Previously I wrote on the life of Abu Qasura Kanakari, a security judge in Jaysh Khalid bin al-Waleed. This post details the life of another figure in Jaysh Khalid bin al-Waleed who was originally from outside the Yarmouk Basin: Abu Hamza Tawheed, also known by the kunyas of Abu Hamza (al-)Ghadeer and Abu Hamza al-Kawm(a). For this biography, I am largely reliant in the period before he migrated to the Yarmouk Basin on the testimony relayed to me by a friend in Abu Hamza Tawheed’s home village of Ghadeer al-Bustan in Quneitra province. This friend studied together with Abu Hamza Tawheed in school and served in a rebel battalion under his command, but lost direct contact with him after Abu Hamza Tawheed’s migration, though did continue to receive information regarding his situation. More sources are available for the period after his migration.
Ghadeer al-Bustan is a village of around 4000 people. Currently, the main faction in Ghadeer al-Bustan is Liwa Shuhada’ al-Ghadeer (Ghadeer Martyrs Brigade) affiliated with the Syrian Revolutionaries Front in the south. Most of the people in the village work in agriculture. The main families in the village (beginning with the largest) are:
|Ghadeer al-Bustan, August 2017|
|Ghadeer al-Bustan, August 2017|
Abu Hamza Tawheed was born in 1976, his real name being Hassan Ali al-Kawma. His father, who died before the beginning of the uprising, owned approximately 50 head of sheep and would pasture them. Abu Hamza Tawheed had many brothers and sisters. His brothers include Hussein, Suleiman, Yusuf, Rifa’i, Hassan and Muhammad. Two of them (Suleiman and Yusuf) are currently in Jordan. None of Abu Hamza Tawheed’s siblings are known to have joined Jaysh Khalid bin al-Waleed.
Abu Hamza Tawheed was religious by background, adopting a Salafi outlook and studying at the Shari’a college in Damascus University. He completed military service in the Syrian army and served as a preacher for Friday sermons in the mosque of the village.
|Ghadeer al-Bustan, with a view of the village mosque in the background, August 2017|
Abu Hamza Tawheed was not the only preacher: there were three others who also fulfilled this role. Prior to the beginning of the uprising, he was also opening a shop with a business partner for selling electrical appliances.
When the uprising broke out, Abu Hamza Tawheed had initially wanted to go to Jordan, but Jordan did not want him to enter. Accordingly, he returned and began to participate in the uprising. He became the amir of a Khalid bin al-Waleed battalion (not to be confused with Jaysh Khalid bin al-Waleed), set up in 2012. This battalion first became affiliated with Liwa al-Sabteen, which encompassed a number of villages (e.g. Ghadeer al-Bustan, Saida, al-Rafid, al-Malqa, al-Nasiriya) and in turn came under the ‘Military Council in Quneitra and the Golan’ of the early Free Syrian Army structures. Today, as I documented in my paper on relations between Israel and the Syrian rebels, the Military Council in Quneitra and the Golan is only a very small faction. The influence of Liwa al-Sabteen similarly declined, as the group in fact defected from the Military Council in Quneitra and the Golan at the beginning of 2016 (citing lack of support over the years), only to rejoin it in December of that year.
|Closer view of the mosque in Ghadeer al-Bustan. The mosque, which was damaged over the course of the civil war, is called the Khalid bin al-Waleed mosque, likely the source of the name for the Khalid bin al-Waleed battalion.|
Ghadeer al-Bustan was captured from the regime in September 2013. Abu Hamza Tawheed- who had garnered some renown in the wider Quneitra area for his religious knowledge- remained in his capacity as amir of the Khalid bin al-Waleed battalion, which remained an affiliate of Liwa al-Sabteen into early 2014 but subsequently broke off and functioned as an independent group for some time, ultimately seeming to have fallen apart. However, by around the end of 2014 or beginning of 2015, Abu Hamza Tawheed decided to abandon the Khalid bin al-Waleed battalion. Apparently, some people in Ghadeer al-Bustan had been urging him to abandon the group, arguing that his proper position was to serve as a figure of da’wa (religious outreach) in the area. However, rather than abandon affiliations with rebel factions altogether, Abu Hamza Tawheed decided to join an affiliate of the Salafi group Ahrar al-Sham called Ahrar al-Jowlan (‘Free Men of the Golan’), considering the faction to be more appropriately Islamic.
It may be the case that Abu Hamza Tawheed’s joining of Ahrar al-Jowlan was the first sign of his sympathies with the Islamic State if not secret allegiance to it. Open-source evidence from 2014 points to the activities of an Ahrar al-Jowlan affiliated with Ahrar al-Sham, but little information exists about Ahrar al-Jowlan after 2014. It turns out Ahrar al-Jowlan had many Islamic State sympathizers in its ranks, and refused to fight those groups in the Deraa-Quneitra area that Ahrar al-Sham fought on accusations of being Islamic State-affiliates (Liwa Shuhada’ al-Yarmouk and Jaysh al-Jihad). Indeed, from at least the time that the Caliphate had been declared at the end of June 2014, the Islamic State had been reaching out to the Deraa-Quneitra area, where no formal presence had been acquired, in order to cultivate affiliates. Ahrar al-Jowlan was dissolved, with most of its members said to have joined the Islamic State and its affiliates/linked groups in the end.
Abu Hamza Tawheed himself subsequently joined Jama’at Bayt al-Maqdis al-Islamiya (JBMI), a Salafi/jihadi group that refrained from participating in the fighting between Islamic State-linked groups and other rebels. In JBMI, he was a Shari’i official and responsible for firing mortar rounds. This affiliation gave rise to more suspicion of his alignment with the Islamic State. For JBMI, as I have documented previously, was widely suspected of links to the Islamic State, such as on account of its use of the same flag design as that of the Islamic State. Indeed, the group did have many members who were sympathizers, and it is possible that these sympathizers were working to form sleeper cells. However, the group’s leadership was not necessarily aligned with the Islamic State (or if it was at some point, perhaps there was a change of heart). In February 2016, a serious dispute arose between the leadership and members over the decision to join an operations room with Free Syrian Army factions, prompting most of the rank-and-file to quit. At least some of those who abandoned JBMI then joined Liwa Shuhada’ al-Yarmouk in the Yarmouk Basin. Abu Hamza Tawheed was among those who went to the Yarmouk Basin, taking his wife and children with him. Approximately speaking, he left for the Yarmouk Basin in March-April 2016. JMBI itself dissolved in March 2017, with remaining members joining Ahrar al-Sham and Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham.
I should note that this account differs somewhat from a previous account I relayed in May 2016 from a Liwa Shuhada’ al-Yarmouk member that Abu Hamza Tawheed was in Harakat al-Muthanna when he came to the Yarmouk Basin (while agreeing that he was a new arrival to the area). I prefer this present account, which explains the claims of a Harakat al-Muthanna affiliation by noting that some Harakat al-Muthanna members sought help from Abu Hamza Tawheed in this period (recall that the group had to withdraw into the Yarmouk Basin by April 2016 after losing its territorial holdings in fighting with rebels that accused it of being linked to the Islamic State).
Liwa Shuhada’ al-Yarmouk appears to have put Abu Hamza Tawheed’s religious background and knowledge to work. Before the formation of Jaysh Khalid bin al-Waleed, which was created in late May 2016, he served as the head of the da’wa office. A short time after the formation of Jaysh Khalid bin al-Waleed (i.e. around the end of July/beginning of August 2016), Abu Hamza Tawheed became head of the Islamic/Shari’i court, replacing Abu Ali Saraya/Abu Ali Shubat. Abu Hamza Tawheed was then removed from this position in October 2016 following the assassination of Abu Hashim al-Shami, the first amir of Jaysh Khalid bin al-Waleed and prior to the wave of internal arrests that followed the assassination. It is disputed whether Abu Hamza Tawheed was caught up in these arrests, which included prominent members of the original Liwa Shuhada’ al-Yarmouk such as Abu Obeida Qahtan and Nidhal al-Baridi. One account is that he was arrested but quickly released, another is that he was not arrested in the first place, and his appointment as head of the Islamic court was only intended for a limited time anyway. What is not disputed though is that he did not meet the same fate as Abu Obeida Qahtan and Nidhal al-Baridi, who remained imprisoned for many months and were eventually executed.
|Abu Hamza Tawheed|
Following his removal as head of the Islamic court and reinstatement of Abu Ali Saraya, Abu Hamza Tawheed continued to fulfil da’wa and Shari’i roles in Jaysh Khalid bin al-Waleed. Like Abu Qasura Kanakari, he taught Shari’i courses at the organization’s institute for Shari’i sciences in al-Shajra. He also served as a mufti (fatwa issuer) within the group. He actually appeared in an official photo series of Jaysh Khalid bin al-Waleed at the end of April 2017 on the beheading of a sorcerer, reading the statement of the Shari’i court. His appearance in the photo series put an end to some hopes on the outside that he was coordinating with Free Syrian Army groups in preparation to defect, having joined the group in the belief that the Islamic State and its affiliates actually embodied the Caliphate but then supposedly becoming disillusioned when he saw the opposite of what he expected. There is also a story (the reliability of which and exact time of occurrence I cannot ascertain) that he had fallen into a dispute with the group’s leadership over a case of blasphemy against the divine nature of God: while Abu Hamza Tawheed permitted repentance, the other amirs rejected it and insisted on execution.
Like Abu Qasura Kanakari, Abu Hamza Tawheed was killed in what was most likely a coalition strike targeting a meeting of the group’s leadership at the end of June 2017. There is another story that shortly before the apparent strike he was killed in a dispute with Abu Tayyim Inkhil, the current amir of Jaysh Khalid bin al-Waleed, over the looting of a property in Adwan by Abu Tayyim Inkhil. While the dispute may have
happened, it seems more likely he was killed along with the other Jaysh Khalid bin al-Waleed leaders at the end of June 2017.
Update (20 August 2017): It turns out Abu Tayyim Inkhil (real name: Wa’el Fa’our al-Eid) was killed in what was likely a coalition strike on 17 August. His death is being lamented by local Jaysh Khalid bin al-Waleed members and supporters and was confirmed to me by a resident of the Yarmouk Basin. Below is a picture of him.