Liwa Shuhada' al-Yarmouk Appoints a New Leader
27 March 2016
By Aymenn Jawad Al-Tamimi
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
The previous amir had received his position months ago following the killing
of a number of the first set of leaders 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 statement is dated 7 March and follows 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
"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,
the amir of 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.
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
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,
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
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.