The layers of fiction surrounding Al Nusra chief Abu Mohammed Al Jolani

The commander of Syria's Al Qaeda affiliate is among the most central players in the Syrian conflict, yet few know his face or true identity. Phil Sands and Suha Maayeh report

Members of Islamist Syrian rebel group Jabhat Al Nusra carry their weapons as they move through a hole in a wall near Aleppo international airport on January 28. Ammar Abdullah/Reuters
Powered by automated translation

Beirut // For a moment last week Abu Mohammed Al Jolani, the commander of Jabhat Al Nusra, seemed finally to be defeated.

The leader of Al Qaeda in Syria, and one of the most influential figures in the conflict, was said to have been kidnapped by gunmen and finally in the hands of his numerous enemies.

The rumours were quickly quashed, however, with Al Jolani releasing a statement threatening to start a war against the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), an Al Qaeda splinter group and the very faction that dispatched him to Syria in the first place.

Believed abducted one minute, issuing ultimatums the next — all in a day’s work for Al Jolani.

It was not the first time that the secretive commander had apparently returned from the netherworld. On at least two previous occasions he was reported dead, only to emerge unscathed.

Although among the most central players in the Syrian conflict, and a household name across the Middle East, remarkably little is known about him. He is a ghost whose nom de guerre evokes fear or admiration.

His real identity remains hidden, a remarkable achievement in a world of social media, telephone cameras, pervasive internet spying and government-sponsored leaks.

In the absence of fact, speculation has flourished, some of it vaguely credible, some openly fantastical, including the suggestion he is none other than Osama bin Laden.

Another theory has Al Jolani as a CIA operative, a deep cover agent sent to infiltrate Al Qaeda and break it apart.

Proponents of this theory can point to unconfirmed suggestions that Al Jolani was captured by US forces in Iraq and detained in Camp Bucca, giving the Americans an opportunity to indoctrinate him and unleash him as a double agent.

Al Jolani may also have been detained by Syrian military intelligence in 2008 along with other veterans of the Iraq war, as the regime picked up returning militants, worried they posed a risk. Some were killed, some disappeared, others remained alive but jailed. The Al Nusra leader might even have been in detention when the Syria uprising began, then freed along with other Islamic prisoners.

These claims feed into the insistence of Syria’s mainstream opposition that Al Jolani is actually a project of president Bashar Al Assad’s mukhabarat, sent to subvert a peaceful, moderate uprising and turn it into a sectarian civil war, just as he had previously been sent by the regime to sow chaos in Baghdad.

Facts are thin though, despite a headline-making Al Jazeera interview — his face was hidden throughout and no new biographical details offered.

Iraqi security officials leaked a file on Mr Al Jolani to the Associated Press in December, including a photograph, but elements seemed highly dubious, including letters far too poorly composed to have been written by a man known as a scholar.

However, there seems to be a broad consensus among experts and online forums devoted to Islamic militancy that Al Jolani is Syrian — his name a reference to the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights- and was an Arabic teacher, leaving his home to fight in Iraq after the 2003 US-led invasion.

There, he rose through the ranks of Al Qaeda, as part of ISIL, its local affiliate.

In 2011, with the outbreak of the uprising in Syria, he was dispatched back to the country of his birth by the ISIL leader Abu Bakr Al Baghdadi, with a group of men, money, weapons and instructions to form what became known as Jabhat Al Nusra Li Ahl Al Sham — The Support Front for the People of the Levant.

The faith his superiors put in his talent was rewarded; Al Jolani rapidly built an effective fighting force and orchestrated a series of attacks involving suicide bombings, and an audacious September 2012 assault by a small squad on Syria’s army headquarters, in the very heart of a highly defended part of Damascus.

As Al Nusra’s renown spread so did Al Jolani’s. And yet he remains almost demurely in the shadows, eschewing the Rambo-like self-promotion that some others drawn from Iraq’s Al Qaeda factions indulge in.

“He greeted the men and stayed for 10 minutes, his face wasn’t covered. He came to prove to everyone that he was real because some had been spreading rumours that we had pledged allegiance to someone who didn’t exist,” said a young fighter who saw Al Jolani in Deraa province late last year.

“He is in his 30s and the ones who know him say he is a simple man,” the fighter said.

That humble simplicity when dealing with the rank-and-file is matched with a sharp mind that has enabled him to create a highly disciplined, tight-knit core group that is unshakeably loyal, analysts say.

“In many respects, this has ensured Jabhat Al Nusra’s long-term viability,” said Charles Lister, an expert in Syria’s insurgent groups at the Brookings Doha Centre.

Al Jolani also has an astute sense of Syrian society and politics, skilfully weaving his organisation into its fabric. While ISIL’s attempts to dominate has created enemies everywhere, Al Nusra has won friends — or grudging acceptance — and allies, opening itself to dialogue, compromise and cooperation with other factions, and, ostensibly at least, respecting local cultural mores.

“He’s displayed remarkable pragmatism — somehow maintaining ultimate allegiance to Al Qaeda’s transnational jihadist ideology while acquiring widespread popular support and/or acceptance within Syrian anti-government society,” Mr Lister said.

At the heart of the war for Syria, Al Jolani also stands at the centre of a struggle over Al Qaeda and the extreme fringe of Islamic radicalism, apparently seeking to pull it back from the maniacal truculence that took hold during the Iraq war, as embodied by ISIL, and to return to the more clinical and exacting methodology of conflict once associated with Osama bin Laden.

"The ISIL feud might be affecting Nusra and even the larger Al Qaeda movement in interesting ways. Even if it wasn't a very ideological split at first, they're really entrenching themselves in different positions now: ISIL is picking up all the exclusionary hardliners, Nusra is left with the people arguing for pragmatism and winning hearts and minds and striking roots for the long run," said Aron Lund, editor of the Carnegie Endowment's Syria in Crisis website.

“I’m not sure what to make of Jolani, he’s so faceless,” Mr Lund said. “The most remarkable thing is that ISIL hasn’t leaked his identity”.

If the dispute between ISIL and Al Nusra gets any worse, Al Jolani’s former allies may decide the time has come to lift that veil of secrecy.

*Suha Maayeh reported from Amman