The Shabiha: Ghost Stories?
The Shabiha (singular Shabih), also known by other transliterations like "Shabbiya," versions with a "ch" beginning, and even "Hbih") are, well... as generally understood, they're a network or mafia of Alawi (Alawite) militia loyal to the government of president Bashar Al-Assad, who shares their religion (Alawi'ism is a little-understood offshoot of Shi'ism). That is, aside from the other Shabiha groups who are mainline Shi'ite and even Sunni, but still support and fight for the government. (See below, Non-Alawite Shabiha.) They are a reported as a tight-knit cult of muscle-bound, drug-crazed ethnic-cleansers, but when seen, often appear more like paunchy middle-aged men in camouflage and sneakers. (See below, "Appearance".)
The word "Shabiha" is generally translated "thugs," but apparently derives from "ghosts" originally or, perhaps, from the local militias the men referred to actually belong to, or to a couple of other things. (See below, Etymology.) No one really knows.
Among other acts of violence and repression, the Shabiha - especially the Alawite ones around Homs and Hama - have been blamed by the opposition for most or all of the most horrific civilian massacres of 2012 and 2013. (See below, "Shabiha Massacres".) There are however doubts that appear case-by-case about the truth of these crimes, as well as doubts about the Shabiha in general - to what extent does this dismembering ghost army version of the Shabiha even exist?
Please note, this page no longer only a stub, but still lacks exploration of many vital areas. See the discussion page to see, or add to, more detailed content awaiting proper inclusion. Even that still remains inadequate, but it's a start.
Etymology of the Term Shabiha
The meaning in parentheses of the word Shabiha is usually given "thugs." This seems more a description of what they are, with no linguistic connection. Shabiha does not mean thugs, and in fact has no prior known meaning, being a new word, invented in Arabic in the year 2011. What it does have is several possible linguistic origins that have been proposed. There is not necessarily any one correct origin, especially as it’s not quite any one of these words. Any combination of these or other, unlisted origins, could be why the term was invented, by whomever first, to describe this apparently new force in the Syrian conflict.
- Shibah (Ghost): The Arabic word is شبح , which is pronounced Shibah and means "Ghost," is the most widely-noted origin, too common to bother citing sources for, aside from Daniel Bode, Middle East Online  and the BBC.  The slight distortion to Shabih is unexplained.
- Shabeeba (Youth): According to Ziad Fadel, Arabic-English translator, the word Shabih doesn't exist in formal Arabic, but he sees the "ghost" thing, and also explains that the Ba'ath Party has a "Revolutionary Youth Movement" called "Shabeeba", which he compares to the boy scouts and some less friendly observers might liken to the Hitler Youth. It has been an honor for me to know over 50 members of the Shabeeba in my lifetime. He thinks "Shabiha" is a play-on-words propaganda term by some half-witted academic he suspects in Lebanon, to tap into that regime-connected term while adding a ghostly aspect. 
- Shaa'biya (Popular): Aziz Nakkash issued a report in March 2013 on the Alawite/Shabiha "dilemma" in Hama, apparently after meeting several there. He mentions a strangely plausible origin no one else has, popular committees or, in Arabic, "اللجنة الشعبية" Lijan Shaa'biya.
- Soon after March 2011, Popular Committees (lijan sha’abiya) were created in the Alawite-dominated neighbourhoods of Homs and the villages in the city’s hinterland. The need for Popular Committees became immediately apparent with the presence of armed gunmen who patrolled the neighbourhoods shooting randomly into the air. 
- By the end of 2011, these had "slowly disappeared – or, to be more precise," merged with "the army and the secret service to fight in neighbourhoods held by the opposition," and so they "became the Shabiha." Nakkash does not, however, suggest Shabiya as an origin for the name Shabiha, even as the one emerged right from the other.
- Consider also Wikipedia's Shabiha page and flanking not-quite Shabiha entities surrounding this "Lijan Shaabiya" model: Jaysh al-Sha'bi (only emerges late 2012 and on, however, and organized by Iran and Hezbollah, says the US) and "Lijan militias" on Wikipedia, seeming to be exactly "Shabiha" of the "visible" type, including "the Sunni Muslim Arab al-Berri tribe of Aleppo."
- Shabaha (To Rip Apart): "A more likely explanation" for the new name Shabiha use for themselves, Nakkash suggests, "is that the term shabiha is derived from shabaha, a verb meaning to rip apart an object or a person, almost to the point of dismemberment." 
- Shabah (Mercedes Car): An article for Global Post reported that the Shabiha were "named either for the Arabic word for ghosts or the old Mercedes Shahab popular for its smuggling-sized trunk" 
Visible vs. Invisible Shabiha
There are two types of Shabiha to consider, both of which could be the same or could not.
- Visible: The actual pro-government militias, supported by some evidence, with members who speak for themselves sometimes.
- Invisible: The Shabiha of the horrific massacre, always spoken of by the rebel first responders who always seem to be just a step behind these shadowy villains.
The best name meaning for this group would be something between Shabeeba and Sha'abiya, Baath party/government-supporting popular militias. These seem to exist and have occasionally even spoken for themselves and the rest on the record, with different degrees of reliability. They fall into three broad groups: Those captured as Shabiha and made to talk, Those killed as Shabiha and spoken for, and Shabiha at large who give candid interviews. (details/examples forthcoming)
Never seen in action, the invisible Shabiha are best known for massacres of rural Sunni families and villages, at least as rebels explain it (see examples below, Shabiha massacres). The best name meaning for these is between Shibah and Shabaha: dismembering ghost army. Whatever the rebels say, there is usually compelling evidence that these killers are not the same people fighting with the government, but rather concealed black ops and false flag units on the anti-government side.
About the Shabiha
Daniel Brode wrote for Middle East Online that "the Shabiha trace their roots back to the 1970’s, where they functioned primarily as an Alawite mafia. Operating under the auspices of Rifaat Ali Al Assad, the uncle of the current president, they smuggled contraband, all the while earning a reputation of unrelenting violence." For decades, there seems to be little or no information about them, and then "following the outbreak of the Sunni-led uprising in 2011, the Shabiha took on a different role" that, as we've seen, involves ruthlessly hacking up people of all ages.  Aziz Nakkash argues that, at least in Homs, it was the militarization of neighborhood popular committees (Lijat Sha'abiya), especially the Alawite ones, into what was by the fall known as "Shabiha." 
One article from May 2011 was already explaining the term in English, at the time mostly just shooting randomly at protesters.  Otherwise, it wasn't commonly used in western media before late 2011. The dates of creation of the different wikipedia "Shabiha" articles might be of interest here. The oldest one is the Arabic one, from late March 2011. The English one is from August 2011, the German one from December 2011. In Farsi and Turkish people didn't bother writing about the term until early 2012.
Middle East Online reported the Shabiha appearance is "defined by their camouflage trousers, white sneakers, and unquestionable willingness to viciously protect the Assad regime."  The BBC instead heard of "heavily-armed men dressed in black."  An opposition member told the UK Guardian the Shabiha "dress in black, or alike in army khakis, but wear a yellow ribbon on their shoulder." 
According to some alleged survivors of the Houla massacre, the Shabiha attackers were bald-headed and bearded, no specified build, wore unspecified civilian clothes with white sneakers, joined in Alawite chants, stomped on a koran, specified to their victims where they came from (primarily the tiny town of Al-Fullah), and perhaps had Alawi slogans on their foreheads.
The Telegraph spoke to Dr. Mousab Azzawi, operator of the "Syrian Network for Human Rights" (London), who showed them "a video of the Shabiha in action." It shows a sequence of photos of one extremely muscular man, some other men posing with pictures of Assad and Syrian flags, sometimes with toy guns. Inset in the corner is a low resolution video of much skinnier men apparently beating up protesters. They reportedly speak their motto "Bashar, do not be sad: you have men who drink blood."  Dr. Azzawi says he treated some of the Shabiha in Latakia;
- "They were like monsters ... They had huge muscles, big bellies, big beards. They were all very tall and frightening, and took steroids to pump up their bodies. I had to talk to them like children, because the Shabiha likes people with low intelligence. But that is what makes them so terrifying – the combination of brute strength and blind allegiance to the regime." 
The Daily Mail also ran these images, of "Syria's steroid-mad 'Ghost' killers who keep Assad in power by slaughtering women and children."  Global Post's interview with Abu Jaafar was with a man who "looks every bit the figure of terror that is now imprinted on the international conscience," "With his massive, tattooed muscles, shaved head, bushy black beard and trademark white trainers."  Ruth SHerlock of the Telegraph spoke to a captured Shabih in Aleppo, who confessed to killing protesters and to rape. He had "bulging muscles" and "intimidating physique" that "made him easily identifiable as a member of the Shabiha when caught, and has now effectively sealed his fate." 
It's been reported that "blind loyalty to the Allawite sect and the Assad family in particular" is one of the few requirements for a Shabih.  Contrasting that is an early reports from February, 2012, as Aleppo first saw serious militant activity Assad loyalist militiamen, known as 'shabbiha'" started killing protesters and firing randomly into neighborhoods to quell the spreading protests. Here, one pro-rebel businessman said, the shabbiha the regime has recruited are actually Sunnis from the city, not Alawites." 
The July, 2012 mass-execution of alleged "Shabiha" boss, Ali Zein Al-Berri and dozens of his men, might support this: the only source specifying a sect says the Berri clan is large, powerful, and Sunni. This supports the notion that essentially the real people rebels refer to and intend "justice" for started as local, sometimes tribal, self-defense committees of whatever sect that probably call themselves something like Lija Shabiya, popular committees.
Alawite men (aka Shabiha) promise resistance to the rebels in Latakia.
The alleged Alawite militias are credited by anti-government sources with a number and variety of crimes, but nothing stirs the world's imagination or spurs our scrutiny like a reported Shabiha massacre of men, women, and children in the Syrian countryside or a contested city district.
There have been so, so many of these, especially in and between Homs and Hama, that it's heartbreaking to an exponentially compounded degree. Collectively, the reported number of victims of these massacres count far into the thousands. However, some rebel battle dead are frequently lumped into the tally as well, sometimes in fact providing the vast bulk of casualties (see especially July 12, 2012; August 24-28, 2012; January 15/16, 2013; and Mid-April, 2013). This reduces the number of slaughtered civilians, sometimes drastically, from what rebels reported.
The following is a partial list of just some of these horrible events, in chronological order. Listed are perhaps all of the largest alleged massacres blamed partly on Shabiha, most of which (those with bolded/linked titles) we have covered to some degree here at A Closer Look On Syria (ACLOS). As you can see, our main blind spot at the moment is events prior to the May, 2012 Houla Massacre.
Notes: "Reported" means rebel/activist reports, usually upon finding the bodies, which are always left behind for them to find. "Children" seem to be defined usually as those aged 12 and under, meaning the number of what much of the world calls children could be higher yet. "Killed" as first mentioned (rebel claim) usually means brutally executed, civilians, and almost almost universally of the Sunni sect. But again, battle deaths also get mixed into these totals.
- Dec 14, 2011: Ar-Rastan, Hama province, a video: “Graphic - A group of men massacred by the shabiha militia in Ar Rastan
- Late January, 2012 : Shabiha record their own Homs massacre, rebels later found and published "Syria Shabiha Cell Phone Secrets - Self Video of Homs Massacre"
- Early February 2012: Khalidiya Massacre, Khalidiya district, Homs. "Security forces and shabiha stormed al-Amal Hospital where more than 50 martyers and 100 wounded civilians lie. People are afraid that everyone will be killed or kidnapped." source
- Mid-March, 2012: Karm el-Zeytoun massacre: 45 reported killed, mostly women and children, in theKarm el-Zeytoun district of Homs
- "Most had their throats cut or had stab wounds, while others had reportedly been burned with heating oil and had their limbs broken. Opposition activists and human rights groups said they had been killed by pro-government militiamen, the shabiha, who had entered the area after heavy government shelling. Syrian state news blamed "armed terrorist gangs" for the killings, saying they had kidnapped residents of Homs, killed them and then filmed the bodies to discredit Syrian forces.'' BBC
- May 25/26, 2012: The Houla massacre: 108 reported killed, 49 of them children, by in-home executions of a few targeted families. This was by Shabiha and the Army, and followed violence rebels and their supplied witnesses describe as a regime assault that forced rebels far away from the massacre sites. Other witnesses, supported by rebel-supplied video evidence, suggest the preceding violence was instead a successful rebel assault, and someone on the rebel side did the massacres.
- "We heard a tank on the street and men on a car who were chanting: 'Shabiha forever! With our blood and our souls, we sacrifice ourselves for you, oh Bashar!" … “they found this Qur'an. They grabbed it and started stepping on it." … “They cut off the throat of one soldier and threw him from the 3rd floor … they told him: “now you remember you’re a Sunni?"
- June 6, 2012: Mazraat al-Qubeir massacre: 78 reported killed and burned, rebel fighters maybe included, as they lost a battle there. Verified: at least 19 civilians, 3 women, 10 children minimum.
- "Shabiha militiamen entered the hamlet armed with sticks, guns and knives. They attacked homes and farmhouses, shooting and slaughtering all the inhabitants they could find." - "militiamen danced over dead bodies while singing pro-Assad songs."
- Late June, 2012: Douma Massacre: "[Rebels/opposition] displayed gory scenes in homes they said had been overrun by pro-government "shabbiha" paramilitary gangs, after army shelling over the weekend forced rebel fighters to retreat." Hundreds were reported killed, dozens at least seen rotting in the streets and pulled out of homes and basements, and in pats from trash bins, rebels claimed. The government would generally fail to retain control of Douma, leaving its homes most accessible to rebel fighters and their allies, before and after this incident.
- July 12, 2012: Tremseh massacre: "Activists and witnesses said shabiha militiamen swept into the village after the bombardment. Many people were shot or stabbed, and dozens of bodies were burned or dumped in the streets, they added." Tremseh is generally accepted now, even in the Western mainstream, as a rebel defeat after the army arrived. Despite early rebel claims there were no rebel fighters there at all, most of the dead were clearly just that. But there does seem to have been a smallish massacre of civilians, apparently before the army arrived, that somehow went ignored after the battle.
- July 24, 2012: Al-Sharia Mosque massacre: A reported 50 killed at a mosque in Al-Shariaa, Northwest of Hama, by "Troops and shabbiha" who "began firing automatic rifles at the worshippers as they were entering the mosque," according to activist Jamil al-Hamwi, (a pseudonym, he says). France 24 video (one of many)
- August 24-28, 2012: Daraya massacre: Different hundreds of people, 400-1,200+, reported killed. This made big news again as the single largest mass killing yet, widely reported as 600+, or about six times the size of the Houla massacre. The victims were reported killed over a couple of days, as rebels lost a huge battle for this crucial suburb of Damascus. As they died and fled, it seems rebel brigades also "let go" of some civilian hostages, and gunned down some random people in traffic, all greatly cluttering the scene. A bereaved mother of a killed rebel fighter: "I will not forget my son, and I swear that I will raise his 3-year-old son to take revenge for his father from those Alawite shabiha and soldiers who kill our husbands and sons."
- Late August, 2012: Harak Massacre: The UN Human Rights Council, citing rebel sources, found "reasonable grounds to believe that Government forces and Shabbiha, committed the war crime of murder" in Al-Harak. Rebels say 565 people were killed, including only 30 rebel fighters. Many were women and children, somey executed with guns or knives and burned, according to one plausible-sounding “FSA fighter” the Commission spoke to, who “moved into areas following Government forces” and personally saw and counted around “400 civilian corpses.” Like Daraya, this coincided with several days of rebel defeat as the government re-took this crucial suburb of Deraa.
- September 26, 2012: September 26, the Deadliest Day: 40-107 in Al–Dhiyabia, 18 in Al-Bayada, Homs. Banyas: unclear, Bazreh: 19, etc., adding to various battle deaths to give the deadliest day yet, by many counts 343 people killed in Syria fighting. Bazreh, Damascus: "15 martyrs' names were documented in a massacre committed by shabbiha in the neighborhood and most of the victims were children and women."
- October 23, 2012 Douma Massacre: "More than 20 civilians have been slaughtered by (pro-government militia) shabiha who were at a checkpoint and then stormed into a residential building nearby."
- December 10/11, 2012 Aqrab Massacre: 125-150 or up to 233 killed, women and children included, details unclear. They were Alawites. Those Alawite hostages who escaped don't know what happened to the rest, but whatever it was, rebels did it.
- "Shabbiha Massacre Alawite Women and Children in Aqrab, Hama" - "Activists said the [Shabiha] militia-controlled building was being besieged by the rebel Free Syrian Army (FSA)" - "There were 200 people inside and we called on the residents to leave, but the Shabbiha held some women and children by gunpoint. Eventually talks fell apart and the government shelled the building...” - "“the armed gangs attacked them, from Al-Houla and Aqrab. … where they took them, we don’t know. … this is our problem. They have all sorts of weapons.” - "They’re burning tires inside the building to suffocate them. There’s no water, no food. Perhaps 3/4 of the people there are already dead by now."
- Late December, 2012: Maan Massacre: 23 reported killed by beheading, including 7 children, from the Sunni minority in a majority-Alawite town, following extremist Sunni rebel attacks there.
- "Opponents of the regime reported on Tuesday that members of the Shabiha militia in the village of Maan, in Hama province, have beheaded 23 people. " - "Shabiha from everywhere ... entered the village of Ma'an and committed horrible massacres against our brothers the Sunnis, who make up a small percentage of the village…"
- January 15/16, 2013: Haswiyeh Massacre: 106 reported killed and burned, from families, but one list of 100 names had only 25 women and children. 75% male suggests most of the rest are rebel fighters. Locals say around 30 civilians were massacred by rebels in black before the army came and killed "many" of the Islamist fighters, possibly with Jabhat Al-Nusra. Activists blamed Army and Shabiha.
- "[A] Few of the young men were able to escape as they climbed on trees and hid in orchards. But the regime's Shabiha (thugs) caught them, executed them and tied them to trees." - "rebels in black uniforms had come to the house and wanted to use the roof to attack the base. Many of the locals had refused. At that point, say the men, they were shot."
- March 25, 2013 Abel massacre: Up to 21 civilians killed, hacked up, beheaded, etc. and burned, 13 visually verified, just south of Baba Amr, Homs, the day after rebel forces were fully chased away from there.
- "The regime’s shabiha attempted to storm Abel village in the suburbs of Homs, and the Free Syrian Army fought them back. As the shabiha were withdrawing from the area, they arrested two entire families … then filmed the detainees, forcing them to say that it was them who saved the civilians from armed gangs. After they completed filming, the shabiha tortured the civilians in the most brutal of ways."
- It was rebels from Baba Amr who had the video proof afterwards. A second incident with eight mangled and charred victims was again filmed by the same rebels four days later (same link).
- Mid-April, 2013 Jdeidat Al-Fadel Massacre: (page forthcoming) 566 claimed killed, during attacks on/re-conquest of this Damascus suburb.
- "...despite the FSA’s withdrawal to save civilian lives, the regime mobilized large numbers from its 4th Division, Republican Guard, Lebanese Hezbollah, and shabbiha militias from the Somarieh barracks to storm the city and attack civilians. Many of the casualties were women, children, and elderly persons. Some victims were slaughtered..."
Even among captured or suspiciously candid self-described Shabiha, acknowledgments of running operations that hideous are few and far between. Latakia thug Abu Jaafar, speaking to Global Post, for one and perhaps the only example, strongly hints at things like the Houla massacre: “We started by facing the protesters, but when the opposition became armed we attacked them in their villages,” he said. Consider also “Sunni women are giving birth to babies who will fight us in years to come, so we have the right to fight anyone who can hurt us in the future,” suggesting women and children are considered fair targets. 
Otherwise, these crimes are only ascribed by rebels to the local Shabiha, with no sort of confirmation from them even alleged. And this coexists with frequent signs of varying clarity, in those cases we have studied, that some concealed black ops/false flag units on the opposition side are actually to blame for the nasty stuff (some such clues explored at each of the linked ACLOS pages).
- Revealed: Syria's steroid-mad 'Ghost' killers who keep Assad in power by slaughtering women and children By Lee Morgan, the Daily Mail, June 11, 2012
- The Rise of the Shabiha Daniel Brode, Middle East Online, July 11, 2012
- Syria unrest: Who are the shabiha? BBC News, May 29, 2012
- SYRIA'S MILITIAS; WHY CALL THEM "SHABBIHA"? Syrian Perspective, March 22, 2013
- Aziz Nakkash, The Alawite Dilemma in Homs, March 2013 PDF link
- Inside Syria’s shabiha death squadsHugh Macleod and Annasofie Flamand Global Post, June 15, 2012
- Who are the ‘Shabiha’? Syria Revolts, May 21, 2011
- Ghosts of Syria: diehard militias who kill in the name of Assad Peter Kellier, guardian.co.uk, Thursday 31 May 2012 09.15 EDT
- The Shabiha: Inside Assad's death squads By Harriet Alexander, and Ruth Sherlock, the Telegraph, June 2, 2012
- Confessions of an Assad 'Shabiha' loyalist: how I raped and killed for £300 a month By Ruth Sherlock, The Telegraph, 7:30PM BST 14 Jul 2012
- Uprising finally hits Syria's "Silk Road" city By Khaled Yacoub Oweis, Reuters, Feb. 3, 2012