Transcript

The Jihadist

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MARTIN SMITH:

I’m flying over southern Turkey. I’m on my way to Syria to meet one of the most wanted men in the world.

MARTIN SMITH:

You have not spoken to an American reporter in the past?

ABU MOHAMMAD AL-JOLANI:

[Speaking Arabic] No, this is the first time.

MARTIN SMITH:

So why have you chosen now to speak to the United States?

ABU MOHAMMAD AL-JOLANI:

[Speaking Arabic] No particular reason, really. You requested the interview and we agreed to it. That’s all there is to it.

MARTIN SMITH:

His name is Abu Mohammad al-Jolani. As a former al-Qaeda leader, the U.S. has a $10 million reward for information leading to his capture. He heads the Organization for the Liberation of the Levant, Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham—the most powerful Islamist faction in Syria.

He has agreed to meet because he is trying to overhaul his image.

NEWSREADER:

Not much is known about its leader, Abu Mohammad al-Jolani. He joined al-Qaeda—

MARTIN SMITH:

In the past, he’s battled Americans in Iraq. He’s deployed suicide bombers in Syria. And to this day he stands accused of imprisoning and torturing his critics.

You’re recognized, you’re designated as a terrorist by the United States, by the United Nations, by many governments. What do you say to them?

ABU MOHAMMAD AL-JOLANI:

[Speaking Arabic] That is an unfair characterization. It’s a political label that carries no truth or credibility. We haven't posed any threat to Western or European society. No security threat, no economic threat, nothing.

MARTIN SMITH:

We sat down together in a secure location in Idlib province in northwest Syria. He insists that today, Americans should trust him.

You pledged allegiance to al-Qaeda. You worked with Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the emir of ISIS. So for you to say that you were not committed to fighting Americans when that’s in your past is impossible for people to understand.

ABU MOHAMMAD AL-JOLANI:

[Speaking Arabic] This issue needs a closer look. We need to consider the recent history of the region and what it went through over the past 20, 30 years. We’re talking about a region ruled by tyrants, by people who rule with an iron fist. And this region is surrounded by numerous conflicts and wars. There are thousands who joined al-Qaeda.

NEWSREADER:

And we’re seeing a proliferation of these groups. Al-Qaeda, the local insurgency—

ABU MOHAMMAD AL-JOLANI:

[Speaking Arabic] But why did they join al-Qaeda? That is the question.

HTS video

MARTIN SMITH:

I came to this story fully aware of the controversy it would generate. I would be speaking to a designated terrorist. But after 20 years of covering the region, I thought this was an important opportunity. Since bin Laden in 1998, no senior al-Qaeda leader has agreed to a televised interview with a Western reporter.

Today, Jolani, who says he's long since broken with al-Qaeda, controls Syria’s last opposition stronghold, a safe haven for refugees from around the country. If he falls, many more migrants could flood north.

MALE SPEAKER:

[Speaking Arabic] 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.

MARTIN SMITH:

Jolani’s 10,000-plus-man army, effectively backed by Turkey, is now the only thing that prevents it.

There are some people in Washington who think it may be wise to work with Jolani, including a top American diplomat in the region during the Bush, Obama and Trump administrations, James Jeffrey.

AMB. JAMES JEFFREY, Ambassador to Iraq, 2010-12:

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.

HTS video

JAMES JEFFREY:

When there is not the normal setup of nation-states and of international norms and rules, you wind up with groups like this, that do things you don’t like but in the here and now are the folks you have to deal with to avoid even worse things.

AARON ZELIN, Editor, Jihadology:

How can you trust somebody that's just trying to survive and continue to remain in power?

MARTIN SMITH:

There are people that have met with Jolani who are saying, "We should give him a chance."

AARON ZELIN:

I think it's letting him and the organization off the hook.

ABU MOHAMMAD AL-JOLANI:

[Speaking Arabic] This is the center of Idlib. It’s not New York's Times Square.

MARTIN SMITH:

I spent seven days in Idlib—seeing, of course, what Jolani wanted me to see.

ABU MOHAMMAD AL-JOLANI:

[Speaking Arabic] I was close by when this place got hit.

MARTIN SMITH:

And hearing what he wanted me to hear.

ABU MOHAMMAD AL-JOLANI:

[Speaking Arabic] This type of trip has its risks. Could be ISIS, could be the regime, could be Russian agents.

MARTIN SMITH:

I also spoke to his critics and his victims.

Jolani told me that "We don't torture. There is no torture in our prisons."

SARA KAYYALI, Human Rights Watch:

That's a difficult one to believe. I mean, we have testimony that says otherwise.

MOHAMMED AL-SALLOUM:

[Speaking Arabic] There is torture, and it’s brutal torture.

HTS video

MOHAMMED AL-SALLOUM:

[Speaking Arabic] There are barbaric methods being used by these criminals, these terrorists.

MARTIN SMITH:

Jolani, they say, is a man that can’t be trusted. I have come here to investigate.

HTS video

ABU MOHAMMAD AL-JOLANI:

[Speaking Arabic] You endured migration, struggle, living in tents and fleeing your country so you don’t have to live under the regime of a tyrant, correct? But we believe life here is temporary and our return is inevitable.

MARTIN SMITH:

He was born in 1982 and grew up in Damascus. His birth name was Ahmed Hussein al-Sharaa.

NEWSREADER:

War in the Middle East. Israeli forces drive spearheads across the Sinai Peninsula.

MARTIN SMITH:

But long before Ahmed was born, he says his family was shaped by conflict. The al-Sharaas had fled their home during the 1967 Arab-Israeli War.

NEWSREADER:

Israeli forces launched an all-out attack on Arab forces, and so began the Six Day War. With Israeli paratroops capturing the center of Jerusalem, Israel now turned her attention to Syria, bombing Damascus and advancing into the Golan Heights.

ABU MOHAMMAD AL-JOLANI:

[Speaking Arabic] We are from a family originally from the now-occupied Golan Heights. My grandfather, my father’s father, was displaced from the Golan in 1967, after the Israeli Zionist army entered the area.

MARTIN SMITH:

Years later, Ahmed took the nom de guerre Abu Mohammad al-Jolani. "Jolani" is a reference to the Golan Heights.

As a teenager, he worked in his father’s grocery store in Damascus. But like other young men of his generation, he was drawn to politics through religion. He also says he was influenced by the second Palestinian intifada of the early 2000s.

ABU MOHAMMAD AL-JOLANI:

[Speaking Arabic] I was 17 or 18 years old at the time and I started thinking about how to fulfill my duties defending a people who are oppressed by occupiers and invaders.

MARTIN SMITH:

And at that point in your life, that was 2000, approximately, just before 9/11.

ABU MOHAMMAD AL-JOLANI:

[Speaking Arabic] Yes.

MARTIN SMITH:

What did you think and feel on 9/11, at the time?

ABU MOHAMMAD AL-JOLANI:

[Speaking Arabic] Anyone who lived in the Islamic or Arab world at the time who tells you he wasn’t happy about it would be lying. But people regret the killing of innocent people, for sure.

September 11, 2001: War on America

MARTIN SMITH:

Of course, people everywhere abhorred 9/11.

NEWSREADER:

The United States had always warned the events of September 11 would not go unanswered. Unleashing its wrath, America, with the help from Britain, has struck at Taliban targets and terrorist training camps across Afghanistan.

MARTIN SMITH:

After 9/11, few Arabs went to Afghanistan to defend the Taliban. The Taliban fell in a matter of months.

PRESIDENT GEORGE W. BUSH:

Our war against terror is only beginning.

MARTIN SMITH:

But as America prepared to invade Iraq nearly two years later, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad saw an opportunity to punish America. Assad encouraged young men from all over the Arab world to come fight the U.S.

DAVID SCHENKER, Dept. of Defense, 2002-06:

So if you wanted to go try your chance at killing Americans, you could fly into Damascus Airport and you could go to a jihadi signup that was run by the government of Syria. They used to have it at Damascus Fairgrounds. And you'd go there and they'd put you on a minibus and bring you to Baghdad. So this wasn't an underground railroad. There were tons of people who were coming in.

MARTIN SMITH:

There was even a recruitment center where Americans wouldn’t miss it.

ANDREW TABLER, The Washington Institute:

These volunteers were collected out in front of the American Embassy in Damascus and they recruited people to go to fight—

MARTIN SMITH:

I spoke with Andrew Tabler, who was a reporter in Damascus at the time.

ANDREW TABLER:

—and the fact that they were gathering people by the busload in front of the embassy was a message to the diplomats inside. I was at the embassy, and it raised a lot of eyebrows, amongst other things—and I'm sure a flurry of cables back to Washington.

MARTIN SMITH:

When did you first go to Iraq?

ABU MOHAMMAD AL-JOLANI:

[Speaking Arabic] I went to Baghdad around two to three weeks before the war started. So I was in Baghdad when the war began.

NEWSREADER:

"Shock and Awe." Hundreds of bombs and cruise missiles ripping into Saddam Hussein’s palaces, into the headquarters of his secret police and his security structure.

NEWSREADER:

On the ground, U.S. and British forces pushed into Iraq from the south. They are moving steadily toward Baghdad.

DAVID SCHENKER:

Syria made clear that they were going to do everything in their power to make sure the United States failed.

NEWSREADER:

This was central Baghdad today as Saddam Hussein’s regime finally lost control. The fall of Baghdad was—

MARTIN SMITH:

I entered Iraq two weeks later with a group of returning Iraqi exiles. As we drove into Baghdad, the bombed-out hulks of Iraqi tanks and anti-aircraft guns littered the sides of the highways. In the city center, buildings had been blasted by missiles.

NEWSREADER:

There's been widespread looting in Baghdad as law and order collapses. Looters plundered anything they could carry from official buildings.

MARTIN SMITH:

The widespread looting prompted an unfortunate U.S. response.

U.S. SOLDIER:

We try to stop them from looting, but they don’t understand. So we take their car and we'll crush it. United States Army. Tankers.

MARTIN SMITH:

We came upon this group of U.S. soldiers destroying a car belonging to a suspected looter. The car turned out to be his taxi cab.

JAMES JEFFREY:

The U.S. military and the U.S. government were woefully unprepared to deal with the reality on the ground in Iraq.

U.S. SOLDIER:

That's what you get when you loot!

JAMES JEFFREY:

I cannot begin to describe the idiocy of this whole endeavor.

NEWSREADER:

U.S. forces are facing a fierce new wave of insurgent attacks. Since Friday, at least four U.S. troops have died.

MARTIN SMITH:

Jolani was around 21 when he joined the insurgency led by a Jordanian, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi. Jolani says he never met him.

DAVID SCHENKER:

The leader of al-Qaeda in Iraq, Zarqawi, he's doing roadside bombs, sniping. They were attacking Americans in villages and towns, ambushes, anything they could think of to wear down American dedication or commitment.

NEWSREADER:

A car bomb exploded today at a mosque in the Iraqi holy city of Najaf, killing scores of people.

MARTIN SMITH:

Jolani claims he was opposed to these tactics. It was hard to believe. One of Zarqawi’s core goals in Iraq was to attack civilians in order to ignite a sectarian civil war.

ABU MOHAMMAD AL-JOLANI:

[Speaking Arabic] We were against killing innocent people. I wasn’t alone. Many of us with a conscience and a true understanding of Islam were against the killing of any innocent person. Even in cases where killing many enemies was going to cause the death of one innocent person, we were against it.

MARTIN SMITH:

Why didn't you quit, then? I mean, why stay with an army whose major tactic is to do mass suicide bombings that inevitably or intentionally killed civilians?

ABU MOHAMMAD AL-JOLANI:

[Speaking Arabic] We were always asking the same question.

MARTIN SMITH:

The Americans will say they came to liberate Iraq, and that had you not resisted that—constant car bombings, IEDs, snipers, all of that—there would not have been so much bloodshed.

ABU MOHAMMAD AL-JOLANI:

[Speaking Arabic] And if there was no American presence, there would not have been a resistance.

MARTIN SMITH:

Can we learn anything about Jolani from the fact that he had gone there and linked up with this group?

DAVID SCHENKER:

Listen, I think we know that he is committed to the jihad. We know that he is committed to not only repelling the crusaders, the Americans, but also to this austere ideology being promoted by al-Qaeda for a reversion to the old type of Islamic society. So they killed Shiites, or infidels, or apostates. And we see they also kill, with some frequency, Sunnis, who are not adhering to the precepts of Islam.

MARTIN SMITH:

Jolani would rise through the ranks of Zarqawi’s organization and caught the attention of a CIA analyst.

NADA BAKOS, CIA, 2000-10:

My job was to identify some of the initial leaders of Zarqawi's organization and to keep track of who is in his network and who's helping make decisions.

MARTIN SMITH:

Jolani came up as a commander or, of some sort, in Zarqawi's organization?

NADA BAKOS:

Yes.

MARTIN SMITH:

Can you say anything about that?

NADA BAKOS:

Probably not. He wasn't top-tier, but he had cell leadership at that point.

MARTIN SMITH:

At that time, around 2004, Iraq faced near-daily attacks from insurgents, including those that targeted civilians. In fact, the toll was so high that even al-Qaeda’s leadership, concerned about their image, protested the killing of so many innocents. They sent a letter by courier to Zarqawi.

“Let us not merely be people of killing, slaughter, blood, cursing, insult and harshness."

Zarqawi rejected the advice.

NEWSREADER:

Shock and awe, but this time Sunni insurgents were sending in the bombs. The series of coordinated blasts were in mainly Shia areas. Sunni militants, out to stoke sectarian tensions, did so with ferocious efficiency.

MARTIN SMITH:

Around 2005, Jolani’s jihadist career in Iraq was cut short. He was arrested by U.S. troops in Mosul. He would spend most of the next five years imprisoned in Camp Bucca, near the Kuwaiti border.

Around 100,000 detainees came through Bucca, including nine future al-Qaeda in Iraq and ISIS commanders.

JAMES JEFFREY, Dep. Chief of Mission, Iraq, 2004-05:

In fact, it was the training ground for a whole new generation of Middle Eastern extremist terrorists. The most extreme elements had total control of the camp. The U.S. military didn't see Bucca as a big problem, but what was happening in Bucca was it was a wholly-owned subsidiary of al-Qaeda.

MARTIN SMITH:

Jolani was around 23 when he arrived. He said he used his time to write a 50-page paper on how to fight jihad back home in Syria.

RANIA ABOUZEID, Journalist:

I definitely heard that from some of his key lieutenants, that he spent his time in Bucca quite wisely, and that he did come up with a pretty long document about how he wanted to take the jihad to Syria.

ABU MOHAMMAD AL-JOLANI:

[Speaking Arabic] It was long, like a research paper, analytical, close to 50 pages in which I recounted Syria’s history, its geography and sectarian diversity and how Assad’s family came to power, etc.

MARTIN SMITH:

Do you have a copy of that document?

ABU MOHAMMAD AL-JOLANI:

[Speaking Arabic] No, I don’t have it. It was lost in Damascus.

MARTIN SMITH:

Then, after his release from custody, Jolani became a commander of al-Qaeda forces in Mosul. What he did exactly we don’t know. But it wasn’t long before the Arab Spring came to Syria.

Daraa, Syria

MARTIN SMITH:

In March 2011, at least 15 boys were arrested for writing anti-government graffiti on school walls.

Freedom, freedom, and freedom only.

Down with the corrupt Assad.

MARTIN SMITH:

The boys were taken into custody by Assad’s secret police. Soon after, a video emerged. It was believed that several of the boys had been tortured.

CROWD [chanting]:

[Speaking Arabic] One, one, one, Syrians are one!

MARTIN SMITH:

Over the next few days, people took to the streets across the country, fed up with 40 years of living under a corrupt Assad regime, facing rising food prices and a severe drought.

CROWD [chanting]:

[Speaking Arabic] The people want the downfall of this regime!

Mosul, Iraq

MARTIN SMITH:

Jolani told me that after his release from prison he met with a jihadist leader, Abu Muslim, in Mosul, a man he had known in Bucca.

ABU MOHAMMAD AL-JOLANI:

[Speaking Arabic] He asked me, “Is this what you were talking about in prison?” I said, “Yes, maybe the day we were wishing for has finally come. The day when people revolt against their tyrants.”

He asked, “What do you think? Do you want to stay here in Iraq?” I said, "No, I belong in Syria."

CROWD [chanting]:

[Speaking Arabic] We want freedom despite you, Bashar. We want freedom!

MARTIN SMITH:

Abu Muslim then suggested Jolani send his paper, the one he had written while in Bucca, to Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the new head of the Islamic State of Iraq, ISI.

ABU MOHAMMAD AL-JOLANI:

[Speaking Arabic] I wrote my thoughts about Syria to him. I had numerous observations about it. Mainly, we should not repeat the Iraqi experience in Syria.

NEWSREADER:

Iraq today was swept by another wave of deadly attacks. At least—

MARTIN SMITH:

He says that he stressed that he didn’t want to fight a sectarian war, as Zarqawi had.

NEWSREADER:

The death toll now tops 200.

MARTIN SMITH:

He wanted to fight Assad.

ABU MOHAMMAD AL-JOLANI:

[Speaking Arabic] I went to meet Baghdadi. I met him. Honestly, I was a bit surprised by him. He did not have the competence to analyze situations. He didn’t have a strong personality.

MARTIN SMITH:

What do you get when you sign up to be the al-Qaeda affiliate establishing a new chapter in Syria? What comes with that?

ABU MOHAMMAD AL-JOLANI:

[Speaking Arabic] First, I asked for 100 men to come with me. But many leaders did not like the idea of me heading to Syria. So only six people came with me.

MARTIN SMITH:

Jolani and his men, all wearing suicide belts in case they were caught, crossed into Syria a few months later.

ABU MOHAMMAD AL-JOLANI:

[Speaking Arabic] For money, Baghdadi gave me $50,000 or $60,000 a month for six to seven months.

NEWSREADER:

New deadly violence in Syria. Army and security forces fired on peaceful protesters.

MARTIN SMITH:

When they arrived, the uprising had already turned violent.

NEWSREADER:

Reports of another 24 people killed.

MARTIN SMITH:

People had taken up arms to survive.

NEWSREADER:

In Syria, violence and protests. Will the government there buckle?

MARTIN SMITH:

Assad retaliated by bombing neighborhoods suspected of harboring resistance.

MAN IN STREET:

[Speaking Arabic] There’s somebody here! There’s somebody here!

HTS video

MARTIN SMITH:

Jolani had spent several months recruiting and formed Jabhat al-Nusra, the Front of the Supporters of the People of Syria. But he hid his al-Qaeda affiliation to protect Nusra’s reputation.

RANIA ABOUZEID, Author, No Turning Back:

All of those ties were hidden. He had learned the lessons of al-Qaeda in Iraq, Islamic State of Iraq, and he was not going to emulate them in Syria. He worked to ingratiate himself in the local communities.

Al-Nusra video

MARTIN SMITH:

Jolani began his attacks on Assad by sending young fighters on suicide missions.

ABU MOHAMMAD AL-JOLANI:

[Speaking Arabic] If we'd had planes, we would have used planes. If we'd had artillery to replace martyrdom, we would have used those weapons and saved those brothers.

HTS video

MARTIN SMITH:

Jolani’s stated plan was to topple Assad, seize Damascus and set up an Islamic state in Syria under sharia law.

The U.S. State Department put Jolani on its terrorist watch list. But he insists he used the funds he got from Baghdadi to strike military targets, not civilians.

ABU MOHAMMAD AL-JOLANI:

[Speaking Arabic] Did we use this money to hurt people? No. We used this money to confront an unjust, tyrannical regime that is killing people. We are defending the people.

NEWSREADER:

Two high-profile government security buildings have been bombed in the heart of the Syrian capital, Damascus. State television blamed both explosions on terrorists trying to overthrow President Bashar al-Assad.

ANDREW TABLER:

It's true Jolani’s methods were a lot less bloody than the others.

NEWSREADER:

—security intelligence center—

ANDREW TABLER:

Jolani made it not about civilians, but instead about fighting the regime and its supporters. But their hands were not clean by any stretch of the imagination.

NEWSREADER:

Authorities said at least 40 people were killed and more than 100 wounded. The front of Syria's General Intelligence Agency appeared to be blown off.

RANIA ABOUZEID:

This is very different from Islamic State of Iraq, which used to send suicide car bombs into markets and kill Muslims as indiscriminately as it killed anybody else. So it was a very—

MARTIN SMITH:

Freelancer Rania Abouzeid reported from Idlib with rebel forces in those early years.

RANIA ABOUZEID:

—so they were liked. They weren't trying to impose their views on others, unlike, say, for example, some other conservative Salafi groups. Nusra was so popular, in fact, that when the United States designated it a terrorist organization, Syrians in the political opposition all rallied around it. And the next Friday during protests, the chants were, "We are all Jabhat al-Nusra."

CROWD [chanting]:

[Speaking Arabic] Oh Nusra, we are with you till death.

NADA BAKOS, Author, The Targeter:

I'm watching Nusra grow inside of Syria, and he seems to be following the same playbook as Hamas, a little bit of Hezbollah and the Muslim Brotherhood, in where they are providing the basic necessities that people need to survive like food and water, medical care, education, security.

MARTIN SMITH:

A smart tactic, right?

NADA BAKOS:

A very smart tactic, and very different than what he did under Zarqawi. It was like night and day.

Al-Nusra video

MARTIN SMITH:

Al-Nusra was able to grow quickly.

ABU MOHAMMAD AL-JOLANI:

[Speaking Arabic] Within one year we grew from six men to 5,000. The money also multiplied, and we were able to expand to a very large area in Syria.

Al-Nusra video

MARTIN SMITH:

Nusra was taking in money from sympathizers in Gulf States and from looting factories. Under Jolani, the group also kidnapped foreign civilians and took in tens of millions of dollars from ransom payments.

RANIA ABOUZEID:

At one point, Nusra, which had received half of its funding from Iraq, was actually sending money to Baghdadi. It was at the height of its game.

MARTIN SMITH:

One payment to the Islamic State of Iraq was for $2 million. It seems Jolani didn’t mind supporting Baghdadi, even if ISI was killing Iraqi civilians.

But Jolani’s success was a problem for Baghdadi. He wanted Nusra’s territory.

ISIS video

RANIA ABOUZEID:

These two men did not trust each other. And Baghdadi relocated to Syria to keep closer tabs on Jolani.

MALE VOICE:

[Speaking Arabic] The time has come to announce to Syria and the world—

MARTIN SMITH:

Then, in early April 2013, Baghdadi announced that Nusra would be subsumed into what he was calling the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria: ISIS.

ISIS video

MALE VOICE [reading statement]:

[Speaking Arabic] —Jabhat al-Nusra is nothing but an extension of the Islamic State of Iraq. We hereby change the name of the Islamic State of Iraq and forever ban the name of al-Nusra Front and combine them under one name, the Islamic State in Iraq and al-Sham.

MARTIN SMITH:

Jolani responded the next day.

ABU MOHAMMAD AL-JOLANI:

[Speaking Arabic] We were not aware of this announcement and only heard about it through the media.

I responded by saying that this was unacceptable.

MARTIN SMITH:

Around this time Jolani agreed to an interview with an Al-Jazeera reporter.

MALE REPORTER:

[Speaking Arabic] What is the update on matters between you and ISIS?

MARTIN SMITH:

His face hidden, Jolani tried to downplay the split.

ABU MOHAMMAD AL-JOLANI:

[Speaking Arabic] The matter is not that important. At al-Nusra, we are continuing on our road.

MARTIN SMITH:

A freelance reporter from Vermont, Theo Padnos, listened to that interview from a Nusra prison cell where he was being held.

THEO PADNOS, Author, Blindfold:

All the guards were outside watching their leader being interviewed on Al-Jazeera and I'm like, "Well, I wonder what any of those media people were asking Jolani about their American prisoner." But instead they were asking strategic questions. "Do you intend to attack the regime from the left flank or the right flank?" Or "What are your demands?" And I’m like, "Well, how do you treat your own people?"

My name is Peter Theo Curtis, today’s date is July 18—

MARTIN SMITH:

Padnos had been a hostage for 22 months. He says he was subjected to torture and frequent beatings.

And when you were being beaten by guys that identified themselves as Jabhat al-Nusra, where were you? Did you know?

THEO PADNOS:

I was in the basement of a building in Aleppo.

I really didn’t think I could survive the torture. It just goes on forever, and you don't know when it's going to stop; you don't know why they're doing this to you. They would take me back to my cell and they would say, "You Christian, you liar, tomorrow night is going to be worse."

I have three days, they’ve given me three days to live. Three days!

MARTIN SMITH:

During his time in captivity, Padnos—who shared a cell with ISIS fighters captured by Nusra—learned about the rivalry between Jolani and Baghdadi. A lot of it was about money.

THEO PADNOS:

When the ISIS guys would argue with the Jahbat al-Nusra men, they'd go, "It's all about money. It's all about money. Jahbat al-Nusra is taking all the cash, and we want—we, ISIS, want more of that cash." Money is the mother's milk of the jihad. Everything turns on money. And the moment that the commanders don’t have cash to pay the gunmen beneath them, those gunmen are gone within the day. They need falafel to eat. They need gas to put in their trucks. Every few hours the trucks get flat tires. They can't fix the flat tires and move around and shoot people if they don't have cash.

ISIS video

MARTIN SMITH:

By mid-2014, Baghdadi and Jolani were bitter rivals. Baghdadi seized the northern Syrian city of Raqqa from al-Nusra and then moved to take Mosul in Iraq.

ISIS video

MARTIN SMITH:

He declared a caliphate, an Islamic state encompassing large swaths of Iraq and Syria.

HTS video

MARTIN SMITH:

Jolani switched his allegiance to bin Laden’s successor, Ayman al-Zawahiri. At one point he even harbored some of Zawahiri’s men suspected of plotting to attack the West.

Jolani denies it. He insisted to me that he always remained focused on fighting Assad.

VOICE ON RADIO:

Mix FM Syria. Mix FM Syria. New music first.

MARTIN SMITH:

That year, 2015, I traveled across Syria’s regime-controlled areas.

This is Latakia, the heartland of Syria’s Alawite community, a small but powerful religious minority aligned with Assad. The Alawites have lost thousands of young men and women fighting Nusra, ISIS and other rebel factions. Their pictures line the streets of the provincial capital.

Nearby, Syria’s rich frolic on Latakia’s Mediterranean beaches. In part, this represents what they are fighting for: a secular way of life, away from Islamist influences.

In Latakia, I met a pro-regime militia commander who invited me to visit his mountaintop village near Latakia’s border with Idlib.

And how close is the front to here?

MUNZER NASR, Militia commander:

[Speaking Arabic] We are almost at the front line. We’re about 30 kilometers away, 25 or 30.

MARTIN SMITH:

Just over these mountains, the men were fighting Jolani’s Nusra army.

And what’s the toll of the war been on this town?

MUNZER NASR:

[Speaking Arabic] I don’t know the exact number, but it’s a big one.

MARTIN SMITH:

At the time, Assad’s popularity and his grip on Syria were slipping. And Nusra was threatening Latakia.

I was taken to lunch, where the militia commander defended Assad and attacked the Nusra rebels killing his men.

Many say that the president is a war criminal and he is conducting a war indiscriminately and killing civilians.

MUNZER NASR:

[Speaking Arabic] What do you expect, for us to say, “Welcome, thugs, welcome armed gangs. Come and take this country and do what you please”? When a group of 400 armed men comes and they take control of everything and they organize themselves in battalions against the government, what should we do? Send boxes of flowers and fruit?

Al-Nusra video

MARTIN SMITH:

Some of Nusra's most well-documented attacks on Syrian minorities took place at this time, despite Jolani’s claims of not pursuing a sectarian war or targeting civilians.

NEWSREADER:

The Nusra Front face accusations of killing civilians indiscriminately.

MALE MOURNER:

[Speaking Arabic] What did we ever do to them? What else can they do to us?

MARTIN SMITH:

It was a tense time in Syria. Mortar attacks, even in downtown Damascus, were becoming routine. This man was hit just outside my hotel. But everything was about to change.

That summer, Iran had sent a top emissary to Russia on behalf of Assad to convince the Russians that the war could turn in Assad’s favor with just a little help.

ABU MOHAMMAD AL-JOLANI:

[Speaking Arabic] Qasem Soleimani himself went to Putin and convinced him to enter Syria. And of course, they had tested the waters to see how America and Europe would react. There was silence. So it was a green light for the Russians to enter Syria.

MARTIN SMITH:

Two months later, in September 2015, Russian forces came to Assad’s rescue.

NEWSREADER:

Russian airstrikes have killed hundreds of civilians and caused massive destruction to residential areas.

JAMES JEFFREY:

The Russians had come in. So we now had Syria running amok and we had a roaring geo-strategic crisis.

NEWSREADER:

Activists say the strikes have intensified since Russia began its air campaign to bolster the Assad regime.

MAN IN STREET:

[Speaking Arabic] Where are the Arab countries? Where is the United Nations? We're being shelled every day! We swear, we don’t know where to go.

MARTIN SMITH:

In retaliation, Jolani began attacking Russian targets in Syria and called for attacks inside Russia.

ANDREW TABLER:

Jabhat al-Nusra has proven quite effective at "poking the bear," so to speak, but it's only led the Russians to come out and indiscriminately bomb in Idlib. Russians dropped tons and tons of munitions on Idlib in response to Jabhat al-Nusra attacks.

MARTIN SMITH:

So they killed a lot of civilians. Indiscriminate bombing is what it is.

ANDREW TABLER:

And most importantly, not only killed them, but displaced them and sent them running for their lives towards the Turkish frontier and creating a refugee crisis.

MARTIN SMITH:

Jolani was being squeezed. In October 2015, Jolani said Alawite villages should be targeted.

Jolani said there was no choice but to escalate the battle and to target Alawite towns and villages in Latakia. Do we know?

JAMES JEFFREY, Ambassador to Turkey, 2008-10:

That's complicated. If those are civilian targets, thus attacking them is terrorist. It also is what national liberation movements and resistance organizations do.

MARTIN SMITH:

We also came across numerous reports of torture in Jolani’s prisons during this period. Yarub al-Dali, a journalist, was held in an al-Nusra prison known as Hell Station.

YARUB AL-DALI:

[Speaking Arabic] When I reached "Hell Station," as they called it, they took us out of the pickup and started beating us brutally. It was like a welcome party. They told us it was a welcome party. There were no charges, they didn’t ask any questions, nothing.

MARTIN SMITH:

Al-Dali spent 40 days there. Many weeks after he returned home, the signs of torture were still visible on his back.

YARUB AL-DALI:

[Speaking Arabic] Unfortunately, even though this was five years ago, even now, every time—I’m sorry, I’m nervous. I relive the same pain. This feeling of helplessness, there’s just nothing you can do.

MARTIN SMITH:

Russia and the regime compared Nusra to ISIS and seized on Nusra’s ties to al-Qaeda.

NEWSREADER:

Russia says its cruise missiles are hitting parts of northern Syria where both ISIS and al-Qaeda-linked groups have a heavy presence.

MARTIN SMITH:

Jolani knew his affiliation with al-Qaeda was a liability.

RANIA ABOUZEID:

He did not want to give Assad that justification to paint all of his opponents as terrorists, as Islamists. They are these al-Qaeda fighters.

BASHAR AL-ASSAD, President of Syria:

You have to clean, you have to keep cleaning this area, and to push the terrorists to go back to where they come from, or to kill them. There is no other option.

MARTIN SMITH:

So in mid-2016, Jolani decided it was time to sever ties with al-Qaeda.

ABU MOHAMMAD AL-JOLANI:

[Speaking Arabic] This new organization has no affiliation with any external entity.

NEWSREADER:

He said it’s to stop the international community using his affiliation with al-Qaeda as a pretext to attack Syrians.

ABU MOHAMMAD AL-JOLANI:

[Speaking Arabic] We strive to serve Muslims, attending to their daily needs.

RANIA ABOUZEID:

Well, al-Qaeda is not exactly a popular brand name, especially if you're trying to run a province. This split from al-Qaeda would save face. It would enable him to establish relations with other political groups and political parties, foreign players. Turkey, for example, which borders Idlib province. So there are all sorts of practical reasons for a split from al-Qaeda.

HTS video

MARTIN SMITH:

Jolani then went to war against al-Qaeda, ISIS and other fellow jihadis.

AARON ZELIN, The Washington Institute:

They started going against other Islamist groups because they felt that they were rivals. They wanted to have a monopoly on violence essentially in the area.

MARTIN SMITH:

Two weeks after my first interview with Jolani, he agreed to sit down again.

You fought against Ahrar al-Sham. You fought against those who stayed with al-Qaeda, Hurras al-Din and ISIS, of course, and even the Free Syrian Army that was backed by the CIA. How much blood and treasure was spilled in that time?

ABU MOHAMMAD AL-JOLANI:

[Speaking Arabic] Each of those is a separate story that would take a long time. But to sum it up, though we tried hard to avoid this confrontation, it was inevitable. So we fought against ISIS. Our security forces captured and imprisoned many of them. They were trying to sabotage the Syrian revolution.

MARTIN SMITH:

So what is it about Jolani do you think that allowed him to be the one that came out on top of all of this?

AARON ZELIN:

He clearly has survival instincts, because it's been a very bloody civil war. 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.

HTS video

ABU MOHAMMAD AL-JOLANI:

[Speaking Arabic] Those who follow God are victorious. The equation is simple.

MARTIN SMITH:

In 2017, Jolani joined a coalition of factions called Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham, or HTS. And Jolani claimed he was going through a major transformation. HTS, he said, was not ISIS.

ABU MOHAMMAD AL-JOLANI:

[Speaking Arabic] We need to take care of matters related to Muslims. Everything we’re building will reach all Muslims, my brothers.

SARA KAYYALI:

I think Jabhat al-Nusra, at the very early stages of its existence, did exhibit practices that were similar to ISIS. But Jabhat al-Nusra has now partially or fully transformed into Hay'at Tahrir al-Sham. Since then, we've seen an attempt to try to put up a sort of civilian front.

ABU MOHAMMAD AL-JOLANI:

[Speaking Arabic] Peace be with you. Everything going well? Your work? Anyone bothering you?

STREET VENDOR:

[Speaking Arabic] Not at all.

SARA KAYYALI:

But we continue to document violations, including arbitrary arrests and mistreatment, that are similar in approach to other parties to the conflict.

MARTIN SMITH:

Today, there is a semblance of normal life here. Jolani has a roster of ministries that make up what is called Syria's Salvation Government, or SSG. They pick up the garbage, supply water and electricity, run the hospitals, the courts and the schools.

ABU MOHAMMAD AL-JOLANI:

[Speaking Arabic] There are more than 400,000 to 500,000 students enrolled in schools. There are fully functioning hospitals in the liberated areas. I don’t claim that the situation in Idlib is ideal. But I'm saying that given the current circumstances which include the blockade, the large number of IDPs, the state of war and the Russian occupation, there’s a self-asserting model that is capable of running the whole area’s affairs according to Islamic rule.

MARTIN SMITH:

Jolani is clear: Society should be organized according to sharia law. He claims to be a man of the people, but he opposes democracy. Women hold no political offices in the Salvation Government, and women's rights are severely restricted.

JAMES JEFFREY, Special Rep. for Syria, 2018-20:

I think that he has a extremist Islamic view of how society should be organized, I would say a Salafist viewpoint, and he's willing to use force to achieve that.

MARTIN SMITH:

What does that mean, Salafist?

JAMES JEFFREY:

What that means is you run society by the sharia and carry that out in the governance of the here and now should rule.

MARTIN SMITH:

He says that he's willing to guarantee rights to minorities, to women, Christians—

JAMES JEFFREY:

That doesn't surprise me that he would say it. It wouldn't surprise me that he actually believes it. The problem is that close to these groups there are people who nurse a true hatred of anybody who isn't like them, and so Christians, Shia, Yazidis, they’re all secular; Muslim Sunnis, they're all apostates. They're all the enemy.

HTS video

ABU MOHAMMAD AL-JOLANI:

[Speaking Arabic] You can live by the law of Islam, or you can live by the law of sin. And this is why, my brothers, each one of us knows his responsibility.

MARTIN SMITH:

You want to impose sharia law on society. What gave you the authority, the legitimacy to call for this?

ABU MOHAMMAD AL-JOLANI:

[Speaking Arabic] We’re calling for what we believe in. No one should object to this, especially since Islamic sharia is filled with justice and with humane solutions for society. It’s based on a just and righteous message.

MARTIN SMITH:

But evidence and allegations persist to this day that Jolani arrests and tortures journalists and pro-democracy activists.

Consider the recent case of Samer Al Salloum. He had complained about HTS corruption on social media. I spoke to his brother Mohammed.

MOHAMED AL SALLOUM:

[Speaking Arabic] Al-Jolani controls most aspects of life. Anyone who speaks a word he doesn’t like is arrested.

HTS video

MOHAMED AL SALLOUM:

[My brother] was taken by members of al-Nusra from our family home. There are no trials, there’s no judiciary, no legal counsel.

MARTIN SMITH:

In 2019, after a little over a year in prison, he was executed.

MOHAMED AL SALLOUM:

During his last moments, Samer asked the prisoners to “tell my family, tell Mohammed, tell my father.” The jailers told them that—the specific sentence they used was, “This pig was killed.”

MARTIN SMITH:

Human rights groups continue to document cases of torture in Jolani’s prisons.

Is it appropriate in your view to torture these prisoners?

ABU MOHAMMAD AL-JOLANI:

[Speaking Arabic] There is no torture. This is completely rejected. Human rights organizations could come and inspect the prisons or take a tour. Our institutions are open to everyone. We have no problem. And if there are any mistakes, we will rectify them.

MARTIN SMITH:

You’re saying Human Rights Watch, Syrian Observatory for Human Rights and other human rights groups have an open invitation, from you, to visit your prisons?

ABU MOHAMMAD AL-JOLANI:

[Speaking Arabic] We do not have prisons. There are prisons under the administration of those authorities that govern the liberated areas. In my opinion, none of the leaders of this administration would object to having their prisons visited.

MARTIN SMITH:

I talked to Jolani and I asked him about the situation with prisons, and I said that perhaps you could have human rights organizations come. And he said, "Yes, they can come, supervise the prisons.” How does that strike you?

SARA KAYYALI:

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. That kind of monitoring is exactly the kind of monitoring that we recommend. It provides protection to detainees. It also helps to provide feedback to detaining authorities about improving practices. If this is a promise that they follow through on, that would be very good.

MARTIN SMITH:

As of this airing, no human rights monitors have been able to visit Idlib’s prisons.

NEWSREADER:

Syrian regime forces have begun a new bombing campaign, and there are fears that a full-scale offensive could be next.

MARTIN SMITH:

In mid-May 2019, the Assad regime, with Russia’s help, began a major campaign to retake Idlib.

NEWSREADER:

The cause for concern is that you’ve got a huge number of civilians in Idlib province that are caught in the middle of this.

MALE SPEAKER 1:

[Speaking Arabic] Come on, Asmaa.

MALE SPEAKER 2:

[Speaking Arabic] Say a prayer.

MALE SPEAKER 1:

[Speaking Arabic] Come on, you are almost out. Come on, come on!

HTS video

MARTIN SMITH:

After nearly a year of heavy fighting, Syria’s neighbor to the north, Turkey, began to fear a new Syrian refugee crisis and intervened.

NEWSREADER:

If you thought the war in Syria was coming to an end, think again. Turkish forces bombarding Syrian government positions—

MARTIN SMITH:

The regime's advance was halted and the front line was frozen.

There’s not much more to destroy here.

HTS COMMANDER:

[Speaking Arabic] There’s a lot of bombing of these areas. They even bombed civilians’ homes.

MARTIN SMITH:

This is Assad militia?

HTS COMMANDER:

[Speaking Arabic] Well, Assad and Russia. They’re the same.

NEWSREADER:

Almost a million people have left their homes, creating what the UN says could be the worst humanitarian crisis since the war began. There are already more than 3 million Syrian and other refugees in Turkey, and hundreds are now—

ANDREW TABLER:

Turkey is trying to keep the Assad regime and its allies from targeting civilians and getting them running for their lives across the Turkish frontier into that country, a scenario they claim they can't handle. And that's a real fear.

MARTIN SMITH:

Jolani is now trying to persuade nations that despite his past, he's worth another look.

What do you make of this charm offensive that he's on now?

RANIA ABOUZEID:

In some ways it has to be done, right? I mean, how to solve the problem of Idlib province? Here is this large Syrian province. It borders Turkey; it is home to millions of Syrians. They have Islamists on the one side, and they have Assad's forces on the other. And they're hemmed in by a Turkish border that is effectively closed to them. So, how to solve this issue? Can Idlib remain this independent island in the middle of Syria and bordered by Turkey? Maybe part of the solution is saying, "Hey, look, guys, we've changed. I've changed. Give us another look."

ABU MOHAMMAD AL-JOLANI:

[Speaking Arabic] We go to camps that NGOs have either neglected or haven’t reached yet. And there are so many camps, of course. Especially the ones that were hard hit by the heavy rains last week. We were able to deliver aid to over 7,300 families.

MARTIN SMITH:

When I visited, a Salvation Government crew had recently repaved a washed-out road with gravel.

ABU MOHAMMAD AL-JOLANI:

[Speaking Arabic] This was all mud here. People couldn’t even walk without getting stuck. So this is just one example out of thousands of examples.

MARTIN SMITH:

Today Jolani rules a population of over 3 million people. Over one-third live in makeshift camps, enduring freezing rains, floods, disease and hunger. They rely on insufficient humanitarian aid for food, water and clothing.

Last month in Washington, there were high-level discussions about Jolani.

ABU MOHAMMAD AL-JOLANI:

[Speaking Arabic] And did you receive the fuel for heating?

MALE SPEAKER:

[Speaking Arabic] Yes. May God reward you.

MARTIN SMITH:

During the Trump years, Jolani reached out to Ambassador Jeffrey through intermediaries.

Were you receiving messages from HTS?

JAMES JEFFREY:

Yes.

MARTIN SMITH:

What were those messages?

JAMES JEFFREY:

Basically, "We want to be your friend. We're not terrorists. We're just fighting Assad."

MARTIN SMITH:

What do you do in response to that?

JAMES JEFFREY:

Nothing.

MARTIN SMITH:

You don't bring it up? You don't go to the secretary and say, "They're calling us"?

JAMES JEFFREY:

Why should I take the high-risk position of urging somebody get dropped from the terrorist list?

MARTIN SMITH:

We repeatedly asked the Biden administration for comment, but they declined. A stated policy has not yet been issued on Idlib, HTS and what to do about Jolani.

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