Prior to the tenure of Abu Tayyim Inkhil, about whose life I wrote previously, the amir of the Islamic State-affiliated Jaysh Khalid bin al-Waleed was one Abu Hashim al-Rifa'i, who succeeded Abu Muhammad al-Maqdisi (not to be confused with the prominent jihadi ideologue residing in Jordan). Maqdisi and some Jaysh Khalid bin al-Waleed officials were killed in a coalition and/or Israeli strike on 6 June 2017. Abu Hashim al-Rifa'i's tenure as amir proved to be short-lived, as another strike killed him and some more Jaysh Khalid bin al-Waleed officials on 28 June 2017.
Abu Hashim al-Rifa'i is originally from Tel Shihab in south Deraa countryside near the border with Jordan. Besides the locality of Tel Shihab itself, the wider Tel Shihab area includes other villages like Zayzun and Tabariya (aka Tabariyat). The main families in Tel Shihab are:
The main factions in Tel Shihab are:
- Liwa al-Shaheed Nabil al-Amyan, which is affiliated with the Southern Front but affirms itself to be independent of smaller coalitions. A media activist for the faction told me that Liwa al-Shaheed Nabil al-Amyan functions in particular as border guards "under British supervision."
There does not appear to be any meaningful presence for Hay'at Tahrir al-Sham or Ahrar al-Sham/Jabhat Tahrir Souriya in Tel Shihab at the present time.
Approximately 50 people from Tel Shihab have joined what has become Jaysh Khalid bin al-Waleed in the Yarmouk Basin. This phenomenon is largely due to the fact that two of Jaysh Khalid bin al-Waleed's foundational groups- Liwa Shuhada' al-Yarmouk and Harakat al-Muthanna al-Islamiya- originally had a presence in the Tel Shihab area. There have been problems regarding Islamic State cells in the Tel Shihab area. In March 2017, Salah al-Baqirat, a supposed leader of those cells in Tel Shihab, was killed.
Abu Hashim al-Rifa'i's real name is Muhammad Raf'at al-Rifa'i. He was born in 1985 to a father working in agriculture. Abu Hashim al-Rifa'i studied only to the level of secondary school. There is no evidence that he was a Salafi or adherent of an Islamist trend prior to the civil war. Initially, Abu Hashim al-Rifa'i became involved with the local Tel Shihab formation called Katibat al-Bunyan (aka Kata'ib al-Bunyan, which will be used hereafter), led by one Ahmad Bakur (Abu al-Tayyib). This group is attested in the 2012-2014 period and was at one point an affiliate of Liwa al-Mu'atazz Billah (the precursor to Jaysh al-Mu'atazz Billah). By around mid-2013, Kata'ib al-Bunyan apparently separated from Liwa al-Mu'atazz Billah, and it may have eventually become involved with the Islamic Front coalition. References to Kata'ib al-Bunyan seem to disappear by 2015, and today it is clear that the group no longer exists.
One of the key figures who had been involved in Kata'ib al-Bunyan was Ahmad al-Khateeb (Abu Abdullah), described by the group as field commander for its Liwa al-Shaheed Mandhar al-Khalaf. Ahmad al-Khateeb was killed in fighting against Syrian government forces in October 2013. Although Ahmad al-Khateeb was a local of Tel Shihab, he was also a nephew of Liwa Shuhada' al-Yarmouk's leader al-Khal (aka Abu Ali al-Baridi).
According to some accounts, Ahmad al-Khateeb had an affiliation with Liwa Shuhada' al-Yarmouk and was receiving support from al-Khal. Even if Ahmad al-Khateeb was only formally affiliated with Kata'ib al-Bunyan, it seems logical that there would have been links of some sort between Ahmad al-Khateeb and al-Khal's group, given the family ties between the two men. In any case, it is clear that Abu Hashim al-Rifa'i served under Ahmad al-Khateeb. How close Abu Hashim al-Rifa'i was to Ahmad al-Khateeb is a matter of dispute. By some accounts, he was supposedly Ahmad al-Khateeb's right-hand man, even if he did not have a formal command position in the group. The converse claim is that he had no special relationship with Ahmad al-Khateeb and was no more than an ordinary fighter in Ahmad al-Khateeb's group.
After Ahmad al-Khateeb's death, the existence of a group named after him in the Tel Shihab area is attested in a faction called Katibat al-Shaheed Ahmad al-Khateeb, which was likely a splinter from Kata'ib al-Bunyan, set up by those who had been under Ahmad al-Khateeb's command. Abu Hashim al-Rifa'i apparently joined Katibat al-Shaheed Ahmad al-Khateeb. This group's name appears in a November 2013 agreement among multiple factions regarding the Tel Shihab border crossing and the framework of an operations room for rebel groups in the west Deraa countryside. Liwa Shuhada' al-Yarmouk was also among the signatories to that agreement, illustrating its influence in the Tel Shihab area at the time.
Katibat al-Shaheed Ahmad al-Khateeb's leader, whose name appears in that agreement as a signatory for his group, was one Samir al-Rabai'i, originally from Tabariya. Samir al-Rabai'i, it may be recalled, was mentioned in a March 2016 post I wrote regarding the connections between Liwa Shuhada' al-Yarmouk and the Islamic State. The story recounted in that post was that Samir al-Rabai'i was one of the members of Liwa Shuhada' al-Yarmouk who went to Raqqa in around mid-2014 as part of the establishment of links between Liwa Shuhada' al-Yarmouk and the Islamic State. The story of Samir al-Rabai'i's journey to Raqqa, which I heard in 2016 from an ex-member of Liwa Shuhada' al-Yarmouk, was repeated to me by the media activist for Liwa al-Shaheed Nabil al-Amyan and another resident of Tel Shihab. By these accounts, Samir al-Rabai'i returned to the Yarmouk Basin and remains there to this day as a member of Jaysh Khalid bin al-Waleed. He is allegedly a military amir in the organization at the present time.
By the end of 2013 or early 2014, Samir al-Rabai'i's group had merged into Liwa Shuhada' al-Yarmouk. Thus, Abu Hashim al-Rifa'i had already been a member of Liwa Shuhada' al-Yarmouk well before the formation of Jaysh Khalid bin al-Waleed in May 2016. In 2014, he left Tel Shihab definitively and settled in the areas of the main bases of Liwa Shuhada' al-Yarmouk in the Yarmouk Basin. His role in Liwa Shuhada' al-Yarmouk and subsequently Jaysh Khalid bin al-Waleed was a military one. There is no evidence that he had a specialist military role (e.g. sniper). Even so, a friend from Jamlah who was in Liwa Shuhada' al-Yarmouk and fought alongside Abu Hashim al-Rifa'i recalls him as a courageous fighter and says that he adopted the Islamic State's ideology.
By the time Abu Hashim al-Rifa'i became the overall amir of Jaysh Khalid bin al-Waleed, he had been a well-established military amir in the organization. He was not among those arrested in the wake of the assassination of Jaysh Khalid bin al-Waleed's first amir Abu Hashim al-Shami (aka Abu Hashim al-Idlibi). At the time of his death, he was married and had children, though it is unclear whether he got married and had children before or after he migrated to the Yarmouk Basin.