The real name of Abu Mohammed al-Jolani is Ahmed Hussein al-Shara. He was originally from the Golan Heights but lived in Damascus. His family ran a supermarket and was often isolated. A former employee at the supermarket said that “Shara was always lonely and depressed. He did not seem cultured or into politics.”
During the 2003 Iraq War, Jolani went to Iraq where he joined Al Qaeda (AQ). He was closely associated with Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, a Jordanian born terrorist notorious for carrying out beheadings on film and posting them online. Even AQ admonished al-Zarqawi for these tactics. When he was killed in 2006 by an air strike, Jolani left Iraq.
Jolani was then in Lebanon where he continued to work for Al Qaeda. He provided logistical support to an AQ-guided group called Jund Al Sham.
In 2008, he worked for AQ in Iraq under Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi who would go on to split from AQ and form Daesh. So close was the relationship with al-Baghdadi that Jolani headed up AQ operations in Mosul.
In 2011, al-Baghdadi sent Jolani to Syria to try and exploit the opening created by the Syrian revolution. Both men hoped they could create a strong branch of AQ in the country. Jolani announced the formation of the Nusra Front in January 2012 with money and arms from al-Baghdadi.
Jolani denied claims by al-Baghdadi in April 2013 that Nusra had been merged into the newly created Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL). To retain his independence in Syria, Jolani pledged an oath of allegiance directly to the head of AQ, Ayman al-Zawahiri.
On 28 July 2016, Jolani declared that the Nusra Front had split from AQ just hours after Zawahiri purportedly released an audio statement giving permission for Nusra to make this move. Jolani’s declaration heaped praise on AQ: “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.”
Nusra was to be re-branded as Jabhat Fateh al-Sham (JFS). Despite saying he had broken off links with AQ, nowhere in his declaration did Jolani renounce his oath of allegiance to Zawahiri, and senior AQ figures were visibly involved in the rebranding.
Under Jolani, JFS set out to dominate the rebel forces in Aleppo resisting Assad forces. But this was done very much on Jolani’s terms. JFS blocked much needed aid and evacuation efforts, for example, because it would have meant suspending the siege of two villages in Idlib province, Fua and Kefraya.
The result of this was that wounded civilians could not get treatment and much needed medicine and disinfectant was blocked. The strategic and tactical requirements of JFS always appeared to trump the needs of ordinary Syrians.
To further dilute its connection to AQ, JFS formed a coalition with other groups called Hayy’at Tahrir al-Sham (HTS) in January 2017. In the following months, they seized control of much of Idlib province in Syria. However, local populations repeatedly demonstrated against the removal of democratic rights they had fought hard to win. They were not prepared to replace Assad with an AQ backed authoritarian regime. HTS often responded with violence to protests.
In late 2017, faced with growing local unrest and opposition forces closing in, Jolani took full control of HTS largely ditching the pretence of running a coalition. Immediately, he had to face the desertion of groups within HTS and growing intrigue within the organisation. And given the unravelling events in Idlib in northern Syria, it is unclear how long Joulani will be able to sustain his current role.