-accurate shot placement at extreme distances”. The scope features a Mil Dot 2 illuminated reticle with integrated range-finding markers is and calibrated for “accurate target estimation in standard calibers 7.62×51 NATO, .308, .338 WM and 12.7 mm”.
If these are genuine optics, which they appar to be, then this group clearly has some budget and expertise, which would align with the rest of the video. They are clearly prepared to sink a large amount of funding into their optics, taking a different approach to so many others- including other HTS sub groups- that often use cheap & ineffective optics. It’s unlikely that this is the sole optic that these militants choose to use on their rifles, however it does demonstrate enough resources and knowledge to move beyond the multiple cheap western and eastern bloc optics currently available in rebel-held territory.
Another notable point is the small arms of the sniper spotters and others in the squad. They are armed with some quite tricked out AKS-74 and AK-74, including craft-made suppressors, modern PK-01VS optics, camo jobs and additional rails.
There appears to be multiple PK-01VS Red Dot optics in use, with some measure of standardisation. PK01-VS is an very low, centerline red dot optic meant for use at close range, and is generally regarded as good quality- though western optics such as the EOTech range command generally higher prices than Eastern Bloc optics in rebel-held areas. The PK-01VS is currently in use in the Russian Army, but is actually produced by BelOMO in Belarus, a result of the legacy of the USSR choosing to manufacture optics there back when Belarus was not independent. However, the two countries remain very close, and a number of optics that the Russian Army (And it’s allies, such as the SyAA) use are manufactured there.
Other accessories, such as rails, are harder to identify, but we can see at least one FAB Defence Foregrip- FAB Defence accessories are extremely popular in Idlib.
It’s likely that the side rails on the rifle(s) have been indigenously added, as the AKS-74N/AK-74N models (N meaning including side rail, originally for Night Optics) is comparatively rare. This improvement significantly improves the utility of the rifle, meaning it is able to mount optics, and is much lower cost than purchasing the AK-74M.
The example below for sale is likely to be extremely similar to the rifles in use by this squad.
The choice of modern, standardised AK setups for both primary and secondary weapons- snipers seeming to carry an AKS-74U for backup- makes managing ammunition and user training easier. This is in contrast to some HTS groups, who can be seen using mixed weapons from Colt 653 to AK-103 to FN FAL.
We can see ample amounts of equipment, not just firearms, certainly not fitting the stereotypical “guy with AK” idea, borne of many years of Westen experience in the Middle East. We can also see the attention paid to camouflage patterns, using Multicam and other clones of popular western designs.
Another major aspect shown is suppressor production. While craft-made suppressors are not uncommon in rebel-held Syria at all, it is comparatively uncommon that we get to see the process of their manufacture. This is a valuable opportunity to gain a better understanding of how they are made, and given that many suppressors across different fighters and groups appear to be very similar, it gives us an insight into their design more generally.
These examples appear to be milled out of a single piece of metal, with baffles liked added afterwards, in a stacked pattern. These suppressors look and sound reasonably effective, but as we cannot see the internals of the device it is hard to judge on their design details. The group to evidently has the ability to produce standardised suppressors, and upgrade their rifles to a common standard, showing a level of professionalism and capability that is perhaps unexpected to those unused to the current nature of the Syrian conflict.
The group appears to try to paint a picture of self-sufficiency, whilst attempting to remain “as good as” international standards, likely using the ample resources available online to increase the standard of both their work on their equipment and their tactics. The author doesn’t specialise in tactics or good practice for precision rifle shooting & sniping, so can’t comment on that area, but their equipment shows dedication and a high level of skill. Their choice of a cost-effective platform with new barrels firing a reasonable cartridge, as well as good quality factory platforms such as the Dragunov and AM-50 Sayyad, means that their equipment should certainly be up to task enough for their neeeds, whilst of course not at the level of Western or Russian top equipment. Given the limitations of financing and equipment in the area however, this is to be expected.
The group has obviously taken pains to use modern and effective small arms, with the selection of suppressors and optics aligning well with the roles of the user, from spotter to sniper to other members of the squad. They are also somewhat standardised.
It must be taken into account that this video is propaganda. We don’t know what’s used when the camera is off- perhaps less, matching camos, worse or no optics and additional older or less accessorised small arms- such as the AKM as opposed to AK-74M, for example. Their social media does show these modern and “tactical” small arms in use however, so the video seems reasonably accurate to their actual equipment.
There is also a number of similar Mosin Nagants for sale in the open market in Idlib, so the Albanian Sniper Squad may not be as unique as they present themselves to be, perhaps relying on other craftsmen more than their propaganda would suggest. Regardless, Xhemati Alban continues to be a fascinating Jihadist sub-group, and their dedicated sniper squad even more so.