Born as Ahmed Hussein al-Shara, Abu Muhammad al-Golani serves as the overall commander of the formerly al-Qaeda-linked al-Nusra Front, also known as Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS) in Syria.Thomas Joscelyn, “State Department amends terror designation for Al Nusrah Front,” Long War Journal, Mary 31, 2018, https://www.longwarjournal.org/archives/2018/05/state-department-amends-terror-designation-for-al-nusrah-front.php; Hamzah Almustafa and Hossam Jazmati, “Syria war: Inside the world of HTS leader Abu Mohammad al-Jolani,” Middle East Eye, June 22, 2021, https://www.middleeasteye.net/big-story/syria-war-hts-leader-jolani-inside-world. Golani has headed al-Nusra Front since its formation in January 2012 as the Syrian branch of al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI).AFP, “Unknown Islamist Group Claims Suicide Attacks in Syria,” Al Arabiya News, February 29, 2012, http://english.alarabiya.net/articles/2012/02/29/197781.html. After the group merged with other jihadist groups in January 2017 to form HTS, Golani assumed the role of HTS’s military commander.“Tahrir al-Sham: Al-Qaeda's latest incarnation in Syria,” BBC, February 28, 2017, https://www.bbc.com/news/world-middle-east-38934206. In October 2017, he assumed the role as the group’s overall leader.“الجولاني قائداً مؤقتاً لهيئة "تحرير الشام".. وهذا مصير قائدها السابق”, Huffington Post Arabic, October 2, 2017, http://www.huffpostarabi.com/2017/10/02/story_n_18159996.html; “Weekly Conflict Summary
Golani and HTS have denied any affiliation with al-Qaeda since al-Nusra Front severed its relationship with the terror network in 2016. In February 2018, a group of HTS defectors merged into an unofficial al-Qaeda affiliate called Hurras al-Deen, or Guardians of the Religion.Tore Refslund Hamming and Pieter Van Ostaeyen, “The True Story of al-Qaeda’s Demise and Resurgence in Syria,” Lawfareblog, April 8, 2018, https://lawfareblog.com/true-story-al-qaedas-demise-and-resurgence-syria. While some Syria analysts argue that this proves that HTS and al-Nusra Front are no longer al-Qaeda affiliates, the U.S. government maintains that the groups are linked. On May 31, 2018, the State Department amended its classifications of HTS to include it as “an official alias” of al-Nusra Front, which the State Department maintains is still “an al-Qaeda affiliate.”Thomas Joscelyn, “State Department amends terror designation for Al Nusrah Front,” Long War Journal, Mary 31, 2018, https://www.longwarjournal.org/archives/2018/05/state-department-amends-terror-designation-for-al-nusrah-front.php.
Following al-Nusra’s separation from al-Qaeda, the group began striving to win public support. Golani began making more public appearances and revealing previously secretive information about himself. In June 2020, Golani publicly revealed his real name to be Ahmed Al-Sharaa. His family came from the town of Fiq in the Syrian Golan Heights, where his father, Hussein Ali Al-Sharaa, was an economist. His family reportedly fled the Golan after Israel captured the territory in the 1967 Six Day War. According to Golani, he enrolled at the Faculty of Media at Damascus University but left in 2003 to join the anti-U.S. insurgency in Iraq.“Jihadist HTS, former Al-Qaeda affiliate, seeks ‘moderate rebrand’ to secure seat in Syria’s political process,” New Arab, June 4, 2020, https://www.newarab.com/news/hts-seeks-moderate-rebrand-secure-seat-negotiations.
Previously, much of what was known about Golani was based on information released by senior Iraqi military intelligence officials on the condition of anonymity. According to the officials, Golani was a teacher of classical Arabic. During the 2003 Iraq War, Golani fought American troops and rose quickly through the ranks of al-Qaeda. In 2006, Golani left Iraq after AQI’s leader, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, was killed in a U.S. airstrike. He stayed briefly in Lebanon, where he provided logistical support to the al-Qaeda-inspired group Jund Al Sham before returning to Iraq, where he was arrested by U.S. military and imprisoned in Camp Bucca, an American-run prison camp along the Iraq-Kuwait border. Zeina Karam and Qassim Abdul-Zahra, “Elusive Al-Qaida leader in Syria stays in shadows,” Associated Press, November 4, 2013, http://bigstory.ap.org/article/elusive-al-qaida-leader-syria-stays-shadows. Bucca held 100,000 suspected Jihadists between 2003 and 2009, including nine men who would go on to earn top positions within ISIS’s command.Terrance McCoy, “Camp Bucca: The US prison that became the birthplace of Isis,” Independent (London), November 4, 2014, http://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/middle-east/camp-bucca-the-us-prison-that-became-the-birthplace-of-isis-9838905.html#gallery.
In 2008, after Golani was released from Camp Bucca, he continued to work for al-Qaeda alongside AQI leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, and was appointed head of al-Qaeda operations in Mosul province. Zeina Karam and Qassim Abdul-Zahra, “Elusive Al-Qaida leader in Syria stays in shadows,” Associated Press, November 4, 2013, http://bigstory.ap.org/article/elusive-al-qaida-leader-syria-stays-shadows. In 2011, Baghdadi sent Golani to Syria to take advantage of the power vacuum created by the Syrian civil war and establish a stronghold for AQI. Thomas Joscelyn, “Al Qaeda in Iraq, Al Nusrah Front Emerge as Rebranded Single Entity,” Long War Journal, April 9, 2013,http://www.longwarjournal.org/archives/2013/04/the_emir_of_al_qaeda.php#ixzz3Mw15S2jb. Al-Nusra Front announced its formation in January 2012 as the Syrian branch of al-Qaeda in Iraq.AFP, “Unknown Islamist Group Claims Suicide Attacks in Syria,” Al Arabiya News, February 29, 2012, http://english.alarabiya.net/articles/2012/02/29/197781.html.
In December 2013, Al Jazeera released a video interview with Golani, whose face was not visible during the interview. “Head of Qaeda's Syria branch says does not seek rule in first TV appearance,” Reuters, December 18, 2013, http://www.reuters.com/article/2013/12/18/us-syria-crisis-qaeda-idUSBRE9BH17820131218. In July 2016, however, Golani released a video to declare al-Nusra Front’s formal split from al-Qaeda, hours after al-Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri released an audio statement giving al-Nusra Front permission to split. During Golani’s announcement, Golani emphasized his affinity for al-Qaeda’s leadership, saying, “We thank [al-Qaeda for their] proper assessment of the general benefits [of] the Jihad. Their noble stance will be recorded in the annals of history. Their blessed leadership has, and shall continue to be, an exemplar of putting the needs of the community and their higher interests before the interest of any individual group. They have practically implemented the words of Sheikh Osama bin Laden (may Allah have mercy on him).”Orient News, “Nusra Front, Abu Mohammed Joulani commander officially announced the disengagement from al-Qaeda and the establishment of a new entity,” YouTube video, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=oossAtDYbrs.
In January 2017, Golani and al-Nusra Front announced that they would merge with three other major rebel factions in Syria to form Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS, or the Organization for the Liberation of Syria).Syria Islamist factions, including former al Qaeda branch, join forces: statement,” Reuters, January 28, 2017, http://www.reuters.com/article/us-mideast-crisis-syria-rebels-idUSKBN15C0MV; Suleiman Al-Khalidi, “New Syrian jihadist alliance vows to step up attacks against army,” Reuters, February 9, 2017, http://www.reuters.com/article/us-mideast-crisis-syria-jihadists-idUSKBN15O2IV. Golani served as the military commander of HTS while Hashem al-Sheikh served as the overall commander until he stepped down in October 2017.“الجولاني قائداً مؤقتاً لهيئة "تحرير الشام".. وهذا مصير قائدها السابق”, Huffington Post Arabic, October 2, 2017, http://www.huffpostarabi.com/2017/10/02/story_n_18159996.html; “Weekly Conflict Summary September 28 – October 4, 2017,” Carter Center, October 4, 2017, https://www.cartercenter.org/resources/pdfs/peace/conflict_resolution/syria-conflict/weekly-conflict-summary-2017.09.28-10.04.pdf. Golani has served as the overall commander of HTS since. On May 31, 2018, the United States amended its terror designation of al-Nusra Front to include HTS as an official alias.Thomas Joscelyn, “State Department amends terror designation for Al Nusrah Front,” Long War Journal, Mary 31, 2018, https://www.longwarjournal.org/archives/2018/05/state-department-amends-terror-designation-for-al-nusrah-front.php.
In February 2021, Golani granted an interview to American journalist Martin Smith in Idlib. It was Golani’s first interview with a Western journalist.Priyanka Boghani, “Syrian Militant and Former Al Qaeda Leader Seeks Wider Acceptance in First Interview With U.S. Journalist,” Frontline, April 2, 2021, https://www.pbs.org/wgbh/frontline/article/abu-mohammad-al-jolani-interview-hayat-tahrir-al-sham-syria-al-qaeda/. The interview sparked controversy among the Syrian opposition and activists because Golani wore a button-down shirt and a sportscoat instead of his traditional shami sirwel and turban. Nor was he carrying his rifle.Sultan al-Kanj, “HTS leader shocks popular base after interview with Western journalist,” Al-Monitor, February 5, 2021, https://www.al-monitor.com/originals/2021/02/syria-hts-leader-picture-suit-western-media-opposition.html. During the interview, Golani told Smith HTS’s interests aligned with those of the United States and the West. Golani said the region does not represent a “staging ground for executing foreign jihad” and does not present a threat to European or American security.https://www.pbs.org/wgbh/frontline/article/abu-mohammad-al-jolani-interview-hayat-tahrir-al-sham-syria-al-qaeda/. Every country maintains a list of so-called terrorists that country believes are acting against it, Golani said. He argued that the “practical definition of terrorism” is killing innocent people and attacking people’s property, which is what the Assad regime continues to do and thus the Assad government is more deserving of the label. He also reaffirmed HTS’s affiliation with al-Qaeda has ended and decried his own continued designation as a terrorist as “unfair.”Priyanka Boghani, “Syrian Militant and Former Al Qaeda Leader Seeks Wider Acceptance in First Interview With U.S. Journalist,” Frontline, April 2, 2021, https://www.pbs.org/wgbh/frontline/article/abu-mohammad-al-jolani-interview-hayat-tahrir-al-sham-syria-al-qaeda/. According to Golani, HTS’s “key message” is the people wanted to change a ruler and the ruler wanted to change a people—and changing a ruler is a lot easier than changing a people.Priyanka Boghani, “Syrian Militant and Former Al Qaeda Leader Seeks Wider Acceptance in First Interview With U.S. Journalist,” Frontline, April 2, 2021, https://www.pbs.org/wgbh/frontline/article/abu-mohammad-al-jolani-interview-hayat-tahrir-al-sham-syria-al-qaeda/.
On May 17, 2021, a video circulated online showing Golani meeting with several tribal elders in Syria’s northwestern province of Idlib. Golani told the tribal leaders that HTS is preparing to be an alternative to the Syrian regime. He added that rebuilding is more difficult than war and that HTS wants to solidify ties with the tribes because it depends on them to restore what the Syrian government has destroyed.Mohammed Hardan, “HTS finesses tribes in Syria’s Idlib,” Al-Monitor, May 26, 2021, https://www.al-monitor.com/originals/2021/05/hts-finesses-tribes-syrias-idlib. In February 2023, France 24 reporter Wassim Nasr toured HTS-controlled Idlib to report on the group’s continuing quest for international legitimacy. He was escorted by HTS. During his visit, he met with Golani in what was the Syrian leader’s third-only interview with foreign media, though Nasr was not permitted to bring any other means of communication into the interview.Wassim Nasr, “Reporter’s notebook: Idlib, the last Islamist rebel bastion in Syria,” France 24, May 11, 2023, https://www.france24.com/en/middle-east/20230511-reporters-notebook-idlib-the-last-islamist-rebel-bastion-in-syria.
- Extremist entity
- Al-Nusra Front (Hayat Tahrir al-Sham)
- Type(s) of Organization:
- Insurgent, non-state actor, terrorist, transnational, violent
- Ideologies and Affiliations:
- Al-Qaeda affiliated group, Islamist, jihadist, Qutbist, Salafist, Sunni
- Leader, overall leader of HTS coalition
Al-Nusra Front is an internationally sanctioned terrorist group, one of the strongest insurgent groups in Syria, and a formerly open al-Qaeda affiliate that seeks to replace the Assad regime in Syria with an Islamic state. Operating as part of the Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS) coalition since January 2017, al-Nusra Front stands accused of serving as a base for global al-Qaeda operations.
The U.S. Department of the Treasury designated Abu Muhammad al-Jawlani as a Specially Designated Global Terrorist under Executive Order 13224 on May 16, 2013. “Syria Designations; Syria Designations Removals; Counter Terrorism Designations; Iran Sanctions Designations and Identifications,” U.S. Department of the Treasury, May 16, 2013, http://www.treasury.gov/resource-center/sanctions/OFAC-Enforcement/Pages/20130516.aspx.
The U.N. added Abu Mohammed al-Jawlani to its Al-Qaida Sanctions List of individuals and entities subject to an assets freeze, travel ban and arms embargo. “Security Council Al-Qaida Sanctions Committee Adds Abu Mohammed al-Jawlani to Its Sanctions List, Amends Four Entries,” United Nations, July 24, 2013, http://www.un.org/press/en/2013/sc11077.doc.htm.
Extremists: Their Words. Their Actions.
On October 27, 2018, domestic terrorist Robert D. Bowers carried out an anti-Semitic attack at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh. He fired on congregants as they gathered for worship, killing 11 people and wounding six others.