Syrian Militant and Former Al Qaeda Leader Seeks Wider Acceptance in First Interview With U.S. Journalist
Abu Mohammad al-Jolani, leader of the Syrian Islamist militant group Hayat Tahrir al-Sham, sits for a February 2021 interview with FRONTLINE correspondent Martin Smith in Idlib province, Syria.
Over most of two decades, Abu Mohammad al-Jolani’s life has been a roadmap of Islamist militancy in Iraq and Syria. He joined the fight against U.S. forces in Iraq and was jailed by the Americans. He became a commander within the group known as the Islamic State of Iraq. He founded an Al Qaeda affiliate in Syria and then broke with Al Qaeda and ISI, striking out with his own group to oppose Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.
The United States has labeled him a terrorist since 2013 and offered a $10 million reward for information leading to his capture.
Today, Jolani is the leader of the most dominant force in opposition-held Syrian territory. From his base in the northwestern corner of the country, he and his organization have fought against Assad’s forces, Assad’s Russian and Iranian allies, and Jolani’s own former allies in ISIS and Al Qaeda.
In his first interview with an American journalist, Jolani told FRONTLINE correspondent Martin Smith that his role in fighting Assad and ISIS, and in controlling an area with millions of displaced Syrians who could potentially become refugees, reflected common interests with the United States and the West.
Jolani told Smith that his group, Hayat Tahrir al-Sham, posed no threat to the United States, and the government should remove him from its list of designated terrorists.
“First and foremost, this region does not represent a threat to the security of Europe and America,” Jolani told Smith. “This region is not a staging ground for executing foreign jihad.”
Traveling into Syria from Turkey, Smith conducted interviews with Jolani on Feb. 1 and Feb. 14, 2021. The interviews will be part of an upcoming FRONTLINE documentary examining Jolani’s emergence as a leading Islamist militant and his efforts, despite his history with Al Qaeda and allegations of human rights abuses, to position himself as an influential force in Syria’s future.
Smith asked Jolani why people should consider him as a leader in Syria if he has been designated a terrorist by the U.S., the United Nations and other countries. Jolani called the terrorist designation “unfair” and “political,” saying that while he had been critical of Western policies toward the Middle East, “We didn’t say we want to fight.” Jolani said his involvement with Al Qaeda “has ended,” and even in the past his group was “against carrying out operations outside of Syria.”
The interviews took place in Idlib province, where Hayat Tahrir al-Sham, Jolani’s group, has worked to establish a civic authority through a so-called “salvation government.” One of the last remaining pockets of resistance to the Assad regime, Idlib has become home to an estimated 3 million civilians, many of whom fled other parts of Syria. For the last couple of years, Idlib has come under attack from Syrian, Russian and Iranian forces, with Turkey backing opposition groups, including, sometimes, Jolani’s group.
Back in December 2012, Jolani’s group, known then as Jabhat al-Nusra, was designated a terrorist organization by the U.S. State Department. Jolani, a Syrian national, was named a “Specially Designated Global Terrorist” in May 2013. The State Department cited the group’s “violent, sectarian vision” and said Jolani’s “ultimate goal is the overthrow of the Syrian regime and the institution of Islamist sharia law throughout the country,” adding that suicide attacks carried out by his group “killed innocent Syrian civilians.”
Three years later, Jolani sought to publicly distance his group from Al Qaeda and renamed it Jabhat Fateh al-Sham. A merger with other Syrian Islamist rebel factions in January 2017 formed the group known as HTS, as it exists today.
James Jeffrey, who served as a U.S. ambassador under both Republican and Democrat administrations and most recently as special representative for Syria engagement and special envoy to the global coalition to defeat ISIS during the Trump administration, told Smith that Jolani’s organization was “an asset” to America’s strategy in Idlib.
“They are the least bad option of the various options on Idlib, and Idlib is one of the most important places in Syria, which is one of the most important places right now in the Middle East,” Jeffrey said in an interview on March 8.
Aaron Y. Zelin, whose research at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy focuses on jihadi groups in North Africa and Syria, told Smith that it’s hard to know what Jolani’s intentions are “because he has been a chameleon.” Zelin said in an interview conducted March 8, “How can you necessarily trust somebody that’s just trying to survive and continue to remain in power, because that’s the only way he can?”
Since the start of the conflict in Syria a decade ago, the Assad regime’s forces and ISIS have conducted large-scale human rights abuses. The Assad regime’s actions, Jolani told Smith, fit the definition of terrorism because it was “killing innocent people, children, poor people, women.”
Human rights organizations have also documented violations by Hayat Tahrir al-Sham, from indiscriminate attacks on civilian areas to arbitrary arrests.
The United Nations’ Commission of Inquiry on Syria said it documented violations including torture, sexual violence, inhuman or degrading treatment, and enforced disappearances or death in detention by HTS and its previous incarnations beginning in 2011. “While incidents peaked in 2014, similar levels of violations were documented from 2013 to 2019,” the March 2021 report noted.
The UN commission’s report also noted HTS’ practice of arbitrarily detaining civilians to stifle political dissent and said 73 cases of detained activists, journalists and media workers who criticized HTS have been documented. It added that activists and media workers who were women were “doubly victimized.”
The report said that, as HTS lost territory to Assad’s forces, it “accelerated detention campaigns in an effort to subjugate populations in the remaining areas under its control.”
Smith asked Jolani about the reports of journalists and activists being arrested and at times tortured.
Jolani claimed the people HTS detained were “regime agents,” “Russian agents who come to place booby traps,” or members of ISIS. He cast the detentions as targeting thieves and blackmailers, dismissing allegations that HTS went after its critics.
In a report published January 2019, Human Rights Watch interviewed seven former detainees, many of them activists or journalists. Two of them described being arrested while filming and being interrogated about their work as journalists. None of them were able to consult with a lawyer. All but one said they were beaten or physically mistreated.
Sara Kayyali, Syria researcher for Human Rights Watch, told Smith in an interview on March 18, “We have documented cases where people had described, in detail, their torture, where they shared pictures of marks that they obtained while in detention in Idlib governorate.”
“There is no torture. I completely reject this,” Jolani told Smith.
Jolani said he would grant international human rights groups access to prisons.
“Human rights organizations could come and inspect the prisons or take a tour,” he said. “Our institutions are open to anyone. Organizations are welcome. Or people who are interested in this matter can visit and assess the situation. Are things being done properly or not?”
When Smith spoke to Kayyali, the researcher at Human Rights Watch, and relayed Jolani’s offer, she said, “That would be very good, if they’re able to follow through on it, and if they’re able to provide access to both official and unofficial detention facilities.”
But she also noted that rights groups have heard promises like this from others before, without any follow-through.
Smith also took the opportunity to ask Jolani about Bilal Abdul Kareem, an American journalist who was arrested by HTS in August 2020 and remained in detention at the time of the Feb. 1 interview. Smith asked Jolani if he was willing to release Kareem.
Jolani said, “It’s not up to me. This matter is in the hands of the judicial system.”
A little over two weeks after that interview, on Feb. 17, Kareem was released from prison.