On November 30, 2022, the Islamic State’s spokesman Abu ‘Umar al-Muhajir made the somewhat surprising announcement that the group’s “caliph” and leader Abu al-Hasan al-Hashimi al-Qurashi had been killed, while adding that the group’s Shura council had agreed on a successor going by the name of Abu al-Hussayn al-Hussayni al-Qurashi.1 Unlike the case with Abu al-Hasan’s two “caliph” predecessors (Abu Ibrahim al-Hashimi al-Qurashi and Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi), this time there had been no prior claim by the U.S.-led coalition or any other entity to have killed Abu al-Hasan. Indeed, the statement gave no information as to the date of his death or the circumstances of it apart from claiming that it was a violent death that occurred while he was fighting “the enemies of God.”
Within hours of the Islamic State announcement, however, U.S. Central Command (CENTCOM) issued a statement giving more precise information on the incident, saying that Abu al-Hasan had been killed in “mid-October” by “the Free Syrian Army in Dar‘a [Dera’a] province in [southern] Syria.”2 A comparison of this announcement with open-source data suggests that the most likely scenario is that Abu al-Hasan was killed in clashes between Islamic State cells and local militiamen from the town of Jasim in the northern countryside of Dera’a province in mid-October 2022. It seems plausible that the United States had intelligence on this matter but decided to refrain from any announcement until receiving full confirmation via a statement from the Islamic State itself. In addition, the confirmation of the killing and the CENTCOM statement showed that a previous theory that had identified Abu al-Hasan with one Bashar al-Sumaida‘i—a former senior member of the Islamic State currently detained in Turkey3—could not have been correct.4
While the circumstances of Abu al-Hasan’s death deserve more detailed analysis, the fact that he was in Dera’a—an area formally under the control of the Syrian government—was itself notable, as Abu al-Hasan’s two predecessors had both been killed in the northwestern Syrian province of Idlib within areas controlled by the former Islamic State and al-Qaeda affiliate Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham (HTS) and allied insurgent groups. Theoretically at least, those parts of Idlib should provide the least bad option for hiding places for the Islamic State’s leader among all possibilities in Iraq and Syria, considering that those regions have no active ground presence of personnel of the U.S.-led coalition conducting missions against the group, and that there are large waves of displaced people living under a system of governance that has still not managed to implement a comprehensive ID system or administration.
Yet it is also true that the Islamic State presence in Dera’a is not a new development but has rather existed for many years. The death of Abu al-Hasan and its aftermath provide an opportunity to revisit the history of the Islamic State in Dera’a and examine the current situation of the group there. This article does just that, offering an understanding of the group’s past in this province of Syria that helps to explain the current state of play for the Islamic State in the country as a whole.
The Islamic State in Southern Syria
Since its territorial collapse in Baghuz in March 2019, the Islamic State’s presence in Syria has been characterized by three core kinetic dynamics: regular attrition in the northeast, underreported campaigning in the central plains (Badiyya), and operational surges in the southwest.
As Figure 1 shows, the vast majority of the Islamic State’s self-reported operations since 2019 have occurred (in ascending order) across Hasakeh, Raqqa, and Deir Ezzor governorates in Syria’s northeast, with only a smattering of claimed attacks in the central Homs and Hama governorates. This imbalance of activity does not reflect on-the-ground realities, however, which have consistently seen a higher level of sophisticated kinetic activity in Homs and Hama governorates than anywhere else in Syria over that same period.
The situation in the south, i.e., Quneitra, Dera’a, and Suwayda governorates, however, is less clear. There, the Islamic State has reported some 79 attacks since March 2019, about 90% of which have occurred in and around the city of Dera’a and its immediate environs. In stark contrast to the relatively consistent (albeit slowing) pace of operations in the northeast and Badiyya, these attacks have been deployed, and subsequently reported, in defined bursts of activity—often timed to coincide with broader Islamic State campaigns in Syria and the rest of the world, for example during Ramadan or in the aftermath of leadership losses.
Figure 3, which shows the 50-day rolling average of Islamic State attack reporting in Dera’a, speaks to this dynamic, with spikes that closely correlate with the last three global Islamic State ghazwat (“expeditions”), in which Islamic State forces in various countries launch or try to launch military operations and portray them as part of a wider initiative, such as revenge for the loss of a leader.
It is unclear why this on/off reporting dynamic exists in the context of southern Syria, but there can be little doubting the fact that the lack of reporting from the group’s Central Media Diwan does not reflect an absence of activity. Rather, local accounts from both pro-opposition and pro-government sources speak to a continual but low-intensity insurgency that is characterized by assassinations and occasional targeted raids—i.e., the exact same types of operation that are reported in bursts when the Islamic State deems it appropriate to “activate” communications during global campaigns.
Figure 4 below reflects this dynamic: it shows that the majority of the Islamic State’s claimed attacks in southern Syria are assassinations, roadside ambushes, or bombings, with vanishingly few recent attempts at more complex and strategically ambitious operations.
This inclination towards covert, asymmetric violence is logical—at present, the Islamic State has no territorial prospects in the south, a region that was challenging for the movement’s proto-state endeavor even when it was at its height in 2014 and 2015 (as is discussed below in more detail), so the group’s priority right now, and since 2019 more broadly, is not seizing and holding territory, but communicating presence and resolve. This logic appears to be what its targeting parameters are grounded in as well: besides taking occasional pot-shots at passing security forces (whether regime or opposition), the focus is generally on highly specific killings of individuals that are subsequently accused of espionage or acting as informants, something that local sources have described to the first author as a ruse cynically designed to justify the killing of political rivals.
Aside from an assassination reported from northern Dera’a governorate on April 7, 2023 and the bulk-claiming of a number of operations from last year in a report in its al-Naba’ newsletter in January 2023, the Islamic State had not formally reported any kinetic activity in southern Syria since the summer of 2022.5 All this is so despite the intense fighting between its local network and opposition forces in the city of Jasim in October and November 2022, fighting that ultimately left its last “caliph” dead. If or when, however, it announces a revenge campaign to seek retribution for the death of Abu al-Hasan Hashimi, there will almost certainly once more be a surge in reporting from Dera’a. It is critical that this surge, if or when it happens, is understood through the lens of the above- and below-described organizational dynamics: the Islamic State’s network in the south is far more established, entrenched, and strategically intertwined than its official attack reporting would suggest—and that is an entirely deliberate outcome of the policy of disinformation and misdirection adopted by its Central Media Diwan since 2019. Below, the authors explore how this situation came to be, drawing on extensive interviews with local activists, journalists, and officials conducted over the course of the last seven years.
The Roots of an Islamic State Affiliate in Dera’a
In examining the history of the Islamic State in Dera’a, it is first helpful to note the broad chronological division between the period between 2011 and August 2018, and then events since August 2018. Between 2011 and August 2018, most of the province fell and remained under the control of various insurgent groups, whereas the region has been under regime control (in some areas more nominal than effective) since August 2018.
In contrast to the situation in areas further north and east, the insurgent groups of Dera’a were seen as generally more “moderate” and identifying with a nationalist and more secular and democratic vision for Syria under the brand of the “Free Syrian Army” (FSA). Indeed, most of those groups came to be affiliated with a military operations center (MOC) based in Amman, Jordan. This particular MOC was established in 2013 and backed by Jordan, the United States, and some Gulf and European countries. It represented the southern front of a Syria strategy in which it was hoped that military pressure that stopped short of bringing total state collapse could induce the Syrian government led by Bashar al-Assad to agree to a negotiated transition of power. In particular, Jordanian concerns about triggering large waves of displaced people toward Jordan’s borders meant that the flow of weapons and launching of operations were tightly regulated, contrasting with the more open and permissive environment in northern Syria where a Turkey-based MOC provided support to U.S.-vetted insurgent groups.
While the more regulated environment of the Jordan-based MOC did help to limit the influence of jihadist groups such as Jabhat al-Nusra, it is also the case that the nucleus of what would become the Islamic State’s affiliate in Dera’a (Jaysh Khalid bin al-Walid/“The Army of Khalid bin al-Walid”— JKW) lies in a group that was once affiliated with the MOC: the Yarmouk Martyrs Brigade (Liwa Shuhada’ al-Yarmouk/LSY). Although the first author has previously explored the origins of LSY in some detail on multiple occasions, it is worth reexamining some of its history without regurgitating too much detail. This reexamination is worth undertaking in light of new testimonies and information that have been obtained by this author about LSY and particularly about how the Islamic State’s affiliate originally took root in the province.
LSY started its life in the summer of 2012 as a local armed group called the Yarmouk Martyrs Battalion (Katibat Shuhada’ al-Yarmouk/KSY). The Yarmouk part of the name refers to the Yarmouk Basin area of western Dera’a countryside that borders the Golan Heights and Jordan. The area was also reputedly the site of the Battle of Yarmouk in 636 C.E. that paved the way for the original Muslim conquest of the Levant. Within the area of the Yarmouk Basin is a village called Jamla, which was the original birthplace of KSY.
More specifically, the founding of KSY originates with an individual named Muhammad Sa’ad al-Din al-Baridi who was from Jamla and was widely known by the nicknames of al-Khal (“the maternal uncle”) and Abu Ali. While the latter refers to his actual son, Ali al-Baridi, a person who was a member of LSY and then later JKW, the reason for his being nicknamed “al-Khal” is that some of his nephews were in the military formation he founded.6 Indeed, speaking more broadly, it can be said that members of the Baridi clan—which was one of the principal clans of the village of Jamla—were the basis for the formation of the original KSY.7
Al-Khal’s own background is somewhat obscure. There is little surviving information from his own testimony about his life, and not even his relatives are necessarily familiar with it in detail, while memories have faded with the passage of time. From the information that can be retrieved, it would appear that he was born in 1970 and that he studied Arabic language and literature at Damascus University as a young man. He had also studied at a Shari‘i institute in the Syrian capital, though by profession he had been a farmer prior to the war. Various accounts also agree that he had been imprisoned and was released in 2011 as part of a government amnesty.
The majority of accounts also agree that al-Khal was imprisoned for political reasons, specifically related to some kind of Islamist activity or affiliation.8 But what kind exactly? It has previously been suggested by the first author that al-Khal had been a Salafi-jihadist prior to the war. Some accounts point in that direction. For example, one individual who had been a member of LSY and a distant relative of al-Khal said that he had heard that al-Khal had been imprisoned twice, the first time in the notorious Palestine Branch (Branch 235) prison and then later in Saydnaya prison, which hosted some jihadists and Islamists who were released in 2011.9 While this source clarified that he had heard from al-Khal himself that he had been imprisoned in the Palestine Branch, he added that he had heard that a reason for al-Khal’s imprisonment was his alleged involvement with the jihadist organization Jund al-Sham (“Soldiers of the Levant”), which engaged in small-scale attacks against Syrian security forces in the period 2004–200610 and may have been linked to Abu Mus‘ab al-Zarqawi’s al-Qaeda in Iraq.11 Notably, however, this claim of involvement with Jund al-Sham did not come from al-Khal himself, but, rather, the source that said he had heard it from a brother of al-Khal. The claim is thus third-hand and should be treated with some caution.
An alternative account points to al-Khal not as a Salafi-jihadist but rather an Ikhwani (Muslim Brotherhood member or at least someone supportive of the organization). This was suggested to the first author by a former insurgent commander who was involved in the original Jordan-backed MOC and claims to have met al-Khal multiple times and then kept a close tab on the Islamic State’s activities in Dera’a for the interest of the MOC.12
In this context, one should note a leaked 2015 video published by the pro-opposition channel Orient TV shortly after al-Khal’s assassination. In this video, al-Khal is filmed criticizing Jabhat al-Nusra. The leaked clip, which originally appears to date from November–December 2014, features al-Khal saying, “I was in the organization for 15 years. It was the reason I was imprisoned.”12 Previously, “the organization” was interpreted by the first author to mean al-Qaeda, which, if correct, would suggest corroboration of the thesis that al-Khal had been a Salafi-jihadist prior to the war. However, in this alternative reading of al-Khal’s background as an Ikhwani, what he may have actually meant in this clip is that he had been a member of the Muslim Brotherhood for 15 years. The former insurgency commander source adds that al-Khal himself had told him he was an Ikhwani. The account that al-Khal was originally an Ikhwani has also been suggested to this same author by a couple of al-Khal’s nephews from Jamla, though not necessarily with certainty on their part.14
In any case, another important figure to note with regards to the original founding of KSY is Abu ‘Ubayda Qahtan (real name: Qahtan Ya‘arab al-Hajj Dawud), who was of Palestinian origin and a veteran of the Afghan war against the Soviets. Qahtan was based in Jordan at the start of the unrest and subsequent civil war in Syria, and thus the role attributed to him by some former members as a founder of KSY is one of providing financial support to form the group before crossing into Syria at some point in late 2012 or early 2013. These various accounts suggest that the connection between Qahtan and al-Khal was ideological: either Qahtan was a fellow Salafi-jihadist like al-Khal, or the two were initially united through a Muslim Brotherhood affinity.
Joining the MOC
Regardless of whether one wishes to believe that Qahtan and al-Khal were Ikhwanis or Salafi jihadists originally, the two did not openly proclaim any Islamist affinities in the early days of KSY and its expansion into LSY, and the group’s imagery was that of the nationalist FSA. Once the MOC was constituted in Jordan, LSY formally became a part of it, and it would seem that al-Khal went to Jordan more than once as part of the group’s MOC membership. Per the MOC source who claims to have met al-Khal multiple times, he recalls having met al-Khal more than once in Amman and having travelled back with him into Syria more than once.15
This initial support from the MOC—combined with alleged support from a wider Muslim Brotherhood network, the group’s strategic location, effective organization, and large amounts of weapons seized from Syrian government forces during the early battles in the south—turned LSY into one of the more powerful factions in the wider south, especially within the Yarmouk Basin.16 These points are partly corroborated by a video of an LSY military parade around November 2013, published by Al-Jazeera Arabic, that shows a number of tanks in possession of the group.17
LSY subsequently became part of the large “Southern Front” coalition of opposition factions formed in February 2014. Most if not all of the factions in the Southern Front were backed by the MOC. LSY’s membership in the Southern Front continued until at least May 2014, as evidenced by a Southern Front statement from that month in which LSY appears as one of the signatories criticizing Jabhat al-Nusra for arresting Ahmad Fahad al-Nu‘ma (who was head of the “Military Council in Dera’a Province”) and other FSA members.18 In early June 2014, LSY even appeared as a signatory to a collective statement by Southern Front factions calling for the replacement of the current regime with a democracy and affirming a call for a respect for human rights in accordance with international law.19
Yet during the summer of 2014 (c. June/July 2014), a distinct change appears to have occurred in which the organization adopted a more “Islamic-style” emblem.20 Moreover, al-Khal’s dress style seemed to undergo a notable transformation at this time. This can be illustrated by a contrast between the aforementioned military parade in November 2013, in which al-Khal was wearing a tracksuit-style outfit, and a photo of al-Khal with Qahtan that purportedly dates to the time of Tel al-Jumu’ offensive in mid-2014, in which his dress style looks more typical of that adopted by jihadists.21 Per the MOC source, there had been for some time suspicions of a link between LSY and the Muslim Brotherhood, and this was the most likely reason why the MOC decided to cut support for LSY. By his account, the cutting of MOC support dated to the fall of 2013, though it seems hard to reconcile that claim with LSY’s initial participation in the Southern Front.22 Yet the source’s testimony might also be corroborated by what was said in the November 2013 military parade statement in which LSY emphasized that it had routed the Syrian government from its home region “without any notable support from those who claim guardianship over the Syrian people, whether they are the coalition or the military council.” Whatever the exact truth of the matter, MOC support for LSY had certainly been cut off by mid-2014, when the group began adopting a more “Islamic” aesthetic.
Early Links with the Islamic State
It is also around mid-2014 that one should probably date the beginnings of LSY’s links with the Islamic State. But how these links emerged is a matter of dispute. According to the first author’s conversations in 2016 with the former LSY and JKW member earlier mentioned, the key link between LSY and the Islamic State was the figure of Ahmad Kassab al-Masalama (Abu Muhammad al-Masalama/Abu Muhammad Harasta), a veteran of the Afghan war of the 1980s who had returned to Syria. While he may not have officially been a member of LSY, he was close to al-Khal.23 For example, in the LSY military parade video, he appears standing next to al-Khal. He is also in a 2014 image with al-Khal and Qahtan that illustrates the change in al-Khal’s dress style.24 Per multiple accounts, Ahmad was a Salafi-jihadist and had by 2014 at least become a supporter of the Islamic State, impressed by the group’s accomplishments.25 The former LSY and JKW member who mentioned the origin of al-Khal’s nickname even claims that Ahmad went to Raqqa—the main base of the Islamic State in Syria—during this period.26 The MOC source, however, could not confirm this claim. Ahmad would himself be assassinated in November 2014, most likely at the hands of Jabhat al-Nusra,27 whom LSY would later accuse of being behind the assassination in an official video.28 It also seems likely that if Jabhat al-Nusra had been responsible for the assassination, then it had been on suspicion of his links with the Islamic State.
Masalama’s killing would trigger an escalation of tensions between LSY and Jabhat al-Nusra that culminated in clashes in December 2014 following LSY’s arrest of Jabhat al-Nusra fighters and their families.29 During those clashes, Jabhat al-Nusra accused LSY of links with the Islamic State. Interestingly, it was also during this time that Qahtan and al-Khal allegedly told the MOC source that they were actually Ikhwanis by background, not Islamic State members. Conversely, one “Dr. Abu al-Bara’ al-Shami,” who participated in mediation efforts between the groups at the time, claims that a number of soldiers and leaders of LSY who were taken prisoner in the infighting freely admitted their allegiance to the “Khawarij” (i.e., the Islamic State).30
The same MOC source, on the subject of the beginnings of LSY’s links with the Islamic State, explains that there was some sympathy within the ranks of LSY for the Islamic State, but it was the group’s Shari‘i official (i.e., religious official/cleric) going by the name of Abu Hamza al-Qurashi who actually pledged allegiance to the Islamic State’s leader, even before 2014 or at least well before the clashes with Jabhat al-Nusra. This individual’s alleged real name was Khalid Abu Shaylah,31 and he should not be confused with the Islamic State’s deceased spokesman Abu Hamza al-Qurashi who preceded the current spokesman Abu ‘Umar al-Muhajir. Per the MOC source’s account, Abu Hamza had allegedly been entrusted by the Islamic State to start taking pledges of allegiance among people in southern Syria, even visiting Raqqa as part of his liaisons with the Islamic State.
Thus, the allegation that Jabhat al-Nusra made was correct in some sense. Not all members of LSY may have pledged allegiance to Baghdadi at that time, but there was clearly some link between at least some members of LSY and the Islamic State prior to the clashes, even if many of the FSA factions and opposition figures may not have believed it at the time. Significantly, the claim that LSY somehow turned to the Islamic State as a means of protecting itself from Jabhat al-Nusra also seems implausible.32 This claim emerged as attempts to mediate between LSY and Jabhat al-Nusra via the Dar al-‘Adl (a judicial authority established in the south that was mostly accepted by the other insurgent groups but had been rejected by LSY) ultimately failed, and over the course of much of 2015 the two sides were at war with each other. Though Jabhat al-Nusra was also backed in this fight by Ahrar al-Sham33 and other groups under the “Jaysh al-Fatah, southern region” coalition (an imitation of the Jaysh al-Fatah coalition that had taken over most of Idlib province), Jabhat al-Nusra lost many fighters, which probably contributed to the weakening of the group in the south.34 In the meantime, LSY further consolidated its authority in the Yarmouk Basin area and began displaying more overt affinities with the Islamic State, adopting the group’s flag in its official logo, establishing governing institutions on the ground similar to the Islamic State’s model of governance,35 and releasing high quality photo productions that suggested influence from the Islamic State.36 Further, a video emerged in 2015 of al-Khal and other members of the group singing a nashid (song) associated with the Islamic State.37 All this was so despite the group’s official denial of an allegiance to the Islamic State—something that al-Khal would continue to maintain until his death in November 2015 at the hands of Jabhat al-Nusra.38
Aligning with the Caliphate Project
LSY’s stronghold, the Yarmouk Basin, essentially became the region to which other groups in southern Syria—aligned with Islamic State or accused of such an alignment—could retreat in the event of clashing with other insurgent groups. The two most notable cases in this regard were Jaysh al-Jihad (“Army of Jihad”), which was based in neighboring Quneitra province on the border with the Golan Heights and engaged in operations targeting other insurgent groups only to be quickly routed;39 and Harakat al-Muthanna al-Islamiyya (“Islamic al-Muthanna Movement,” HMI).
The latter presents a more complex case. The group was originally part of Jabhat al-Nusra but split off in 2012, initially calling itself “Katibat al-Muthanna bin Haritha Qahir al-Fars” (“al-Muthanna bin Haritha Conqueror of the Persians,” KMH). The reason for this split, according to the first author’s MOC source, is that Jabhat al-Nusra conducted a car bombing in 2012 in Dera’a city, which those who went on to form KMH disapproved of. Moreover, from the outset, KMH decided that it would only allow Syrians into its ranks and not foreigners.40 The group’s initial leader was ‘Amr Ayyub al-Masalama (Abu Muhammad al-Masalama), who, by the accounts of HMI members, had been a detainee in Saydnaya prison.41 In February 2013, Abu Muhammad was killed and replaced by his brother, Abu Ayyub al-Masalama (Naji al-Masalama).
Unlike LSY, KMH from the outset was more clearly Islamist in orientation, and it is notable that it never identified as FSA and never became part of the MOC. KMH evolved into HMI in May 2013, signaling the expansion of the group’s influence and its wider ambitions to function as a political movement and not just a military formation. This transition to HMI included the issuing of a political covenant, making clear an Islamist agenda as Islam was declared to be “the religion of the state” and “the only source for legislation,” and yet also affirming a nationalist vision as it called for “coexistence among the sons of the one homeland” (emphasis added).42
According to the MOC source, HMI as an insurgent movement enjoyed considerable success on the ground. It is not the place here to document the group’s battles in detail, but the source noted that it was well organized administratively and militarily and enjoyed a popular support base particularly within Dera’a city. The group also generated financial revenues for itself through the rearing of cattle, manufacture of yogurts and cheeses, workshops for car repair, and the control of olive groves. The source also clarified that HMI received donations from abroad, though it was not made clear where these donors were based, only that the donors were individuals and not government entities. In this context, it should be noted also that HMI emphasized its independence as part of its imagery, implicitly contrasting itself with the MOC factions. Such was HMI’s influence in the wider south that it actually served as a mediating party in the initial clashes between LSY and Jabhat al-Nusra at the end of 2014.43
The first public concerns of possible Islamic State links came in March 2015 when a statement in HMI’s name came out regarding the Islamic State,44 declaring that its Caliphate was not valid but also praising the group as “an organization that has fought the states of kufr [disbelief] and their apostate allies and has inflicted damage on the enemies of God.” Portraying itself as neutral in the infighting between Islamic State and other “Islamic factions,” the group concluded with a call for an end to the “fitna” (internal discord within the Muslim community) between the warring parties. It was not clear to outside observers at the time why HMI issued this statement, but it is likely that the statement reflected internal tensions to some degree whereby some elements were expressing sympathy for the Islamic State if not having actually pledged allegiance. It would appear that such sentiments of sympathy and support within HMI for the Islamic State began around the period of late 2014 or early 2015.
The MOC source, who claims to have had extensive interactions with HMI’s leaders, says that HMI as an organization had not given a formal pledge of allegiance, but that certain leading figures in HMI—such as Abu al-Yaman al-Shari‘i, Abu Abdullah, Abu ‘Umar Sawa‘iq, and Abu Sulayman—were openly expressing admiration for the Islamic State and were even playing Islamic State nashids in their cars. In Dera’a city, where HMI was active, graffiti in praise of the Islamic State also began appearing. The source adds that it was subsequently established that members of HMI had given allegiance to the Islamic State and gone to Raqqa.45 However, the same source says that the group’s overall leader, Abu Ayyub, did not give allegiance to Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi as leader of the Islamic State, but rather had his own ambitions to craft HMI as the leading Islamist movement in the southern region. As he put it: “He was very haughty: he considered himself more important than Baghdadi.”
Over the course of 2015, relations between HMI and other insurgent factions deteriorated.46 The group also ceased working with the Dar al-‘Adl, rejecting its use of the Unified Arab Code as a system of law and running its own judiciary system instead. It would appear that the pro-Islamic State elements gained more influence within the organization and began issuing secret fatwas to permit operations to steal from FSA factions and associated institutions and assassinate their leaders and personnel, likely on the grounds that these entities were (allegedly) apostates. The most prominent cases in this regard were the assassination of Usama al-Yatim of the Dar al-‘Adl47 and the kidnapping of Dr. Ya‘qub al-Ammar—who was head of the Dera’a provincial council tied to the opposition’s national interim government—both of which occurred in December 2015. These incidents led to clashes between HMI and insurgent factions, following which HMI established in February/March 2016 its new primary bases in the western Dera’a countryside. In the process, it effectively entered into an alliance with LSY and became, as the MOC source put it, LSY’s “first line of defense.” Even so, in March 2016, HMI leader Naji al-Masalama was denying to Al-Jazeera Arabic that his group was affiliated with the Islamic State.48 Moreover, LSY launched a new offensive in that month that saw it capture two towns (Tasil and Sahm al-Jowlan) and prompted a wider insurgent mobilization against HMI and LSY. During this mobilization, HMI’s sole remaining contingent in Dera’a city abandoned HMI, LSY lost all the ground it had gained, and HMI lost its territorial stronghold in western Dera’a, resulting in a retreat into LSY’s territory.
The Formation and History of Jaysh Khalid bin al-Walid
In May 2016, a decision was taken to merge LSY and the remnants of HMI along with Jaysh al-Jihad (the formerly Quneitra-based insurgent group accused of being aligned with the Islamic State) to form Jaysh Khalid bin al-Walid (henceforth “JKW”). This merger was almost certainly the work of the Islamic State, and it has even been claimed that the group’s spokesman, Abu Muhammad al-‘Adnani, was the one who gave the name of JKW to the new group.49
At this point, it became clear that JKW was an Islamic State affiliate. For example, the Nashir news channels that disseminate official Islamic State propaganda would also share JKW photo releases and videos, and the group introduced Islamic State textbooks in the schools in its zone of control.50 However, this affiliation was only officially acknowledged towards the very end of JKW’s existence, when the group fought the Syrian government’s military campaign to regain control of Dera’a province in summer 2018 and was then referred to in Islamic State releases under the name of Wilayat Hawran (“Hawran province,” with “Hawran” here referring to both Dera’a and Quneitra provinces).
In reality, it is unlikely that the Islamic State had decided suddenly to upgrade the affiliate to a province at such a late stage. Rather, Wilayat Hawran had probably already existed for some months prior to the Syrian government’s military campaign in summer 2018. When the demise of JKW as a territorial entity was imminent, it was then likely decided to drop the lack of official acknowledgement in the propaganda. According to intelligence and documents gathered by the first author’s MOC source who was tracking JKW at the time, there was a distinction between the general commander of JKW (aka the emir of the sector) and the wali (governor) of Wilayat Hawran, the latter being above the former in authority.
The last known wali of Wilayat Hawran prior to JKW’s demise as a territorial entity was one Abu Ali al-Safadi, who was originally from the town of Sheikh Maskin in Dera’a. This person was reputedly the same “Abu Ibrahim al-Shami” who headed JKW’s Oversight and Tracking Committee.51 Prior to the creation of Wilayat Hawran (most likely in late 2017), JKW was first allegedly affiliated directly with ‘Adnani52 and was subsequently administered under the Islamic State’s Wilayat Dimashq (Damascus province).53
Since JKW was confined to a relatively small area of operation in close proximity to key intelligence partners of the United States (Israel and Jordan), the MOC and U.S. intelligence community achieved a high degree of intelligence penetration regarding the internal administrative structure of JKW, its membership, locations of bases and facilities, and other important information on the workings of the organization. The picture suggests that at any given time, the number of JKW personnel—as an upper estimate—did not exceed much more than 1,000. For example, an internal database from the period of July/August 2017 consisting of military personnel for the organization only records 516 individuals.54 The data also points to a rather mixed composition: while many members of JKW were locals from the Yarmouk Basin, many others were originally from other parts of Dera’a and Quneitra, reflecting earlier displacements in the war and also the migration of supporters of the Islamic State in Dera’a and Quneitra to the Yarmouk Basin. At the same time, there were apparently at one point three “external security” (in Arabic, amn khariji) apparatuses of the Islamic State operating in Dera’a: one a part of JKW, another affiliated with Wilayat Dimashq, and a third operating under the name of Fawj al-Qa‘qa‘ (Qa‘qa‘ Regiment), though Fawj al-Qa‘qa‘ was subsequently integrated into JKW.55
It is also known that JKW was beset by internal problems. In the summer of 2016, not long after JKW’s formation, some individuals who had been leading figures in HMI, including Abu Ayyub, fled the Yarmouk Basin and quit the field. In addition, after the assassination in October 2016 of JKW’s first emir, Abu Hashim al-Idlibi (whose kunya suggests he was sent by the Islamic State from northern Syria), JKW’s security apparatus arrested some individuals who had been key figures in LSY, including Abu ‘Ubayda Qahtan (who had succeeded al-Khal as emir of LSY), Nidhal al-Baridi (a brother of al-Khal), and Abu Tahrir al-Urduni (a Jordanian who had originally been in the Syrian Revolutionaries Front before joining LSY in the Yarmouk Basin).56 These men were accused of being behind Abu Hashim’s assassination, and they confessed to involvement in the assassination and other purported crimes of collaboration with enemies of the group. Some of the clips of the confessions have been viewed by one of the authors, and they were clearly obtained under duress and are of questionable veracity.57
As a result of the confessions extracted by the JKW security department in conjunction with the JKW judiciary department led by Abu Ali Saraya (originally from Sheikh Maskin and previously the head of LSY’s Islamic court), the wali of Wilayat Dimashq signed off on the execution of six individuals including Qahtan and Nidhal, ruling them guilty of apostasy and ordering the confiscation of their property.58 Yet the executed men were subsequently exonerated in a ruling by JKW’s “General Court” (a rebranding of the general “Islamic court” in Islamic State territories) under the leadership of Abu Abdullah al-Jazrawi, a Saudi sent from northern Syria by the Islamic State who was reputedly part of Wilayat Hawran’s Majlis Shura.X59 Jazrawi noted that Saraya had himself later admitted that his own ruling had been flawed.60
Despite the high degree of intelligence penetration of JKW, the group’s small numbers relative to the wider body of insurgents in the south, as well as multiple decapitation strikes by the U.S.-led coalition targeting JKW’s leadership alongside internal problems that undermined the group, other insurgent groups in the south failed to capitalize on these vulnerabilities and take any significant territory from the Islamic State affiliate. In fact, it was the latter that gained ground against its insurgent rivals,61 though the overall military picture was one of a stalemate and there was never a serious threat of JKW overrunning the insurgent-held territories in Dera’a and Quneitra provinces. A variety of factors may explain the failure to eliminate JKW, and not all of them can be put down to the insurgents’ failings. The terrain of JKW’s stronghold was difficult to assault and the rival insurgents did not have regular air support with which to attack JKW, in contrast to the extensive air support that the U.S.-backed Syrian Democratic Forces enjoyed in the north and east in their campaign against the Islamic State.
Yet the insurgency in the south was also marred by its own problems of factionalism and corruption, and there is a question of how committed those groups actually were to the fight against the Islamic State in Dera’a as opposed to perpetuating it in order to continue receiving weapons and money from foreign sponsors. Their failure in this regard is another example of how the policy argument made by some that the opposition factions themselves constituted the best “counterterrorism force” against jihadists in Syria62 was highly dubious. It was instead the Syrian government’s military campaign to reclaim Dera’a province—backed by Russia—that ultimately put an end to JKW as a territorial entity by August 2018.
Southern Syria after JKW
In an ideal world, knowledge of the Islamic State’s origins and history as a territorial entity in Dera’a would provide us with a clear understanding of the nature of the group and its activities since August 2018 until the present day. Unfortunately, the authors’ fairly detailed knowledge of the origins and history of JKW offers limited insight into the Islamic State’s network in Dera’a since JKW’s demise or its current activities in that theater.
Certainly, it has become well-established among observers that Dera’a province has been suffering from chronic instability and insecurity since the formal reimposition of the Syrian government’s control. Security incidents of some kind occur on an almost daily basis, including assassinations and attempted assassinations by small arms as well as IED attacks. These incidents likely kill and wound dozens of individuals, if not more, on a monthly basis.63 The targets are also somewhat varied: some are aimed at personnel of the Syrian army and intelligence apparatuses, others target mukhtars (local officials who certify various documents and help mediate disputes) and heads of government-affiliated municipal councils, some are aimed at former insurgents, while others still seem to target civilians who have no affiliation with any belligerent.
While there is no doubt that at least some of these incidents reflect insurgent activity aimed at the Syrian government (especially those that target government security personnel, alleged government collaborators, and local government officials and Ba’ath Party members), it is very difficult to determine the identity of the perpetrators of most of these incidents, the exception being in cases where the Islamic State self-reports. Local activist and media reporting on the perpetrators often simply refers to them as “unknown persons” (in Arabic, majhulun). The Islamic State rarely issues claims of operations in its “Hawran” region these days,64 and it has been leaning towards a trend of silence over the past two years or so. In 2021, the group issued just 17 claims of operations in “Hawran,” 13 of which were issued in April–May 2021. In 2022, the group issued 16 claims of operations in Hawran, 11 of them published in the course of one 72-hour period in March. The organization then retroactively claimed in January 2023 a series of operations spanning the period August 2021—July 2022.65
It is reasonable to suspect that the group is engaging in a deliberate strategy of underreporting its operations, as is the case in the Badiyya as well. Indeed, the Islamic State appeared to hint at this possibility in an editorial in its al-Naba’ newsletter in late 2020. The editorial, entitled “Unknown persons, and God is well aware of them,” criticized media reports for attributing Islamic State attacks in Syria to “majhulun” or “obscure circumstances.”66 Among the examples the editorial mentioned of these false attributions were Islamic State operations targeting Syrian army officers and “apostates of the ‘reconciliations’ in Hawran.” In this context, the term “apostates of the reconciliations” refers to former insurgents and opposition figures who entered into the “reconciliation” agreements with the Syrian government brokered by Russia during the recapture of Dera’a and Quneitra provinces. The deliberate underreporting was more clearly alluded to in the al-Naba’ report in January 2023 retroactively claiming a number of operations. As stated in the introduction to the report: “The source clarified that the delay in announcing these attacks is due to the special security and media policy of the mujahidin, noting that the media of the apostates attributes a number of these operations to multiple sides, all of which wage war on the mujahidin.”67
There are some sound reasons from the group’s perspective to underreport its operations. First, it allows for operational security by not revealing too much information that could help to identify locations of Islamic State cells operating in the province. Second, it is apparent that attacks on Syrian military personnel and others tied to the Syrian government in some way enjoy some level of popular support and sympathy in Dera’a province. While the government has formally reasserted its authority in the region, there is still clear evidence of anti-government sentiment as evinced in demonstrations in various localities where protestors have waved the green, white, and black flag associated with the opposition and/or have called for the “bringing down of the regime” (isqat al-nizham).X Claiming too many attacks in the name of the Islamic State might alienate popular local sympathy with these operations, hindering the group’s ability to operate more effectively in a cloud of obscurity. This is not to say that the group ultimately cares about popular support for its agenda: after all, the rejection of the idea that a popular support base is a prerequisite to implementing Islamic law and governance is one thing that differentiates the Islamic State from its jihadist rivals. The issue is rather ensuring continuity of operations in what is right now a prolonged if not indefinite insurgent phase of covert activity.
The advantage offered by a shroud of uncertainty could apply all the more to operations targeting “reconciliation” figures and other perceived “apostates” who might actually enjoy a degree of local legitimacy. In those cases, claiming the operations could make locals more willing to cooperate with the Syrian government and its security apparatuses to eliminate Islamic State cells. Yet even as we can think of reasons why the Islamic State would underreport activities in Dera’a, it is very difficult to say to what extent the group is underreporting. For example, was the real number of Islamic State operations in Dera’a in 2021 or 2022, say, five times, ten times, or fifteen times the number of claimed attacks? It is impossible to tell.
Besides this issue of obscurity regarding the real extent of the group’s operations, we also do not have much idea of the membership of the Islamic State in Hawran. As noted earlier, there was some detailed information on the composition of JKW, but it cannot be said with confidence that any members of JKW in the 2016–2018 period known to the authors are today working on behalf of the Islamic State in the Hawran region. In this regard, the only individual specifically known to these authors who is accounted for and remains in the Hawran region is one Nour Allah al-Ghouri, an individual from the Quneitra locality of al-Rafid who also went by the nickname of “Nasir al-Sunna” (“Supporter of the Sunna”).69 According to a contact in al-Rafid, this individual had been arrested by the Syrian government, but had already been released when this contact was asked about his status June 2021.70 The contact suggested that his release might have occurred because he had agreed to work for the interests of the Syrian government. There is no evidence to suggest that he has been working for the interests of the Islamic State since his release, which could support this theory. However, other individuals who were members of JKW or LSY and specifically known to these authors have either left Syria, been imprisoned or killed, or have otherwise disappeared.
Claims of Government-Islamic State Collaboration and the Killing of Abu al-Hasan
The case of Nur Allah and his release raise a further point for discussion. Much of the reporting on Dera’a since August 2018 has been activist in nature and politically aligned with the opposition against the Syrian government. One repeated claim that has emerged in this reporting is that the Syrian government and the Islamic State are somehow colluding or collaborating in order to undermine what remains of opposition elements in the province. This recalls many years of such claims of collusion, which have repeatedly been shown to be false and reflect a wider denialism and unwillingness among opposition ranks to take responsibility for the problems of jihadism that arose from the earliest years of the insurgency in Syria.71 In the particular case of Dera’a though, the denialism is also partly an effective result of what appears to be a deliberate approach of underreporting by the Islamic State vis-à-vis its operations in Dera’a, as discussed above.
One of the lines of evidence given in support of the collusion theory is the government’s release of some former members of JKW. While the example of Nur Allah and some other reported cases72 show that the Syrian government has indeed released some former members of JKW, these releases do not clearly establish a collaboration between the government and the Islamic State. First, there is no definitive evidence that actual and reported former members who have been released have engaged in activities on behalf of the Islamic State since being released.73 Second, even if it could be shown that such individuals were engaging in such activities after release, it would still not necessarily establish collaboration, especially if they were engaging in activity for the group that involved targeting Syrian government forces—as the Islamic State has indeed claimed responsibility for in Dera’a and Quneitra.
In truth, the notorious system of prisons run by the Syrian government and its intelligence branches is often quite opaque. Why are some people suddenly released after several years, others disappeared indefinitely and/or executed, others held seemingly for short periods of time, and others still apparently released only to be rearrested soon afterwards? The last scenario reflects the case of a certain individual from Quneitra province known to one of the authors. This individual, who had been supportive of the Islamic State, was initially arrested by the Syrian government following the dismantlement of JKW in August 2018, only to be released at the end of September 2018.74 According to him, he had paid money in order to leave prison. He was then rearrested not long after, however, and remains in prison as of the time of writing—if he has not been executed.75
As this case and others show, corruption plays a significant role in the system of imprisonment and release. As the economic situation in Syria and attendant livelihoods have continued to deteriorate over the years, corruption and predation have become more entrenched. It is certainly possible that some people who had been members of JKW and have been released paid bribes or had bribes paid on their behalf to secure release. In such a case, assuming that these individuals subsequently returned to working on behalf of the Islamic State, then all that could be established is corruption, in which members of the security apparatuses are willing to release prisoners in return for money despite the risks these individuals may pose. It is also possible that some prisoners may have secured their release by agreeing to work on behalf of the government or one of its security apparatuses, or perhaps through a combination of a bribe and such an agreement. This would not prove collusion with the Islamic State, but simply that the government had secured a nominal defection to its own side. Furthermore, it is hardly as though the government has only managed to secure defections from Islamic State members—it has also secured the defections of former insurgents. To take two examples: (i) Tha’ir Mustafa al-Abbas, assassinated in May 2020, was an FSA insurgent commander in the northern Dera’a town of al-Sanamayn who subsequently switched sides and worked with military intelligence76; (ii) the “Eighth Brigade” based out of Busra al-Sham is one of the main armed groups operating in Dera’a and consists of many former insurgents (its main basis being the “Farqat Shabab al-Sunna” group) and is currently affiliated with military intelligence.77
Contrary to the claims of collusion between the government and the Islamic State, the killing of the previous “caliph” Abu al-Hasan shows that it is actually the government that has been seeking to crack down on the Islamic State’s presence in Dera’a and has accordingly been pressuring local notables and militiamen to take action. By one account, the Islamic State had been active in the Jasim area where Abu al-Hasan was apparently killed since at least 2019.78 From 2019 until 2022, the group conducted dozens of assassinations in the area. This Islamic State presence grew over time and the members of the Islamic State were even using fake IDs—including the IDs of some of their victims—to buy land and real estate in the area.79 However, no decisive action was taken against this Islamic State presence for some time.
The Syrian government—or, more specifically, the head of the Syrian military intelligence branch in Dera’a (Lu’ay al-Ali)—began turning its attention to Jasim in late June 2022, urging Jasim’s “central committees” (Arabic: lujan markaziyya)80 and their affiliated former insurgents to cooperate with government forces in eliminating the Islamic State cells in the area while threatening an all-out assault in the event of non-cooperation.81 However, discussions stalled for the next three months or so, primarily on account of denial by the local notables and former insurgents of this Islamic State presence, supposedly as the Syrian government refused to give names of Islamic State personnel. Opposition activists speaking to media outlets reinforced the denialism, claiming that the Syrian government was using claims of an Islamic State presence as a pretext to impose further authority over Jasim, establish more checkpoints, and extort locals.82 Only after the government ramped up the pressure by sending more military reinforcements to the peripheries of Jasim town,83 at which point the threat of an assault seemed imminent, did the local factions of Jasim finally take concerted action against the Islamic State presence.
This campaign against the Islamic State, which began on October 14, 2022 and lasted for nine days, was reinforced by the Eighth Brigade and some artillery support from the Syrian military.84 During those clashes, an individual called “(Abu) Abd al-Rahman al-Iraqi,” also known by other nicknames such as “Sayf Baghdad” (“The Sword of Baghdad”), was among the Islamic State members killed, as documented in contemporary reporting.85 Since the Islamic State’s announcement of the death of Abu al-Hasan and the CENTCOM statement, it has been claimed that this individual was Abu al-Hasan.86 While this identification seems plausible, it has not yet been definitively confirmed. Whatever the case, no announcements regarding Abu al-Hasan’s death were made at the time, suggesting that those who killed the “caliph” were not aware of his position in the organization.
In short, the CENTCOM statement that the “Free Syrian Army” killed Abu al-Hasan is rather misleading. While those who killed him may have at one point been FSA insurgents, the operation was effectively conducted under the auspices of the Syrian military and security apparatuses, whose pressure on the local factions and notables of Jasim led to the operation in the first place.
Conclusion and Future Outlook
While Abu al-Hasan is now dead, his demise does not mean the end of the Islamic State’s presence in Dera’a by any means, even as the organization is generally silent about its presence and activities in the region . In November 2022, clashes occurred in Dera’a al-Balad (the southern half of Dera’a city, which was controlled by insurgents prior to the 2018 “reconciliations”) between local armed factions supported by the Eighth Brigade and Syrian military on the one hand and two militant groups led by Muhammad al-Masalama (nickname: (al)-Hafo) and Mu’ayyad Harfoush (nickname: Abu Ta‘aja) on the other.87 The latter two groups were accused of assassinations, kidnappings, and other criminal activities in addition to links to the Islamic State. It would appear that their main bases in Dera’a al-Balad were overrun, and their whereabouts are currently unknown. Prior to the formal re-imposition of Syrian government control, however, both of these men worked with mainstream insurgent factions in Dera’a, though it would appear that their links to the Islamic State also predate August 2018 in conducting Amn Khariji-type operations for the group.88 It was, in fact, the Syrian government that first accused these two individuals of being linked to the Islamic State,89 as they were cited by the government as being part of the reason for the need to launch an assault in Dera’a al-Balad in the summer of 2021.90 Yet this matter was also treated as a fabricated pretext by some pro-opposition commentators.91
The Syrian government would certainly like to impose its authority further in Dera’a province and is unhappy with the many agreements to restore formal government control that were hastily arranged in summer 2018, as these have limited its ability to impose authority through its own forces and often necessitate negotiating with local committees and delegating security operations to groups of former insurgents. But it is also true that the Syrian government has not addressed many local grievances surrounding detainees in prisons,92 the perceived presence of Iranian-linked armed groups in the province, poor services provision, and the deterioration in living standards (the latter two problems applying more generally to government-held areas across the country). These grievances, combined with persistent sympathies on some level with the original idea of the revolution (considering that Dera’a is where the first sparks of the original uprising were lit),93 mean that instability is likely to persist at least in the short- to medium-term, in which the Islamic State will probably be one of multiple contributing elements.
Even so, it is unlikely that we will witness a “new revolution” in Dera’a, particularly since Jordan no longer seeks to provide support for insurgent activity against the Syrian government but is rather keen to normalize relations in the hope of improving cross-border trade and by extension its own economic situation (notwithstanding Jordanian concerns about drug-smuggling and the general instability in Dera’a). For its part, the Islamic State will likely continue to exploit this unstable environment and discontent with the government to persist in its own insurgent activities in Dera’a and southern Syria while keeping generally quiet about those activities to maximize operational security.