In a scene from a video released by the Islamic State affiliate Jaysh Khalid bin al-Waleed in late February 2018, a masked man appears executing 'apostate Sahwa' by gunfire. That masked man is purportedly one Marwan Zain al-Abidin, and apparently among those executed in the scene are two of Marwan's cousins. It is said that this Marwan is a key figure in Jaysh Khalid bin al-Waleed.
I put a general caveat of caution on the information related concerning Marwan's life as Jaysh Khalid bin al-Waleed is (like many other jihadi groups) a semi-clandestine organization. For this piece, I have been assisted in retrieving information by a friend from Tasil, a locality in southwest Deraa countryside from which Marwan originates. This friend is not in Tasil at the moment but runs a media office covering events in the Yarmouk Basin.
Marwan Zain al-Abidin is purportedly the masked man executing 'apostate Sahwa' in this video scene by gunfire.
Marwan's full name is Marwan Muhammad Abd al-Fattah Zain al-Abidin. He is also known by the kunya of Abu al-Muthanna, though he is apparently not the 'Abu al-Muthanna al-Ansari' that appeared in a recent Jaysh Khalid bin al-Waleed video on education in the Yarmouk Basin, as the organization closed regime affiliated schools in its areas of control and reopened them with curricula in accordance with the Islamic State's ideological outlook.*
Marwan was born in around 1983-1984. His hometown of Tasil fell under the control of Jaysh Khalid bin al-Waleed in an offensive launched by the group in February 2017. The main families in Tasil are:
- Zain al-Abidin
- al-Dakhl Allah
- Abu Khashreef
- Abu Nuqta
Prior to the fall of Tasil to Jaysh Khalid bin al-Waleed, the main factions in the locality were:
- Liwa Khalid Sayf Allah (Southern Front)
- Liwa Saraya al-Karama (Southern Front)
- Farqat al-Shaheed Ra'id al-Masri (Southern Front)
- A local affiliate of Jaysh al-Islam
- A local affiliate of Ahrar al-Sham
Marwan was reputedly in Saydnaya prison together with his friend Ibrahim Yunis al-Muqaddam (also originally from Tasil). As will be recalled Saydnaya prison was notorious for housing Islamist and jihadist detainees. The two were said to have been imprisoned there in 2004 on charges of Islamist/jihadist affiliations. In Marwan's case, he had supposedly been recruiting people to fight the Americans in Iraq.
In early 2013 though, Marwan and Ibrahim were apparently released from prison. On their release, they set up base in their hometown and created a small faction called Kata'ib al-Tawheed wa al-Jihad. The group obtained some vehicles and light and medium weaponry, while also offering relatively high salaries of 30,000 Syrian pounds per month. Marwan and Ibrahim also emerged as critics of Jabhat al-Nusra. Indeed, they gave members of their own group Shari'i courses that included denunciations of Jabhat al-Nusra, which by April 2013 had emerged as Syria's official al-Qaeda affiliate as the dispute with Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi and his newly declared Islamic State in Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS) became public.
A somewhat amusing story related regarding Marwan is that he and his friend Ibrahim allegedly arranged with a rebel leader to have Marwan kidnapped in a staged incident in a bid to gain popular support in Tasil. If this event actually took place, it certainly failed in its objective.
By early 2014, in light of the general failure of their project, Marwan and Ibrahim left Tasil and went to the bases of Liwa Shuhada' al-Yarmouk in Jamla and al-Shajra. Settling in the latter locality, they are then said to have begun promoting support for ISIS, even convincing Liwa Shuhada' al-Yarmouk's leader al-Khal to support ISIS. It will be noted that in my previous work that I identified one Abu Muhammad al-Masalama (an Afghan jihad veteran assassinated in November 2014) as a key link between Liwa Shuhada' al-Yarmouk and ISIS around the time of the declaration of the Caliphate and transition from ISIS to the Islamic State at the end of June 2014. This account regarding Marwan's influence on Liwa Shuhada' al-Yarmouk's ideological turn is alleged by Nibal Sa'ad al-Din al-Baridi, a brother of al-Khal who was imprisoned by Jaysh Khalid bin al-Waleed but is now outside the Yarmouk Basin and is currently detained by the Dar al-'Adl court in rebel-held parts of southern Syria. Nibal should not be confused with Nidhal Sa'ad al-Din al-Baridi, another brother of al-Khal who was executed by Jaysh Khalid bin al-Waleed last year.
The account from Nibal, if accurate, suggests that the ideological turn occurred even before the declaration of the Caliphate, though it does not necessarily exclude a role for Abu Muhammad al-Masalama in bringing about the shift towards ISIS/the Islamic State.
Currently, Marwan is allegedly head of the Hisba office in Jaysh Khalid bin al-Waleed, having received the position on 2 February 2018. At least two brothers of Marwan are with him in Jaysh Khalid bin al-Waleed: Abd al-Ghanni (a member of the Hisba apparatus) and Ibrahim (head of the da'wa office and a Shari'i official). Marwan's father, who had once lived in Kuwait but returned to Syria before the revolution, is also said to be a member of the organization, serving as a member of its Shura council. Of Marwan's other siblings, two of them (Muadh and Abd al-Fattah) currently reside in Jordan. Muadh was reputedly one of the followers of the Syrian preacher Abu al-Qa'qa', who was assassinated in 2007 and said to have been involved in encouraging and recruiting fighters to go to Iraq to combat the U.S. presence there.
*(Update 5 April 2018): Contrary to what I had earlier thought, the Abu al-Muthanna al-Ansari who appears in the video on education in the Yarmouk Basin is Marwan Zain al-Abidin. See the photo below. In retrospect, it was logical that he should appear to discuss the matter of education, since the Hisba was responsible for gathering the regime curricula books and burning them.