Beirut: Abu Mohammad Al Golani, commander of Al Nusra Front, will make a public statement later today announcing his departure from Al Qaida. His new group will be named Jabhat Fateh Al Sham (Sham Liberation Front).
By doing so the group hopes to evade a new cooperation pact between the US and Russia, aimed at annihilating Al Qaida operatives on the Syrian battlefield.
Originally founded by four Salafi militants back in January 2012, it emerged as one of the strongest forces in the war.
Moscow insists that it is a terrorist organisation, no different from Daesh.
Its members were inspired by the teachings of Osama Bin Laden’s former right-hand-man, Abu Musab Al Souri. Many had read his works and attended his sermons, either in Pakistan or Afghanistan. The name of the group was actually inspired by Abu Musab’s seminal work, The Global Call for Islamic Resistance.
After the US occupation of Iraq, Al Golani took up arms with the so-called Sunni insurgency, meeting his future friend, Abu Bakr Al Baghdadi. They later became colleagues in Al Qaida.
The relationship between Al Golani and Al Baghdadi remained warm during the first few months of the Syria War. When Al Golani formed Al Nusra Front in 2012, Al Baghdadi complained, viewing it a “soft defection”.
He considered Al Golani to be both his creation and protégé. They met in a small village near the Syrian-Iraqi border in late December 2011. It was to prove their last meeting until November 2014. “What is this Jabhat Al Nusra?” snapped Al Baghdadi. Clearly, he had not been consulted on its formation. “This front [Jabhat Al Nusra] cannot live on its own. It doesn’t have the means of survival. [President Bashar Al] Assad and the Shiites will crush it. Stay with me; together we can bring down this axis [Al Assad-Iran).”
Al Baghdadi was jealous — Jabhat Al Nusra should have been his idea. He was older, more experienced, and because his country, Iraq, was larger and richer, he had more money than Al Golani.
Al Baghdadi also considered his Islamic credentials far superior to those of Al Golani.
Al Baghdadi wanted to either hijack Al Golani’s group, or destroy it altogether. It was no use, however, as Al Golani had already made up his mind.
Like so many Islamists in Syria, he did not wish to remain subordinate to an Iraqi commander, arguing that the Syrian war was not Al Baghdadi’s to wage.
If the Syrian revolt failed, Al Baghdadi would easily pack up and return home, or head elsewhere to continue his journey in international jihad.
Al Golani’s goals were limited to the Levant and not the global stage.
Al Golani wanted to establish an Islamic state in Greater Syria, with Damascus or Aleppo as its capital.
Al Baghdadi, he claimed, was more interested in Iraq and parts of Deir Al Zor.
A few months later Al Baghdadi announced the formation of Daesh.
It was a direct response to the creation of Al Nusra Front.
Shortly after creating Al Nusra, just months after Bin Laden’s death in May 2011, Al Golani pledged loyalty to Al Qaida’s leader, Ayman Al Zawahiri — an alliance that expires today, on July 25, 2016.
By February-March 2012, Al Nusra Front made up roughly one per cent of the rebel community in Syria.
The proportion grew to three per cent in August, and reached an impressive 7-9.5 per cent (6,000-10,000 fighters) by November 2012.
Their breakdown was 2,000 troops in Al Bab (northeast of Aleppo), 3,000 in the Idlib countryside west of Aleppo, 2,000 in Deir Al Zor (eastern Syria), and 750-1,000 in the Damascus countryside.
According to Al Nusra’s own account, it currently stands at 60,000 fighters, although this number is impossible to verify and sounds greatly inflated. According to the global policy think-tank RAND, they stood at no more than 5,000-6,000 in 2014. The Economist says that their peak was 7,000 troops in 2013.
Al Golani’s nom de guerre implies that he hails from a small village in the occupied Golan Heights. His mother was from the Golan region, but Al Golani himself is actually a native of oil-rich Deir Al Zor in eastern Syria, and was born in Al Shuheil, a small village famed for its agricultural produce, in 1979.
His associates refer to him as ‘Al Shaikh Al Fateh’, or ‘The Conqueror Shaikh’.
Al Golani studied at state-run schools in Deir Al Zor, joining Baath Party cadets during summer camps at school, where he first learnt to use a firearm.
Al Golani studied medicine at Damascus University but dropped out in 2005. He was recruited into Al Qaida by a middle-aged Syrian named Abu Hamzah, who provided him with a fake Yemeni passport through which he entered Iraq to take up arms against the US Army.
Al Golani returned to Syria in the autumn of 2006, after a brief stopover in northern Lebanon, where he lived in Tripoli on fake ID papers. He spent 10 months in Syria, working part-time in a printing press in the town of Al Mleihah in the Al Ghouta orchards on the outskirts of Damascus, to make a living.
He returned to Iraq in early 2007, where he was briefly arrested by the Americans and held at Camp Bucca on the Iraqi-Kuwaiti border.
US prison authorities mistook him for an Iraqi Kurd from Mosul.
The Americans released him in 2008 and he stayed in Iraq using the very same ID papers, working closely with Al Baghdadi.
This period in Iraq is when he trained in guerrilla warfare, but he never took part in any real combat.
Al Baghdadi appointed him director of Al Qaida operations in Mosul. It was a civilian job that required strong administrative skills, rather than a sound military record.