Before he became head of an al-Qaeda-linked group that is one of the most feared bands of radicals fighting the Syrian government, he was a teacher of classical Arabic who fought American troops in Iraq and quickly rose through the ranks of the global terrorist network.
Little else is known about Abu Mohammad Golani, the man who leads the Nusra Front – including where he is now or even if he is still alive.
“His identity is really a bit of a mystery,” said Charles Lister, analyst at IHS Jane’s Terrorism and Insurgency Center.
Syrian state media said last week that Golani, known as the emir of the Nusra Front, was killed in fighting in a coastal stronghold of Syrian President Bashar Assad’s government. But militants deny that, describing the report as propaganda.
Golani is so mysterious that no one can say with certainty what his real name is. Golani is a nom de guerre, indicating he was born in the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights.
A native of Syria, he joined the insurgency after moving to Iraq, regional intelligence officials say.
There, he advanced through Al-Qaeda’s ranks and eventually returned to Syria shortly after the Syrian crisis began in March 2011.
Lister, who follows Syria’s militant brigades, said he is skeptical about reports of Golani’s death. If true, they would have stirred up considerable chatter on terrorist forums and social media platforms, he said.
Terrorist leaders in Syria agree.
“We haven’t seen anything unusual among the ranks of Nusra fighters that suggest their leader has been killed,” Islam Alloush, the spokesman for the Army of Islam militant umbrella group, told the Associated Press.
Iraqi, Jordanian and Lebanese security officials describe the 39-year-old Golani as one of al-Qaeda’s top leaders.
According to two senior Iraqi military intelligence officials, he was once a teacher of Arabic before moving to Iraq, where he turned to militancy and eventually became a close associate of Abu Musaab Zarqawi, the Jordanian-born leader of the al-Qaeda in Iraq.
After Zarqawi was killed by a US airstrike in 2006, Golani left Iraq, briefly staying in Lebanon, where he offered logistical support for the Jund al-Sham terrorist group, which follows al-Qaeda’s extremist ideology, the officials said.
He returned to Iraq to continue fighting but was arrested by the US military and held at Camp Bucca, a sprawling prison on Iraq’s southern border with Kuwait. At that camp, where the US military held tens of thousands of suspected militants, he taught classical Arabic to other prisoners, according to the officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity because they were revealing information from secret files.
After his release from prison in 2008, Golani resumed his militant work, this time alongside Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the head of al-Qaeda in Iraq – also known as the Islamic State of Iraq. He was soon appointed head of al-Qaeda operations in Mosul province.
Shortly after the Syrian unrest began, Golani moved into Syrian territory and, fully supported by Baghdadi, formed the Nusra Front, which was first announced in January 2012.
A leader of Jordan’s ultra-Orthodox and banned Salafi movement said Baghdadi sent Golani and Abu Jleibeen, a senior al-Qaeda operative who has a relationship by marriage to Zarqawi, to fight in Syria, where Golani was named “general emir” of Nusra and Abu Jleibeen an emir of the southern Deraa province, birthplace of the Syrian uprising. He spoke on condition of anonymity, fearing police retribution.
Under Golani’s leadership, Nusra has grown into one of the most powerful terrorist groups, with an estimated force of 6,000 to 7,000 militants across Syria.
The US State Department, which placed Nusra on its list of terrorist groups in December 2012, said it had claimed nearly 600 attacks, including suicide attacks, small-arms operations and bombings in major cities.
“Through these attacks, Nusra has sought to portray itself as part of the legitimate Syrian opposition while it is, in fact, an attempt by al-Qaeda in Iraq to hijack the struggles of the Syrian people for its own malign purposes,” the department said.
Golani gained prominence in April, when he rejected an attempted takeover of Nusra by Baghdadi, revealing a widening rift within al-Qaeda’s global network. Golani distanced himself from claims that the two groups had merged into a group called the Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria (ISIS), as announced by Baghdadi.
Instead, he pledged allegiance directly to al-Qaeda’s leader, Ayman Zawahri, who was said to be against Baghdadi’s bid to merge both groups, and said his group would continue to use the Nusra Front as its name.
In a recording, the soft-spoken man vowed that allegiance to Zawahri would not change the group’s behavior inside Syria.
“We say to our people in Syria that Nusra Front will continue to defend your religion, your dignity and blood and will not change its behavior toward you or other fighter groups,” he said.
Golani himself was listed by the State Department as a “specially designated global terrorist” in May.
In another recording, he said his ultimate goal was the overthrow of Assad and the institution of Shariah throughout the country.
Despite some friction with members of the so-called Free Syrian Army militant umbrella group, the two sides often work together against the government troops in rebel-held areas. The ISIS and Nusra, which are largely made up of foreign militants, have been criticized for their brutality and for trying to impose a strict version of extremist ideology in areas under their control.
Rebels acknowledge knowing close to nothing about Golani. The Nusra Front, like al-Qaeda in Iraq, obscures the real identity of its senior leaders.
A Jordanian security official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said only the top echelon in al-Qaeda know Golani’s real name, but he’s commonly known to them as “Al-Sheikh Al-Fateh,” the Conqueror Sheikh.
An Internet search for Golani’s picture turns up just one, an image of a young, bearded man in black fatigues.
“It’s difficult to know anything,” Alloush said. “He doesn’t come out in the open.”
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