By Aymenn Jawad Al-Tamimi
Graphic dedicated to al-Khal’s ‘martyrdom’.
The figure of al-Khal (a nickname meaning ‘The Uncle’)- also known by his real name Muhammad al-Baridi (Abu Ali al-Baridi)- presents one of the more interesting stories behind leaders of the various Syrian rebel groups. As one of the founders and the leader of Liwa Shuhada’ al-Yarmouk (Yarmouk Martyrs Brigade) from its inception in around summer 2012 until his death in November 2015, al-Khal gained notoriety as his brigade moved from a Free Syrian Army [FSA] brand group that was even part of the Southern Front coalition in 2014 to an overtly pro-Islamic State [IS] orientation in the aftermath of clashes with Jabhat al-Nusra at the end of that year, as Syria’s al-Qa’ida affiliate had accused Liwa Shuhada’ al-Yarmouk of having secret links with IS.
I have already traced out the history of Liwa Shuhada’ al-Yarmouk as a group in considerable detail, but what of the life of al-Khal himself? So far there is little biographical detail available on him. This post hopes to rectify that deficiency, drawing in part on testimony from Liwa Shuhada’ al-Yarmouk circles. At the same time, one must be aware of the need for source criticism when it comes to particular details, as will be seen later. For purposes of clarity, it will help to read the aforementioned historical account of Liwa Shuhada’ al-Yarmouk as a group.
Muhammad al-Baridi was born in 1970 in the village of Jamlah in Hawdh/Wadi al-Yarmouk (the Yarmouk Basin/Yarmouk Valley), an area in the corner of southwest Deraa province bordering the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights. So close are Jamlah and nearby localities in the Yarmouk Basin to the border that they are visible in the distance from the Israeli-controlled side.
Looking out from the Golan Heights towards Hawdh al-Yarmouk beyond the border fence (photo my own, taken from farmland near the Israeli settlement of Haspin).
As al-Khal’s family name suggests, he was born into the Baridi family/clan that is local to the Yarmouk Valley. The name is of importance because the Baridis are prominent landowners in the area- they are also the main founders of Liwa Shuhada’ al-Yarmouk. Indeed, this dynamic seems to be key as to explaining the group’s staying power and grip over Hawdh al-Yarmouk until now, despite the casualties inflicted on account of the war with Jabhat al-Nusra and the southern Jaysh al-Fatah coalition it leads. Like so many other rebel groups, the Yarmouk Martyrs Brigade originated as a very local start-up.
In keeping with the status of the Baridis, al-Khal’s father was a renowned wealthy landowner in the area working in the realm of agriculture, and his son followed in his father’s footsteps from the beginning of his working life. He then moved into selling produce in the Deraa markets while not abandoning agricultural work. Likely on account of the family wealth, al-Khal had access to a relatively good education, and was even able to study Arabic language for a time in Damascus University, though he does not appear to have graduated with a degree.
Of particular interest is whether al-Khal had already begun delving into Islamist and jihadi thought prior to the outbreak of the Syrian revolution. Here, one should perhaps exercise some caution as there may be polemical interests in projecting the adoption of radical ideology onto an earlier stage of al-Khal’s life, despite the fact that his brigade was clearly aligned with FSA-brand forces in the south for two years or so and did not begin to implement substantial Islamic-style governance on the ground in the form of a ‘reform’ (islah) program imitating aspects of IS administration until the turn of the New Year in 2015. From Liwa Shuhada’ al-Yarmouk circles, a recurring talking point now is that the brigade’s orientation was ‘Islamic’ from the outset, and linked to this narrative is a claim that al-Khal had always espoused an Islamist/Salafi manhaj.
All accounts agree that al-Khal was eventually imprisoned by the regime and released. The timeline of imprisonment and nature of the offences are a matter of some dispute. An opposition activist and critic of al-Khal quoted by The National claims that he was imprisoned on account of thefts of antiquities from archaeological sites, while a rebel commander cited by the same paper says it was on account of extremist tendencies. A person from Hawdh al-Yarmouk who called himself Asad al-Baridi told me that he had been imprisoned by the regime twice before the revolution- each time for less than a year. The exact time of his release and the reasons for imprisonment were not specified by this source, though he did claim that al-Khal had desired the implementation of Islamic law before the revolution. Another Baridi who is in Liwa Shuhada’ al-Yarmouk and was close to al-Khal told me that al-Khal was imprisoned because “he was interested in extremist thought” and had been released after the beginning of the revolution as part of the “second amnesty” issued by the regime for a number of political prisoners over some months in 2011. Many of those released detainees were Islamists and jihadis held in the notorious Sednaya prison, who went on to found prominent rebel groups like Ahrar al-Sham (Hassan Aboud) and Jaysh al-Islam (Zahran Alloush). On this reading it seems likely that al-Khal was among that contingent of Islamists released from Sednaya.
In any case, there is no evidence that al-Khal was a jihadi veteran of prior conflicts, unlike many Syrian Islamists and jihadis who most recently distinguished themselves as combatants in the insurgency against the U.S. occupation of Iraq. According to the Baridi who was close to al-Khal, “He wanted to go to Iraq but could not because the Syrian mukhabarat caught up with him.” If so, that would fall under the double game the regime played with Islamists and the flow of foreign fighters into Iraq via Syria, whereby active facilitation existed but also crackdowns took place from time to time- for example, as Charles Lister notes, while 2005 saw a decrease in the foreign fighter flow to Iraq, 2006-7 saw a re-expansion of that flow (The Syrian Jihad- p. 39).
Contrasting with al-Khal’s lack of prior military experience is the figure of Abu Obeida Qahtan, who is the current amir of Liwa Shuhada’ al-Yarmouk. According to the Baridi who was close to al-Khal, he was also one of the founders of Liwa Shuhada’ al-Yarmouk. A Palestinian Syrian from the Yarmouk refugee camp in Damascus, Abu Obeida Qahtan most notably fought in the Afghan jihad alongside Osama bin Laden and Abdullah Azzam against the Soviet invasion. He may also have had a role in the subsequent jihads in Chechnya and Iraq. I have not found corroboration of a notion that Abu Obeida Qahtan was in Jama’at Bayt al-Maqdis al-Islamiya, a jihadi group in the south suspected of links to IS partly on account of its flag resembling that of IS. Though this group is often thought to be Palestinian because of the ‘Bayt al-Maqdis’ (referring to Jerusalem) in its name, it primarily consists of locals from Deraa and Quneitra with some muhajireen from Jordan and not Palestinians, according to a member of the group I spoke with. This member also denied that there is allegiance to IS.
Abu Obeida Qahtan (left) with al-Khal (right). The image first appears to have emerged in 2014. The figure on the left has been misidentified as Abu Muhammad al-Masalama, about whom more below.
Abu Obeida Qahtan’s presence and status in the brigade are rather exceptional in nature, because the group has drawn its manpower almost entirely from the wider Hawran area in southern Syria. While the majority of Liwa Shuhada’ al-Yarmouk fighters come from the Yarmouk Valley, the group has also absorbed remnants of the Quneitra province jihadi coalition Jaysh al-Jihad, which was accused by rebels of having links with IS and consequently dismantled by mid-2015, even as Liwa Shuhada’ al-Yarmouk expressed solidarity with Jaysh al-Jihad.
As for foreign fighters who mostly attempted to come in via Jordan, al-Khal “would reject the muhajireen and send them to the north”- as per the testimony of the Baridi who was close to al-Khal. The only case of an actual foreigner in Liwa Shuhada’ al-Yarmouk appears to be an Israeli Arab who paraglided into Liwa Shuhada’ al-Yarmouk territory in October 2015, less than a month prior to al-Khal’s death. According to the same Baridi source, there was prior agreement from al-Khal for this Israeli Arab to join the group, and he remains alive and within its ranks today.
It should be noted in this context that another jihadi group in Deraa province- Harakat al-Muthanna al-Islamiya (“The Islamic Muthanna Movement”), which recently clashed with a number of Southern Front groups that accused it of running secret prisons to detain rivals, has a similar policy of rejecting muhajireen. The group, founded as Katibat al-Muthanna bin Haritha Qahir al-Faras by a former Sednaya detainee in 2012 (Abu Ayyub al-Masalama, who was killed in March 2013), has this policy in order to build popular support in Deraa, according to a member I spoke with. As can be seen, a ‘Syrian-only’ membership policy does not necessarily tell against radical tendencies. Harakat al-Muthanna al-Islamiya has rejected participation in the war on Liwa Shuhada’ al-Yarmouk, despite some local clashes back in mid-summer 2014.
How does one piece together al-Khal’s life and the evolution of Liwa Shuhada’ al-Yarmouk over time? If al-Khal was indeed a radical all along and if Abu Obeida Qahtan was among the founders of the group, it suggests that the FSA-branding, including the co-signing with dozens of southern groups of an affirmation for a civil democratic state in mid-2014, was in fact an exercise in sweet-talk and deception practised over a considerable period of time, likely in order to maintain foreign support via the Military Operations Command (MOC) room in Amman that is jointly backed by Western and Gulf states as well as Jordan, responsible for oversight of support for southern factions deemed acceptably ‘moderate’.
By 2013, it would appear that there were already suspicions on the part of Jordanian intelligence about al-Khal, who had apparently received treatment in Jordan for wounds, but MOC support was not halted. If The National account is right in terms of the timeline of MOC support for Liwa Shuhada’ al-Yarmouk, then the first actual suspension of MOC support amid concern about the group’s direction and conduct in mid-2014 was soon followed by the first signs of a shift in the outward display of orientation, most notably as a new, more Islamic-looking emblem was adopted. Here, it should be added that The National has things slightly wrong: the new emblem adopted at that time (summer 2014) did not use an IS flag but a more generic white/black flag associated with jihad (see my history of the group).
While The National reports allegations of influence of the Muslim Brotherhood and a Brotherhood-linked Syrian cleric called Sheikh Muhammad Sorour Zain al-Abidain that increased over time, it should be noted that this narrative, which implies an adoption by al-Khal of more radical ideas over the course of the revolution rather than adhering to Islamist ideology from the outset, is not corroborated by Liwa Shuhada’ al-Yarmouk sources. It is possible that the Muslim Brotherhood-influence narrative derives from long-standing concerns Saudi Arabia and the UAE in particular have had about the Muslim Brotherhood, although the former’s stance has softened slightly since the beginning of King Salman’s reign in January 2015.
One can perhaps point to another jihadi figure- Sheikh Ahmad Kasab al-Masalama (Abu Muhammad al-Masalama)- as having a role in the shift in public display of Liwa Shuhada’ al-Yarmouk’s orientation. From Harasta in the Damascus area, Masalama was reportedly part of the ‘Fighting Vanguard‘ before going to join the Afghan jihad, eventually returning to Syria some time in 2012 to play a role in the insurgency in the south. He was apparently appointed a Shari’i judge in Jabhat al-Nusra but by some point in 2014 had left the group and had some involvement as a Shari’i official or advisor in Liwa Shuhada’ al-Yarmouk, reputedly being a close friend of al-Khal. Step News Agency even describes them as associates in the same jihadi trend before the revolution. Masalama was assassinated in November 2014.
Purported photo of Abu Muhammad al-Masalama.
Since the clashes with Jabhat al-Nusra in December 2014, the pro-IS orientation of Liwa Shuhada’ al-Yarmouk has been openly on display and the Yarmouk Valley has been under a state of siege as part of the war between Jabhat al-Nusra/southern Jaysh al-Fatah and Liwa Shuhada’ al-Yarmouk, which has cost both sides heavily and has in fact played a significant role in the diminishing of Jabhat al-Nusra’s power in the south. For Liwa Shuhada’ al-Yarmouk, the biggest loss has been the assassination of al-Khal and his deputy Abu Abdullah al-Ja’ouni, also a native of the Yarmouk Valley, in an operation in Jamlah in November 2015.
While Liwa Shuhada’ al-Yarmouk’s administration and media output have been imitating IS in many recognisable respects, the group continues to deny allegiance and/or having links with IS and does not quite take the same approach of speedy and forceful implementation of Shari’a. In a denial of links posted on 31 December 2015, Liwa Shuhada’ al-Yarmouk even referred to IS as “jama’at al-dawla al-islamiya” (“Islamic State group”)- a designation also used by IS’ jihadi rivals like Jabhat al-Nusra and regarded by IS as an insult for not according legitimacy to its statehood claim.
Ideologically, therefore, the position is quite incoherent, for IS demands allegiance and subsuming all group identities under its state framework- mere words of support are not enough. Contrast the case of Liwa Shuhada’ al-Yarmouk with Jama’at Ansar Bait al-Maqdis (now IS’ Sinai Province). When the latter denied a prematurely released statement pledging allegiance to IS, it did not attempt to deny IS the status of statehood on its official media channels.
In addition, it remains the case as I reported back in October 2015 that the niqab is not compulsory in Liwa Shuhada’ al-Yarmouk territory. This contrasts with IS territory where the niqab is imposed almost immediately after the conquest of any new territory. Back when IS was just ISIS, the niqab imposition in Raqqa came within days of ISIS’ consolidation of control of the city in mid to late January 2014.
It is possible that IS is playing an elaborate long game, in that denial of links are encouraged because it is not strategically useful to declare a Wilayat Deraa for now. Indeed, considering the proximity of the territory to Israel-controlled territory, it may be the case that there is concern that an official IS announcement will lead to airstrikes of some sort on Hawdh al-Yarmouk, which is not currently subjected to any bombing raids, whether from the regime, Russia or the coalition against IS.
In total, al-Khal sired six daughters and two sons. Of the two sons, he did not see one of them as his spouse gave birth to this son two months after his death.