'Islamic State' in south Syria: An inside look at at its internal security apparatus
Translator’s introduction (Aymenn Jawad Al-Tamimi)
Readers familiar with my work will know that I closely tracked the Islamic State affiliate Jaysh Khalid bin al-Waleed (JKBW) that was formed in May 2016 and was based in an enclave of southern Syria (the Yarmouk Basin) on the borders with Jordan and the Golan Heights. I primarily wrote posts about JKBW on my own site, though I occasionally discussed the group in some writings for other publications. For example, in July 2017, I wrote a lengthy study for the now defunct Rubin Centre on Israel’s northern border policies and relations with the Syrian rebels, including a section discussing JKBW with the conclusion that it was not unreasonable to deduce that Israel had a role in the repeated targeting of JKBW’s leadership in strikes.
As part of my work, I had established contact with a number of people inside the Yarmouk Basin, including some involved with JKBW. Even early on in JKBW’s existence, my writings about the group did not go unnoticed by elements of the group itself. Notably, a post I wrote in July 2016 considering the possibility of internal dissent in JKBW led to the group’s main media official- Muhammad Mardini (aka Omar Mardini)- contacting me, in an exchange that partly went as follows:
Muhammad: How are you?
Aymenn: As-salam alaykum. I am well praise be to God.
Muhammad: You wrote an article about Jaysh Khalid, correct?
Aymenn: Yes I said that the fleeing of members of [Harakat] al-Muthanna from the Basin does not change the war in the south because their number does not exceed dozens.
Muhammad: Can you mention to me the source?
Aymenn: There are posts on Facebook about this matter.
Muhammad: Didn’t someone give a statement to you about that?
Aymenn: You mean the fleeing of members of al-Muthanna.
Muhammad: In the report you wrote, you mention two sources, one of whom is called Abu al-Waleed and the other Abu Ahmad, correct?
Aymenn: Yes, but I don’t want to cause problems […]
Muhammad: No, there are no problems at all. Only to notify.
Aymenn: So if I tell you who they are will you tell them not to speak with me in the future?
Muhammad: No, not all my friend. I told you, only to notify them.
In other words, Muhammad, who was my Facebook friend, was trying to show that he did not put forth his query to me out of hostility. As it turns out, this conversation, as I recall, the last exchange I ever had with him, as he subsequently deactivated his Facebook account.
Time passed, and I continued to write posts about JKBW. But by the summer of 2017, I felt that one major deficiency in my work about the group was a deficiency one finds in much of the literature on various armed factions in the Syrian civil war. That is, while it is easy to speak of groups as collective entities, we often have little to say about the individuals who make up these groups. What are their family and educational backgrounds? What are their motivations? How may they influence others to join their groups? What can geographic origins of members tell us about the groups?
Intrigued by these questions in relation to JKBW, I thought it might be worthwhile to write the biographies of JKBW members. The majority of the biographies I wrote were about members of the group who were already dead, for I had largely got to know of their names after news of their deaths had come out on local social media. Thus, the first biography I wrote was that of Abu Qasura Kanakari, who was originally from Kanaker in Damascus countryside, served as a security judge in JKBW and was killed in a June 2017 strike that targeted JKBW’s leadership.
It was the writing of these biographies that appears to have provoked hostile suspicion from JKBW, whose security apparatus began to track me closely and try to establish who was in contact with me. I had not been aware that JKBW’s security apparatus was tracking me until I learnt the very distressing news of the arrest of a close friend around the time of Eid al-Fitr this year. I had known this friend since 2016 and would often ask him about developments in the Yarmouk Basin and about certain JKBW individuals who were either deceased or still living. For his own part, he wanted to leave the Yarmouk Basin and go to Turkey or Lebanon. He is originally from the Yarmouk Basin village of Jamla and is of the al-Baridi clan.
My friend had disappeared from the Internet on 23 May in the evening. I had initially assumed he had simply decided to take a break from the online realm. It was only when I wrote to his cousin to wish him a happy Eid al-Fitr and expressed my wishes that my friend was well that I learnt that my friend was in prison. My friend’s cousin told me that many rumours had gone about surrounding his arrest, but among them was that he had been talking to a guy called Aymenn al-Tamimi. My friend’s cousin tried to assure me that he was well and that it was only a matter of time for him to be released. Overwhelmed with sadness and believing my friend would probably be killed, I could only confide my troubles to a few people, but my dear Iraqi-American friend living in Kuwait was the only one who could really make me feel any better. She prayed for his release.
Some days later on 21 June, my Iraqi-American friend’s prayers appeared to have been answered. A Facebook profile picture change on my friend’s page indicated that he had managed to get online and had therefore got out of prison. A wave of relief came over me. I did not care if he could never talk to me again. I only cared that he was safe.
My friend subsequently reached out to me, confirming that he had indeed been imprisoned on account of me. His interrogators asked why he was talking to me when I am Israeli- an allegation he rejected as he tried to tell them that I was actually a supporter of Islamic State and simply writing its history. However, they did not believe him.
For some context, my friend had been briefly arrested by JKBW once before around the end of 2016 along with a group of other people on suspicion that he was working with the rebels against JKBW. He was quickly released however as nothing could be proven against him, even as he remained somewhat suspect in his eyes. For security reasons, my friend would routinely erase message conversations with me and other individuals. By the time he was arrested for being in contact with me, there were still some messages between me and him that he had not erased, and so the security apparatus of JKBW was able to view them.
In retrospect, it was probably better that he had not erased those messages. Otherwise, with no messages to examine, JKBW would almost certainly have tortured my friend in an attempt to force him to make confessions. Instead, they had some lines of questioning to pursue with him, such as why I asked him about the origin of the head of the JKBW court, and whether Abu Ali Saraya (the previous head of the JKBW court) was still in prison. In the end though, the security apparatus could not prove that he had told me anything particularly sensitive, such as giving away locations of JKBW bases that could be hit in Israeli airstrikes, and thus he was released, though in a clear effort to prevent further contact between me and him, they did not give him back his phone.
JKBW as an organization controlling territory is now a thing of the past. The group collapsed rapidly last month in the face of the Syrian government campaign with heavy Russian airstrikes and ground forces supplemented by reconciled rebels who had previously proven unable to advance against JKBW. The factors of overwhelming manpower and firepower are surely important for explaining JKBW’s collapse. But there are also questions as to how cohesive JKBW’s ranks truly were: among them were infiltrators working for JKBW’s enemies and people who had become disillusioned and willing to abandon ship at the first sign of a serious show of force against JKBW.
Among the disillusioned types, it seems, was one of the leaders of the organization’s security apparatus. Recently I was contacted out of the blue by a person using an account with which I had been connected on Facebook. This account, clearing using a fake name, shared mutual friends with me such that I thought it was probably being used by someone I knew from the Yarmouk Basin. Our exchange went as follows:
Aymenn: As-salam alaykum. How are you?
Facebook User: Wa alaykum as-salam. Praise be to God. Missing you.
Aymenn: I as well. Are you right now in the Yarmouk Basin?
Facebook User: Do you know me?
Aymenn: I have known you are one of my friends from the Basin, but I don’t remember the name exactly.
Facebook User: No. I am not your friend. I used to arrest your friends?
Facebook User: And I was entrusted to follow your portfolio and the portfolio of all you were contacting.
Aymenn: You mean [entrusted] by Jaysh Khalid bin al-Waleed.
Facebook User: Yes, yes. The important thing is I wanted to greet you and say how you are now.
Aymenn: By God I am well, praise be to God.
The individual went on to say, quite remarkably: “Honestly, even though you were an enemy, I admired your cultured nature, your youth and your ambition.” In short, this person portrays himself as disillusioned and desires to seek protection and political refuge outside Syria. He offered to write an account of the security apparatus of JKBW, which I have translated and annotated with footnotes to provide context. Based on my own interactions with this person, his knowledge of these matters appears to be credible. For instance, he was able to identify correctly a notable person within JKBW’s security apparatus: namely, Firas al-Baridi, an individual I know was in the organization’s security apparatus only through an internal JKBW document that I possess. Similarly, he was able to identify other individuals I had come to know over the years and had been involved with JKBW in some way.
To conclude, I would note that my experiences here should put to rest the idea promulgated by some that Israel supported or tolerated JKBW. On the contrary, JKBW was greatly concerned that Israel was trying to undermine it, and the fact is that Israel did support efforts aimed at countering JKBW, including some support provided for certain rebels to fight JKBW. JKBW survived despite those efforts to undermine it, not because Israel somehow wanted JKBW to persist, but rather because the rebels simply proved to be ineffective and Israel understandably did not want to intervene with ground troops.
On a personal level, I am deeply sorry that my interactions with people led to their arrests by JKBW. I never engaged in such interactions with a view to extracting information that could be used for military and intelligence purposes. I simply wanted to provide readers and historians with a better understanding of the nature of the group. Indeed, when I inquired on the lives of deceased figures from JKBW, I remember on at least one occasion being asked by a source in Quneitra why I should interested in the life of a person from the group who was already dead as the source presumed (correctly) that there was no intelligence value to it.
All that said, there is some level of curious amusement to this saga. On the one hand, JKBW considered me to be a spy for the Mossad. On the other hand, I still find myself unable to travel to the U.S., as I currently remain in ‘administrative processing’ for a visa application that has lasted now for 2 years and 8 months, as it seems I am thought of as some kind of security threat.
Below is the translated article by this former JKBW security apparatus leader.
----------------------------------------- By Anonymous
The general security office
Responsible for security of the sector and area controlled by the Islamic State and responsible for tracking all the types of penetrations by intelligence divisions around the world, of which the most common were by virtue of the area:
Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Israel, the U.S. and the MOC.[i]
And thus the office was responsible for catching the people of the general populace who were suspect and who had suspicious contacts and bad relations or relatives outside the points of control of the Dawla. The soldiers of this office, its patrols and all its soldiers were from those assigned by Jaysh Khalid for the interest of the security office after intense vouching processes and special skills, the most important of which is that you cannot know if he is angry, content, joyful or annoyed.
The office concerned with intelligence:
Not an absolutely secret office, for it was the first information centre and from it went forth information to the first and last office. It was responsible for submitting documented information and with witnesses testimonies if possible: documented, found on Google, recorded or photographed. And here appeared the extent of the force of the case and the decision after that went back to the amir of the general security office: determining and deciding the case at the time and arrest.
The method of obtaining the information derived from more than 40 hidden soldiers (general Muslim populace) working for the interest of the Dawla, spread in all the villages and areas inside the Yarmouk Basin. And some of them are well-known because of their mistakes at the time they were recruited with the office for specific assignments as their affair was exposed.
Office for the security of the soldiers and military personnel:
An independent office and amir, responsible for personnel and soldiers inside Jaysh Khalid, tracking the affairs of the soldiers from extremism, irja’ or collaboration. And the most dangerous of the accusations was collaboration and after that extremism and irja’. It was also responsible for detaining them, arresting them and monitoring them before and after.[ii]
And here I say in a useful summary:
A specialized and very powerful office[iii] and bearing all the competencies and power to regulate the land despite its small number at the time of 45 soldiers[iv] with 5 amirs as follows:
- The general security amir. - The deputy general security amir.[v] - The amir of the general security office. - The amir of the security of the soldiers office. - The amir of the intelligence office.
One of the cases that came to us from them were attempts to recruit undertaken by a large number of the global intel apparatuses through a very large number of women and men by connecting with the masses and soldiers of the Dawla and among them were:
Mrs. Ghada al-Shami, who tried more than once to recruit youth and soldiers for the interest of the intel services with money as well.
Abu Rabi’ al-Urduni.
Al-Muqaddam Abu al-Majd also, for the interest of the MOC operations.[vi]
Abu Omar al-Lubnani, for the interest of the CIA.
And among those working for the interest of the Israeli side: Aymenn Jawad Al-Tamimi, a journalist of Iraqi nationality very interested in the Golan and borders with Israel.
And he was a very pleasant man, good at interaction, able to strike up and build wide friendships with most of the masses inside the Basin and able to extract information from his friends with all ease and simplicity, and this is among the distinctions of the Mossad work team at the time. The instructions came from the amir of the general security office- after meeting with the amir of the sector Abu Humam al-Shami[vii]- on the need to arrest any person in contact with him fearing Israeli strikes at the time.[viii]
All his works and publication were monitored, and his account[ix] was tracked along with comments in any place in order to reveal at the time a considerable number of the masses and soldiers he was exploiting to extract and take information, but they were exonerated of most of the accusations for many reasons, among them the fact that the security judge was not convinced he was an intel guy affiliated with the Mossad.
But the security apparatus was not convinced otherwise and remained hostile to all following him or contacting him and that was for reasons: among them, for instance, the cases of Abu Hazim[x] and Abu Qasura,[xi] in which it appeared that he was exploiting them and their families to extract information and write press articles.
[i] MOC: based out of Amman, it was an operations room that was run by Western, Gulf and Jordanian intelligence services to provide support to vetted southern rebel factions, which largely came under the Southern Front banner.
[ii] A similar institution found in Islamic State documents is the Idarat Amn al-Mujahideen, which tracked fighters suspected of doctrinal corruption and suspicious behavior.
[iii] Meaning the entire security apparatus in its office divisions.
[iv] These 45 personnel, distributed across the various security departments, would be formally classed as amnis (security officials), unlike the agents (“hidden soldiers”) recruited from the general populace.
[v] Also responsible for management of Amn Khariji (“external security”): that is, conducting attacks against the enemy in its own territory.
[vi] Also known as al-Muqaddam Abu al-Majd
[vii] The last amir of Jaysh Khalid bin al-Waleed, originally from the village of Barqa in Deraa. The line of succession of amirs for Jaysh Khalid bin al-Waleed was as follows:
- Abu Hashim al-Idlibi - Abu Muhammad al-Maqdisi - Abu Hashim al-Askari (aka Abu Hashim al-Rifa’i) - Abu Tayyim Inkhil - Abu Ali al-Aseer - Abu Dujana al-Shami (aka Abu al-Khayr) - Abu Humam al-Shami
During Abu Humam al-Shami’s tenure (which began some months after the JKBW offensive in February 20167 that conquered Tasil and other localities), the position of the wali of Wilayat Hawran also arose as the highest authority in the area. This position was held by Abu Ali al-Safadi, originally from Sheikh Maskin. He was apparently killed in the fall of al-Qusayr (in the Yarmouk Basin, not to be confused with the locality in west Homs countryside near the border with Lebanon).
[viii] This decision was apparently issued a couple of months after Abu Hazim Tawheed’s death (see footnote 10).
[ix] i.e. My Facebook account
[x] Abu Hazim Tawheed (aka Abu Bakr al-Hazim), an official responsible for arming in Jaysh Khalid bin al-Waleed. He was killed in August 2017 in what was likely an Israeli strike. I communicated with him multiple times in 2016.
[xi] Abu Qasura Kanakari, who was a security judge and was killed in the June 2017 strike that also killed Abu Hashim al-Askari. I interviewed Abu Qasura’s father for an article on Abu Qasura’s life, which I subsequently posted on my blog. Abu Qasura’s father was subsequently among those detained for being in contact with me.