Previous posts have explored the lives of some deceased people who were members of the Islamic State affiliate Jaysh Khalid bin al-Waleed in the Yarmouk Basin in southwest Deraa province. This post is somewhat different in exploring the life of someone from the Yarmouk Basin who migrated north and joined the Islamic State itself. That person is one Abu Omar Shajra, who (as his kunya suggests) was originally from the Yarmouk Basin locality of Shajra, currently controlled by Jaysh Khalid bin al-Waleed. For this post, I am reliant on the testimony of a cousin of his who still resides in Shajra and is supportive of the Islamic State and Jaysh Khalid bin al-Waleed.
Abu Omar Shajra's real name is Aktham Kamal al-Ja'ouni. The Ja'ounis, it will be recalled, constitute one of the key families in Shajra. Abu Omar Shajra was born in 1994. He studied up to the level of high school and did not go to university. Prior to the war, he was not a Salafi. After the war began, the first formation that Liwa Shuhada' al-Yarmouk, which is not surprising when one considers that members of the Ja'ouni clan played a notable role in the group. Indeed, the deputy of the group's leader was one Abu Abdullah al-Ja'ouni. In Shajra itself, a local affiliate of Liwa Shuhada' al-Yarmouk was established under the name of Katibat Shuhada' al-Shajra.
Abu Omar Shajra was an ordinary fighter in Liwa Shuhada' al-Yarmouk. He did not hold a command or administrative position, though he did participate in some battles during his time in the group. These battles included engagements in places such as al-Basali in Quneitra province, near the border with the Israeli occupied Golan Heights. In fact, I managed to find a video of Abu Omar Shajra posted on Katibat Shuhada' al-Shajra's Youtube channel. The video, which was posted on 16 August 2013, was made on 13 August 2013 and features a brief interview with Abu Omar Shajra on the al-Basali front.
Abu Omar Shajra in the Katibat Shuhada' al-Shajra video in 2013.
Below is the transcript of the interview:
Q: Katibat Shuhada' al-Shajra, the murabitun [personnel manning the frontlines] on the front. Date 13 August 2013. As-salam alaykum.
A: Wa-alaykum as-salam wa rahmat Allah.
Q: Identify yourself.
A: I am the mujahid Aktham al-Ja'ouni from Katibat Shuhada' al-Shajra [affiliated with] Liwa Shuhada' al-Yarmouk, the murabitun on the al-Basali front. From here the army is around 250-300m away from us. These are the saraya [military posts] of al-Assad in which they are concentrated now, and we are murabitun on the front.
A: I direct a message to every military person [of the regime] located in those kata'ib [military posts]. He must surrender or he will die on his land, God willing, and victory is near with God's help.
Q: God willing, the victory is near.
However, by early 2014, Abu Omar Shajra left Liwa Shuhada' al-Yarmouk and joined Harakat al-Muthanna, because he considered the latter to be an 'Islamic movement', whereas he did not regard Liwa Shuhada' al-Yarmouk in that way. Thus, Abu Omar Shajra's abandoning of Liwa Shuhada' al-Yarmouk likely predates the beginning of the establishment of links between the group and ISIS/the Islamic State, or at least links of which the rank-and-file were aware. To be sure, there is no evidence that Harakat al-Muthanna had links with ISIS/the Islamic State in early 2014, but at that time the group definitely had a clearer image as an Islamic group (i.e. espousing a clear Islamist ideology) in contrast with Liwa Shuhada' al-Yarmouk.
As a member of Harakat al-Muthanna, Abu Omar Shajra participated in battles in Deraa province. Most notably, he was wounded in the battle of Tel Hamad in the Sheikh Maskeen area in November 2014. However, around a month or so after that battle, he began to adopt the Islamic State's ideology. It should be noted that in March 2015, not long after Abu Omar Shajra's turn towards the Islamic State, a statement was issued by Harakat al-Muthanna regarding the Islamic State. The statement attracted considerable controversy, for although the statement made clear that it did not recognize the Islamic State's claim to be a Caliphate and called for an end to infighting between the Islamic State and other "Islamic factions," it praised the Islamic State for having "fought the states of kufr [disbelief] and their allies of the apostates." It is possible that this statement was issued partly on account of the existence of Islamic State sympathisers in the group's ranks.
By around mid-2015, Abu Omar Shajra had left Harakat al-Muthanna, migrating north to join the Islamic State. Indeed, he was not the only member of Harakat al-Muthanna who left the group to join the Islamic State. In June 2015, a certain Abu Muhammad al-Maqdisi (not to be confused with the prominent jihadi ideologue in Jordan) was also said to have defected to the Islamic State. Harakat al-Muthanna's leader Abu Ayyub al-Masalama reportedly denounced what Maqdisi did as an act of betrayal and instructed members to beware of extremism.
Abu Omar Shajra after he joined the Islamic State. Note his hat that has 'Islamic State' written on it.
After joining the Islamic State, Abu Omar Shajra primarily fought on the Homs desert fronts against the Syrian government. He was killed in February 2016 in fighting in the al-Qaryatayn area. He never married.
Abu Omar Shajra as an Islamic State fighter in the Homs desert.
Abu Omar Shajra with fellow Islamic State fighters.
His immediate family remains in the Yarmouk Basin and is connected with the Islamic State affiliate there. His father currently works in the agricultural administration in Jaysh Khalid bin al-Waleed. Of his three siblings, one- going by the name of Abu al-Harith- was killed fighting for Jaysh Khalid bin al-Waleed in June 2017, whereas another is currently a member of the group. The third sibling is not involved in Jaysh Khalid bin al-Waleed at the present time.