Graphic dedicated to al-Khal's "martyrdom."
After the assassination of its first leader al-Khal in mid-November 2015, the pro-Islamic State (IS) Liwa Shuhada' al-Yarmouk (Yarmouk Martyrs Brigade) based in southwest Deraa province along the border with the Golan Heights appointed Abu Obeida Qahtan as new leader. Qahtan, of Palestinian Syrian origin, is a jihadi veteran and apparently among the founders of Liwa Shuhada' al-Yarmouk. His presence in the group is also rather exceptional in that he is originally from the Yarmouk camp in Damascus, not a native of the Yarmouk Valley/Basin (Wadi/Hawdh al-Yarmouk) where Liwa Shuhada' al-Yarmouk is based and draws most of its manpower.
In this context, two important local clans are the landowning Baridis, from which al-Khal came, and the Ja'ounis, from which his deputy Abu Abdullah al-Ja'ouni (also killed in mid-November 2015 alongside al-Khal) came. According to a Ja'ouni from the Hawdh al-Yarmouk locality of Shajra that is controlled by Liwa Shuhada' al-Yarmouk, the Ja'ounis are Palestinian in origin but have long been present in Shajra. As for foreign members (muhajireen), the only known case until now has been an Israeli Arab who paraglided into Liwa Shuhada' al-Yarmouk territory from the Golan Heights in October 2015, clearly with a prior exceptional agreement from al-Khal, who otherwise rejected muhajireen.
Therefore, it is all the more surprising to learn that a new amir of Saudi origin has been appointed to succeed Abu Obeida Qahtan. Hints of a change in the leadership of Liwa Shuhada' al-Yarmouk came to light around 5 March or so. The pro-opposition site All4Syria then reported on 8 March:
In a step that was surprising to many observers, Liwa Shuhada' al-Yarmouk has announced the appointment of a new amir for the brigade who is the Saudi 'Abu Abdullah al-Madani' succeeding the prior amir for the brigade: Abu Obeida al-Qahtani [sic: Abu Obeida Qahtan].
Activists of the area controlled by the brigade affirmed the issuing of an internal decision that was not announced through the brigade's media in this specific case.
The previous amir had received his position months ago following the killing of a number of the leaders of the first set [leadership council] in Liwa Shuhada' al-Yarmouk in an explosion on 15 November last year, at the head of whom was al-Khal, the amir at that time.
On the same day (8 March), a Twitter account in Liwa Shuhada' al-Yarmouk's name put out a statement announcing the appointment of Abu Abdullah al-Madani as leader. A Telegram account and a Facebook account in the group's name have also put out this statement today (see here and here for screenshots).
The March 7 statement
The statement is dated 7 March and follows almost the same wording as the statement that was put out by Liwa Shuhada' al-Yarmouk announcing the appointment of Abu Obeida Qahtan after al-Khal's death. The authenticity of the statement is not in dispute.
Appointment of a new amir for Shuhada' al-Yarmouk
In the name of God, the Compassionate, the Merciful
Shuhada' al-Yarmouk announces allegiance to the brother Abu Abdullah al-Madani, as amir for Shuhada' al-Yarmouk. We ask God to guide his opinion and fill his path with light, as well as asking God to bestow on him, the leadership and members of Shuhada' al-Yarmouk steadfastness and the proper way.
And praise be to God the Lord of the Worlds
General Leadership for Shuhada' al-Yarmouk.
27 Jumada al-Awal 1437 AH
7 March 2016 CE
Media Office for Shuhada' al-Yarmouk.
This surprise appointment gives rise to some obvious questions. Where did Abu Abdullah al-Madani come from? What is the reason for his appointment? After all, prior to this point there has no been no evidence of the existence of such a person in the ranks of the group. Based on what I have written previously with regards to Liwa Shuhada' al-Yarmouk and foreign members, the earliest one can suppose that this man joined the group was after al-Khal's death, which gives him a timeframe of nearly 4 months to have risen to the position of leader.
Such a rise would be very implausible if he simply came out of nowhere. The actual explanation for this move is that it appears to have come directly from IS. Indeed, one source in the Liwa Shuhada' al-Yarmouk circles, calling himself Abu Ammar al-Ansari, put it to me as follows, "All brothers are one and the order came from the Amir al-Mu'mineen [Commander of the Faithful: i.e. IS leader and proclaimed Caliph Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi]." In addition, the Baridi who was close to al-Khal- cited in my report on the life of al-Khal- explained that "the killing of al-Khal is the reason for his appointment. Abu Obeida Qahtan asked the wali [of IS' Wilayat Dimashq/Damascus province] to appoint a new wali [for Shuhada' al-Yarmouk]." The latter testimony does not necessarily exclude a role for Baghdadi in this leadership shift, as one can suppose consultation between the Damascus province wali [provincial governor] and Baghdadi on this matter.
Therefore, the appointment of Abu Abdullah al-Madani as leader appears to be the strongest evidence yet of links between Liwa Shuhada' al-Yarmouk and IS. Though members and supporters routinely engage in pro-IS discourse, the group itself officially denies allegiance to IS, referring to it in one statement as Jama'at al-Dawla ('the state group [/group of the state]'), ostensibly denying IS' claim to be a state, let alone the Caliphate. Even the group's new statement on the appointment of Abu Abdullah al-Madani as leader implicitly reflects the official denial of allegiance, as it is stipulated that allegiance is owed to Abu Abdullah al-Madani as the amir of the group, not higher up to the Caliph Baghdadi, for no mention is made of Baghdadi or IS in the statement.
In my own experience as of now, Abu Abdullah al-Madani is not the only case of an IS-Liwa Shuhada' al-Yarmouk relationship. In an earlier blog post I mentioned an IS fighter in the Damascus area with regards to IS fighter salaries. It is important to clarify, based on my subsequent conversations with him, what is presently meant here by the Damascus area. The person in question is originally from Nafi'a in the Yarmouk Valley and is of the Baridi clan (calling himself Abu al-Waleed al-Baridi), but by his own admission, his allegiance is to IS and his salary is from IS.
However, Abu al-Waleed al-Baridi works within the ranks of Liwa Shuhada' al-Yarmouk: "I was sent from the Dawla [IS] to join the brigade, because it is no longer possible for me to return or go to the Dawla's areas [i.e. because of the siege imposed by Jabhat al-Nusra/southern Jaysh al-Fatah since 2015]. And I joined the brigade from the beginning of the fighting here [with Jabhat al-Nusra et al.]." During his tenure, besides military fighting in which he has been wounded, he has also served as the deputy amir of Liwa Shuhada' al-Yarmouk's Diwan al-Hisba, one of a few Diwans set up by the group in imitation of IS administration as part of the 'reform' program in 2015.
Explaining the recent shift in leadership, Abu al-Waleed al-Baridi commented: "Because he [Abu Obeida Qahtan] is not successful in administration, and does not know anything about the requirements of administration, but rather he is among the elite of the fighters on the frontlines." It therefore seems that IS has intervened to appoint a new amir for the group because of problems under Abu Obeida Qahtan's leadership and fractures within the ranks. That said, the source did not profess to know whether Abu Abdullah al-Madani was sent by IS' wali of Damascus province, as he is currently wounded and has not spoken with the new amir yet.
In all, the latest developments give more credence to the assessment of Liwa Shuhada' al-Yarmouk as an IS front group, which is probably being encouraged by IS itself to deny links for reasons of expediency. Indeed, Abu al-Waleed al-Baridi confirms this explanation in that a significant obstacle to an open declaration of allegiance remains the lack of contiguity between IS territory and Liwa Shuhada' al-Yarmouk territory: "It [IS] will not announce its presence in Deraa until it achieves total control of Deraa. It has soldiers in every area...If they [Liwa Shuhada' al-Yarmouk] announce [allegiance] now, they will be finished and there will not arise a structure for the Dawla after that point."
Finally, instead of thinking of Liwa Shuhada' al-Yarmouk as a potential Wilayat Deraa as I have pondered in the past, it perhaps makes more sense to think of a future allegiance declaration, if it ever happens, as simply being an extension of Wilayat Dimashq. Indeed, prior official IS messaging directed at the Deraa and Quneitra areas has been via the Wilayat Dimashq media office.
A March 9 Twitter post associated with Liwa Shuhada' al-Yarmouk.
(Update: 15 March 2016): it should also be noted that outwardly, Liwa Shuhada' al-Yarmouk is denying speculation that the new amir appointment reflects some kind of split in the leadership, with a Twitter account associated with the group writing on 9 March:
In the first event of its kind in the history of the jihadi groups, the leaders of the first set [leadership council] in Shuhada' al-Yarmouk are relinquishing the amir position and remaining in the faction under the disposal of the new amir. All the amirs are still with Shuhada' al-Yarmouk including Sheikh Abu Obeida Qahtan the prior amir and they have placed themselves under Sheikh Abu Abdullah al-Madani's disposal (may God protect him). He [not specified in the original, but most likely referring to Abu Obeida Qahtan] participated in the Soviets war [Afghan jihad in the 1980s] and it is well known about him that he is a lion of assaults and even in Shuhada' al-Yarmouk's battles with the Jowlani front [Jabhat al-Nusra] the Sheikh has been leading the assault by himself.
Even so, as the testimony mentioned earlier on Qahtan's administrative skills makes clear, something was certainly amiss in the group's ranks for a surprise appointment of a new amir to occur: an intervention by IS, so to speak, to sort things out. Note also that these tweets reflect the official line of denial of allegiance to IS, in speaking of "the jihadi groups" and "the faction."
Aymenn Jawad Al-Tamimi is a research fellow at Middle East Forum's Jihad Intel project.