Ten months ago, a mediocre militia emerged in the western countryside of Daraa, a sleepy town near the Syrian-Jordanian border, named after Khaled Ibn al-Waleed, the celebrated general who united Arabia and conquered Syria, converting its people from Christianity to Islam.
Three militias formed the core of the Khaled Ibn al-Waleed Army and their headquarters were named “al-Andalus,” in reference to Muslim Spain between the years 711 and 1492. The numerous historical overtones meant that somebody in the new army’s command was well read in Islamic history. Its first commander, Abu Othman al-Shami certainly was not. He was killed in October 2016.
His successor, however, knew that history inside out, and since assuming command of the Khaled Ibn al-Waleed Army three months ago, has totally revamped the organization, opening a new chapter of violence in the Syrian south. He was a veteran jihadi who had worked with the first generation of al-Qaeda figures, such as Osama bin Laden and Ayman al-Zawahiri, and more recently had pledged an oath of allegiance to the self-proclaimed caliph of the Islamic State, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi.
Abu Mohammad al-Maqdisi (whose real name is Issam al-Barkawi) was born in a village in the countryside of Nablus, 49km north of Jerusalem, in 1959. He grew up in Kuwait and studied at Mosul University, then moved briefly to Saudi Arabia where he was greatly influenced by the teachings of Ibn Taymiya, a medieval Sunni Muslim theologian and founder of the Salafi school of Islam.
Like most of his peers, Maqdisi moved to Peshawar in the late 1980s, joining the jihadi war against the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. He signed up with al-Qaeda, teaching at its schools in Kabul, and befriended prominent figures such as Abu Musaab al-Souri, head of its Syrian contingent, and Ayman al-Zawahiri, the organization’s Egyptian second-in-command. Maqdisi authored important books and long essays, inspiring millions of jihadis worldwide while personally recruiting an entire generation of Palestinian jihadis into al-Qaeda. He moved back to Amman and spent most of the 1990s behind bars, moving to the Syrian north after the outbreak of hostilities in 2011. This is where he joined ISIS.
Al-Maqdisi’s re-emergence in Daraa, just 100km from the capital Damascus, has given fresh impetus to the Khaled Ibn al-Waleed Army. Once written off as an amateur jihadi group on a dormant front of the war in Syria, it suddenly starts sounding serious and alarming for Russian ambitions in the Middle East.
Last January, President Vladimir Putin hosted King Abdullah II in Moscow, and invited Jordan to take part in the inter-Syrian talks in the capital of Kazakhstan, Astana. Other richer and far more influential Arab states, such as Saudi Arabia and Qatar, were both excluded from the talks, despite their support for the Syrian opposition. So were Iraq and Lebanon, Syria’s two other Arab neighbors.
The king has been rather silent, if not silently supportive, of Russia’s military operations in Syria
By courting the king and specifically asking him to join the Astana process, Putin was acknowledging that Jordan will have a big role to play in the country’s future, because throughout history and thanks to proximity, it has controlled the lifeline of Daraa. Eradicating ISIS from its countryside cannot be done without meticulous cooperation with Amman – at whatever conditions agreed upon by King Abdullah and Putin.
The king has been rather silent, if not silently supportive, of Russia’s military operations in Syria, which started in September 2015. That same year, the two countries signed a US$10 billion deal to build a Russian nuclear plant for Jordan, and Abdullah reciprocated by hailing his “crucial role” in bringing peace to Syria and the Middle East at large.
This February, Jordan was invited to take part at Astana II, sending a more senior delegation headed by its ambassador to Kazakhstan. Moscow is seemingly considering the idea of a no-fly zone on the Syrian-Jordanian border, modeled after the Turkish one that is being carved out in the Syrian north. It would serve as a buffer zone to keep ISIS away from the Syrian-Jordanian border and as an “island” for Amman to relocate the 1.4 million Syrian refugees living in Jordan since 2011, completely draining the already stagnated Jordanian economy.
Until then, the Khaled Ibn al-Waleed Army is actively recruiting young men into ISIS. There are approximately 55 to 60 rebel groups already operating in the Syrian south, loosely merged into an alliance called the Southern Front. They are funded and armed by Gulf and US officials from the Amman-based Military Operations Center.
Al-Maqdisi has to either bring them under his command, or destroy them to relieve himself of their competition in the Daraa countryside. For starters, he needs double their pay. One year ago, 200 of them defected to join Jabhat al-Nusra, the al-Qaeda branch in Syria. Al-Nusra was paying US$100-US$250 per month to any fighter willing to fight against ISIS, and US$100 for those carrying arms against the Russians and Syrians. Al-Maqdisi needs to meet that amount, which shouldn’t be difficult, given the personal connection that he has with Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi.
Unlike other ISIS-affiliated emirs, Abu Mohammad al-Maqdisi is not viewed as a stooge or a junior to the caliph, but rather as a historical leader of the global jihadi movement and one whom al-Baghdadi is immensely proud of. The caliph will make sure that his financial concerns are met, tapping into the oil money that he still controls from cities along the Euphrates River.
If accommodated financially, the Khaled Ibn al-Waleed Army will then have to earn its victories on the battlefield in order to attract more fighters – something that Jordan and Russia are seemingly determined to halt, before ISIS overruns the Syrian south just as it did when left unchecked in strategic cities such as Deir ez-Zour, al-Raqqa and Albukamal in Syria, and Mosul and Ramadi in Iraq.