The Life of al-Khal: First Leader of Liwa Shuhada' al-Yarmouk
21 March 2016
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
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
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 slightlysince 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,
Masalamawas 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.
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