The Designated Terrorist and the Fight Over the Future of Syria’s Last Opposition Stronghold
Abu Mohammad al-Jolani, a former leader of an Al Qaeda affiliate in Syria, is one of the most wanted men in the world. The United States designated him a terrorist in 2013, with a $10 million reward for information leading to his capture.
He’s also the leader of the dominant force in Syria’s Idlib province, which after more than 10 years of conflict is the last remaining opposition stronghold to President Bashar al-Assad’s regime.
With his Islamist group, Hayat Tahrir al-Sham, Jolani helped establish a civic authority that governs more than 3 million civilians in Idlib, many of them displaced from other areas of Syria. He claims there’s common ground between the U.S. and his group, which has been fighting Assad, Assad’s Russian and Iranian allies, ISIS and Jolani’s own former allies in Al Qaeda. He says he is seeking a new relationship with the West.
In a new documentary, The Jihadist, veteran FRONTLINE correspondent Martin Smith travels to Idlib to investigate whether Jolani can be trusted, becoming the first Western journalist to interview him. Smith also tracked down and interviewed Jolani’s critics and victims. Jolani’s group and its earlier incarnations stand accused of human rights violations, including indiscriminate attacks on civilian areas, torture and arbitrary arrests of civilians.
“I came to this story fully aware of the controversy it would generate. I would be speaking to a designated terrorist,” Smith said in the above excerpt. “But after 20 years of covering the region, I thought this was an important opportunity.”
In the clip, Smith lays out the stakes: Jolani’s 10,000-plus man army, effectively backed by neighboring Turkey, is preventing Idlib from falling to the Assad regime and its allies, which have committed large-scale human rights abuses. A regime victory in Idlib could potentially spark further humanitarian crises there and an increase in migrants moving farther north.
“We don’t have anything to defend. What should we do? Die? Die or leave Syria? We’ll tear down that Turkish wall to get through,” Fayiz Khalid Shhatha, a man living at an Idlib camp for internally displaced people, told Smith.
In the film, Smith examines the fight over the future of Idlib, Jolani’s emergence as a leading Islamist militant, and his efforts — despite his history with Al Qaeda and allegations of human rights abuses — to change his image into that of a viable leader who is not a danger to the United States and Europe.
“We haven’t posed any threat to Western or European society. No security threat, no economic threat, nothing,” Jolani told Smith.
Critics are skeptical of his rebranding efforts.
As the documentary reports, Jolani’s life has been a roadmap of Islamist militancy in Iraq and Syria. He battled U.S. forces in Iraq and was jailed by the Americans. He rose through the ranks in the group then known as the Islamic State of Iraq, or ISI, and founded an Al Qaeda affiliate in Syria, Jabhat al-Nusra. He later broke with Al Qaeda and ISI, striking out with his own group to oppose Assad. He has deployed suicide bombers in Syria, and to this day, evidence and allegations persist that he imprisons and tortures his critics, charges he denies.
“There is torture, and it’s brutal torture, and there are barbaric methods being used by these terrorists,” Mohamed Al Salloum, whose brother Samer was imprisoned and executed after criticizing Hayat Tahrir al-Sham on social media, told Smith in the above clip.
But Smith also found that some U.S. experts and veteran diplomats in the region credit Jolani with establishing a semblance of stability in Idlib province and acting as a buffer against forces hostile to the United States. James Jeffrey, a top diplomat in the region during the Bush, Obama and Trump administrations, thinks it may be wise to work with Jolani.
“Look, he’s the least bad option of the various options on Idlib, which is one of the most important places in Syria, which is one of the most important places right now in the Middle East,” Jeffrey told Smith in the above excerpt.
On whether it might make sense to work with Jolani, others disagree.
“Jolani has gone where the wind has blown, in many respects, over time to try and survive different challenges that have come up at various points within the last 10 years,” Aaron Zelin of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, whose research focuses on jihadi groups in North Africa and Syria, told Smith. Zelin believes that giving Jolani a chance would equal “letting him and the organization off the hook.”
“How can you necessarily trust somebody that’s just trying to survive and continue to remain in power?” Zelin asked.
For the full story, watch The Jihadist: a hard look at Jolani’s past, his ascent and his aspirations, as he seeks wider acceptance from the global community, and the fate of Syrians living in Idlib hangs in the balance. The documentary premieres Tuesday, June 1, at 10/9c on PBS stations (check local listings). Produced, written and directed by Martin Smith and Marcela Gaviria, with Smith as correspondent, and co-produced by Brian Funck and Scott Anger, The Jihadist will be available to stream on FRONTLINE’s website, its YouTube channel and the PBS Video App starting at 7/6c.