Jaysh Khalid bin-Walid, also known as the Khalid ibn-Walid Army, is a Salafi-jihadi extremist group active in the Daraa governorate in southern Syria and the area where the Israeli, Syrian, and Jordanian borders meet. The group formed in May 2016 after the merger of the Islamist groups Liwa Shuhada al-Yarmouk (Yarmouk Martyrs’ Brigade), Harakat al-Muthanna al-Islamiya (Islamic Muthanna Movement), and Jaysh al-Jihad (Army of Jihad). These groups were closely aligned with ISIS and helped maintain its presence in southwestern Syria, where the group had less influence than in the north of the country.
Liwa Shuhada al-Yarmouk fought alongside the former Jabhat al-Nusra in March 2013, attacking a government air base. In July 2014, the brigade clashed with Harakat al-Muthanna al-Islamiya, with which it would later be aligned, and fought as part of the Free Syrian Army in the first battle of al-Shaykh Maskin. By December 2014, the brigade began to oppose other rebel groups, and clashes with al-Nusra – a strict rival of ISIS – led to the death of the brigade’s leader, Muhammed ‘Abu Ali’ al-Baradi. Severing potential ties with al-Nusra left the brigade open to affiliation to other jihadi groups, including ISIS.
Meanwhile, Harakat al-Muthanna al-Islamiya participated in multiple operations and fought alongside al-Nusra in 2015. By the following year, rival rebel groups were accusing the movement of supporting ISIS, and in March 2016 it assisted Liwa Shuhada al-Yarmouk in offensives against al-Nusra for control of territory near the Jordanian border.
The third group that became Jaysh Khalid bin-Walid, Jaysh al-Jihad, emerged in December 2014, when Liwa Shuhada al-Yarmouk and al-Nusra clashed in the southwestern Syrian town of Quneitra, leading seven groups to carve out a new insurgency. Although Jaysh al-Jihad made no formal pledge of allegiance, other Syrian rebel groups accused it of having ties with ISIS. In May 2015, al-Nusra announced it had cleared Quneitra of Jaysh al-Jihad fighters.
Remnants of Jaysh al-Jihad subsequently aligned with Liwa Shuhada al-Yarmouk and Harakat al-Muthanna al-Islamiya, and the three groups announced their official merger and the formation of Jaysh Khalid bin-Walid in May 2016.
Jaysh Khalid bin-Walid takes its name from the commander who led Muslim armies to victory over the Byzantine Army in the Battle of Yarmouk in 636, resulting in the Muslim Conquest of the Levant. The group exploits historical narratives to inspire and promote jihad among its followers. With an army thought to be around 2,000 strong, the group’s primary areas of operation are Daraa and the Golan Heights, an area bordering Israel.
It is here that the group has faced armed opposition from the Israeli and US militaries, with airstrikes in November 2016 and June 2017 killing high-ranking members of the organisation. In a large battle in February 2017, Jaysh Khalid bin-Walid attacked a checkpoint of the Southern Front, part of the Free Syrian Army. This attack, in western Daraa, killed 31 members of Jaysh Khalid bin-Walid and over 170 Southern Front fighters.
Although widely considered an ISIS presence in Daraa, Jaysh Khalid bin-Walid has never publicly declared itself to be affiliated to the group.
The group practises a strict form of Sharia law, enforcing prayer times and dress codes in the areas it controls and carrying out brutal public punishments for residents accused of crimes such as smoking, theft, and sorcery. Jaysh Khalid bin-Walid is reported to have executed more than 20 people since its formation and amputated the limbs of many more as punishment for crimes. Members of the group’s hisbah, or religious police, hand out religious doctrine and Sharia-compliant clothing to enforce its ideology on citizens in areas under its control.
Although widely considered an ISIS presence in Daraa, Jaysh Khalid bin-Walid has never publicly declared itself to be affiliated to the group. Ideologically, the groups appear closely aligned, which is unsurprising as Jaysh Khalid bin-Walid is composed of factions that were previously thought to be associated with ISIS. The two groups’ methods of operation, such as executions of enemies and those they deem to be apostates, are nearly identical. The videos used by Jaysh Khalid bin-Walid to illustrate these executions bear similarities in both production and tone to those produced by ISIS. Propaganda is also used in a comparable fashion to promote a secure and protected standard of life for citizens under the group’s rule, such as depicting militants distributing food to those in need. The two groups’ fighters dress the same, although the black banners of Jaysh Khalid bin-Walid carry the movement’s own name, not that of ISIS.
While Amaq, ISIS’ official media outlet, covers the activities of Jaysh Khalid bin-Walid, it never mentions an official link between the groups, and reserves the term ‘Soldiers of the Caliphate’ for ISIS fighters. One possible reason why the groups have made no formal joint announcement is that internal power struggles may be preventing Jaysh Khalid bin-Walid from fully committing to ISIS: the former’s leadership structure is in a state of flux following the assassination of three leaders in separate airstrikes in a matter of months.
Despite this lack of official affiliation, international actors must not underestimate the significance of Jaysh Khalid bin-Walid. With ISIS’ main stronghold of Deir ez-Zor on the verge of crumbling, counter-extremism efforts will need to turn to localised groups such as Jaysh Khalid bin-Walid if Syria is to be completely rid of the influence of ISIS. These factions could be vulnerable to becoming affiliated to larger jihadi groups. As happened with the formation of Jaysh Khalid bin-Walid, small, fractured groups are willing to band together to form new armies. The international community needs to deal with the threat of these groups in a nuanced manner by focusing more on the local drivers of extremism.