Yarmouk in south Syria is not known as a hotbed of extremism – but IS-inspired militants have taken over, and are preaching in its schools.
The village of al-Shajarah, Arabic for “tree”, is nestled in the fertile basin of the Yarmouk river, in that corner of the region where Syria, Jordan and the Golan Heights converge.
Three years ago this farming community of about 10,000 people drew truckers, traders and shoppers, and shipped produce daily to Syrian and Jordanian buyers. Today though, less than 10km from the borders with Israel and Jordan, Shajarah has been cut off.
”We live a life isolated from the outside world,” said 47-year-old Abu Nasser, a father from the village.
Roads in have been closed. Traffic out is strictly policed by members of the Khalid bin al-Walid Army, an Islamic State-style group that controls Shajarah and seven villages nearby.
On 27 November, Israeli aircraft struck several points under the control of the army. On Monday, IDF spokesman Avichay Adraee said that it had targeted al-Walid fighters in the southern Golan Heights facility “in response to the shooting, which targeted a military force carrying out security activity yesterday”.
There were reports of dead and injured among the Khalid bin al-Walid Army.
During their occupation of the area, the Khalid bin al-Walid Army has earned a reputation for its horrific and uncompromising approach to controlling the local population.
“They cut off people’s hands, heads, and skin, or use other methods of torture against people here,” said Nasser. “This is new for us, we have never seen it before.”
Nasser’s description of life under occupation – and the fear of a shocked population trying to live under the group’s brutal rule – echoes similar testimonials from Mosul, Raqqa and other parts of IS’s so-called caliphate.
But Shajarah and the other villages of the Yarmouk valley aren’t, technically, occupied by IS: the Khalid bin al-Walid Army has not yet sworn public allegiance to IS. The group denies affiliation with the broader terrorism organisation, even as news items produced by it feature in Amaq, one of IS’s main propaganda mouthpieces.
For Abu Nasser and the 20,000 other inhabitants of the Yarmouk basin, the difference, if there is any, is meaningless.
“They’re IS members, and we see the flags of IS flapping all over the place in our town. They are still hiding their affiliation with the organisation, but we know they are part of it,” he told MEE.
Links with Islamic State
The Yarmouk valley didn’t begin the Syrian war as a hotbed of extremism. Like much of southern Syria, locals here rose up in peaceful demonstrations against the Syrian regime.
Soon the protests moved into armed conflict. During this time, a militant leader emerged in the area, a man known as Abu Ali, or al-Khal – “the Uncle”.
In 2012 al-Khal founded the Martyrs of Yarmouk brigade as part of the Free Syrian Army opposition group. He amassed more and more power in the region, eventually controlling utilities (electricity and water) and education. He also established a special court. While his brigade initially received support from the US-led Military Operations Centre (MOC) in Jordan in 2013, this ceased in early 2014 as the group’s behaviour became less and less mainstream.
By the end of 2014, the brigade was showing clear signs of extremism. In 2015 it started applying Islamic law and implementing judicial provisions similar to those of IS.
On 24 May 2016, the arrival of the Khalid bin al-Walid Army was announced through a fully integrated merger of three hardline groups: the Yarmouk Martyrs Brigade, the Islamic Muthanna Movement and the Army of Jihad. The territory dominated by these groups stretched across the Yarmouk region, a triangle of land between Syria, Jordan and the Golan Heights.
Abu Bilal, a resident of Shajarah, the main stronghold of the Khalid bin al-Walid Army, told MEE that Abu Uthman Aladalbi, an emir for the organisation, was sent to the area from northern Aleppo as an envoy from the IS leadership.
He added: “The decision to appoint Abu Uthman Aladalbi came as a direct order from the organisation’s leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi.”
The Khalid bin al-Walid Army is certainly a major branch of IS, but the three factions are hiding their affiliations, fearing international targeting.
With the formation of the Khalid bin al-Walid Army and its announcement of an Islamic caliphate in the area in 2016, al-Khal cemented his control of the region.
During the past year, the Khalid bin al-Walid Army has extended its strength by tightening its control over schools, hospitals and service institutions, and by imposing their ideas and beliefs on the region’s population through the Hisbah, an IS-style morality police.
Abu Ahmad, a father of three girls and two boys living in Shajarah, said that anyone who opposed the group’s rule never stood a chance.
“People in the Yarmouk district are simple, they do not have the strength or the ability to face the Khalid bin al-Walid Army’s militant control over the region, and so they have to demonstrate compatibility and coexistence under these circumstances.”
Despite an armed incursion and blockade of the region by the Free Syrian Army and its allies eight months ago, several towns and villages in the Yarmouk basin region west of Daraa are still under the control of the brigade.
‘We have been brainwashed with their ideas’
For families living under the group’s rule, every aspect of life has changed. But what parents worry about most is the army’s impact on education.
Most of the region’s schools have been converted into Islamic institutions, where teachers and some students are forced to wear IS-type uniforms: short trousers, long tunics and headscarves for males; and layers of black full-length dresses and scarves for females.
Many teachers have been fired and replaced with teachers belonging to IS, several of whom came direct from Raqqa.
“At the beginning of the 2016 academic year, members of the Khalid bin al-Walid Army expelled me and several teachers from the school, and prevented us from teaching,” one former teacher told MEE. He asked that his name be withheld for fear of reprisals.
“They replaced us with instructors brought in from outside the region to teach children Sharia and encourage them to take up jihad and fight the infidels,” he said.
According to locals, the 2016-17 school year began with even more radical changes to the school curriculum. Most of the lessons discussed the necessity of jihad and fighting the infidels to establish the Islamic caliphate.
“I fear for my two sons in the school,” said Shajarah, a father of school-age boys, speaking on condition of anonymity. “I can’t keep my children home, but I’m not satisfied with what they study in school now, all these ideas on the establishment of an Islamic caliphate.”
For parents of older children, the risks are different but the stakes higher, explained the father of an 18-year-old.
“My son was a hard-working high school student when the Yarmouk Martyrs Brigade took control,” he told MEE. “They ran training workshops and forced my son to go. Three months later he joined their group, and when they became the Khalid bin al-Walid Army, he marched under that banner.”
Those military elements which forced his son to join have now begun to emerge in the guard posts of the Khalid Army.
“I don’t know what happened,” the father said. “All I know is that I lost my son indefinitely. We have been brainwashed with their ideas, and he has become a supporter.”
The waiting game
For all the locals’ desperation, there are no indications that the group’s grip on the region is lessening.
On 3 November, the Khalid bin al-Walid Army appointed Abu Muhammad Al-Maqdisi as their new leader after the previous commander, Abu Uthman Aladalbi, was killed by a car bomb under mysterious circumstances on 18 October.
Al-Maqdisi is a Palestinian Syrian and a former member of the Islamic Movement of Muthanna, an Islamist takfiri faction that has become a jihadist group. He spent at least a year-and-a-half in northern Syria, working with IS before his appointment as the new commander.
After al-Maqdisi’s appointment, several towns in the Yarmouk area witnessed mass arrests, supervised by the security committee he now led. Many of those arrested were members of the former Yarmouk Martyrs Brigade, suggesting an effort to eliminate internal rivals.
For now, the Yarmouk basin is under the absolute control of the Khalid bin al-Walid Army. There have been occasional shots and shelling from the area over the border into neighbouring Jordan. During the summer, Israeli planes targeted locations just as they did in October.
In Amman on 6 November, Brett McGurk, the Special Presidential Envoy to the Coalition, emphasised that the US was committed to protect Jordan’s borders from IS, including the Yarmouk region. But no overt campaign against the group has yet commenced.
For those in the Yarmouk basin who haven’t joined the ranks of the Khalid bin al-Walid Army, every day is a waiting game; waiting to see what happens next, waiting for rescue, waiting for it all to get worse. While the Yarmouk basin is as yet no Raqqa, some of its residents fear that may still to come.
Whatever happens next, Abu Nasser said he is resigned to the chaos and uncertainty of today lasting long into the future.
“The Khalid bin al-Walid Army is strong and growing every day,” he said. “We’re waiting for the FSA to resume its battle against these extremists, or for more pressure from anyone in the region who can change the status quo.
“But the Khalid bin al-Walid Army have fortifications and plans in place that are not easy to penetrate.”