x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 23 January 2018

Al Qaeda’s Nusra Front leader stays in Syria’s shadows

No one knows where leader of the Nusra Front is but rumours of his death are doubted by experts.

BEIRUT // Before he became head of one of the most feared bands of radicals fighting the Syrian regime, he was a teacher of classical Arabic who fought American troops in Iraq and quickly rose through the ranks of Al Qaeda.

Little else is known about Abu Mohammad Al Golani, the man who leads the Nusra Front – including where he is now or even if he is still alive.

“His identity is really a bit of a mystery,” said Charles Lister, an analyst at IHS Jane’s Terrorism and Insurgency Centre.

Syrian state media said last week that Al Golani, also known as the emir of Jabhat Al Nusra, was killed in fighting in a coastal stronghold of President Bashar Al Assad’s government. But rebels deny that, describing the report as propaganda.

Al Golani is so mysterious that no one can say with certainty what his real name is. Al Golani is a nom de guerre, indicating he was born in the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights.

A native of Syria, he joined the insurgency after moving to Iraq, regional intelligence officials say.

There, he advanced through Al Qaeda’s ranks and eventually returned to Syria shortly after the uprising against Mr Al Assad began in March 2011.

Mr Lister, who follows Syria’s rebel brigades, said he was sceptical about reports of Al Golani’s death. If true, they would have stirred up considerable chatter on jihadist forums and social media platforms, he said.

Rebel leaders in Syria agree.

“We haven’t seen anything unusual among the ranks of Jabhat Al Nusra fighters that suggest their leader has been killed,” said Islam Alloush, a spokesman for Jaysh Al Islam, or the Islamic Army rebel umbrella group.

Iraqi, Jordanian and Lebanese security officials describe the 39-year-old Al Golani as one of the top leaders of Al Qaeda.

According to Iraqi military intelligence officials, he was a teacher of Arabic before moving to Iraq, where he turned to militancy and eventually became a close associate of Abu Musab Al Zarqawi, the Jordanian-born leader of the militant group Al Qaeda in Iraq.

After Al Zarqawi was killed by a US airstrike in 2006, Al Golani left Iraq, briefly staying in Lebanon, where he offered logistical support for the Jund Al Sham militant group, which follows Al Qaeda’s extremist ideology, the Iraqi officials said.

He returned to Iraq to continue fighting but was arrested by the US military and held at Camp Bucca, a sprawling prison on Iraq’s southern border with Kuwait. At that camp, where the US military held tens of thousands of suspected militants, he taught classical Arabic to other prisoners, according to the officials.

After his release in 2008, Al Golani resumed his militant work, this time alongside Abu Bakr Al Baghdadi, the head of Al Qaeda in Iraq – also known as the Islamic State of Iraq. He was soon appointed head of Al Qarda operations in Mosul province.

Shortly after the Syrian uprising began, Al Golani moved into Syrian territory and, fully supported by Al Baghdadi, formed the Nusra Front, which was first announced in January 2012.

A leader of Jordan’s ultra-orthodox and banned Salafi movement said Al Baghdadi sent Al Golani and Abu Jleibeen, a senior Al Qaeda operative who is related by marriage to Al Zarqawi, to fight in Syria, where Al Golani was named “general emir” of Nusra and Abu Jleibeen an emir of the southern Deraa province, birthplace of the Syrian uprising.

Under Al Golani’s leadership, Nusra has grown into one of the most powerful rebel groups, with an estimated force of 6,000 to 7,000 fighters across the country.

The US state department, which placed Nusra on its list of terrorist organisations last December, said the group has claimed nearly 600 attacks, including suicide attacks, small-arms operations and bombings in major cities.

Al Golani himself was listed by the State Department as a “specially designated global terrorist” in May.

He gained prominence in April, when he rejected an attempted takeover of Nusra by Al Baghdadi, revealing a widening rift within Al Qarda’s global network. Al Golani distanced himself from claims that the two groups had merged into a group called the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (Isil), as announced by Al Baghdadi.

Instead, he pledged allegiance directly to Al Qaeda’s leader, Ayman Al Zawahri, who was said to be against Al Baghdadi’s bid to merge both groups, and said his group would continue to use Jabhat Al Nusra as its name.

Despite some friction with members of the mainstream Free Syrian Army rebel umbrella group, the two sides often work together against regime troops in opposition-held areas. The group is more popular in Syria than the Isil, which is largely made up of foreign fighters and has been criticised for its brutality and for trying to impose a strict version of Islamic law in areas under its control.

Nusra, by contrast, is made up mostly of Syrians, many of whom fought American forces in Iraq.

Rebels acknowledge knowing close to nothing about Al Golani. The Nusra Front, like Al Qaeda in Iraq, obscures the real identity of its senior leaders.

A Jordanian security official said only the top echelon in Al Qaeda knew Al Golani’s real name, but he was commonly known to them as “Al Sheikh Al Fateh” – the Conqueror Sheikh.

“It’s difficult to know anything,” said Islam Alloush, the rebel spokesman. “He doesn’t come out in the open.”

* Associated Press