Tuesday,18 September, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1307, (11- 17 August 2016)
Tuesday,18 September, 2018
Issue 1307, (11- 17 August 2016)

Ahram Weekly

A jihadi unmasked

Bassel Oudat reports from Damascus on the unravelling of the mystery surrounding the identity of the leader of the Fateh Al-Sham Front

Al-Ahram Weekly

Al-Ahram Weekly has obtained exclusive information on the background of the leader of Al-Qaeda’s branch in Syria, the Fateh Al-Sham Front.

In January 2012, the date of the release of his first public statement, the identity of Abu Mohamed Al-Golani, the leader of what was then known as the Nusra Front, has been the subject of speculation. Two years ago reports appeared in the media, citing security sources, claiming Abu Mohamed Al-Golani was born Osama Al-Abbasi Al-Wahidi in Deir Al-Zor in eastern Syrian. In December 2013, Al-Jazeera interviewed Al-Golani. He gave another interview in May 2015. In neither meeting with journalists did he reveal information about his identity.

The Weekly has learned that for four years Al-Golani regularly met with leaders of other armed groups, always with his face covered. It was only on 28 July that Al-Golani appeared on television for the first time without a mask. He was quickly recognised, and turned out not to be Al-Wahidi.

Al-Golani is in fact Ahmed Hussein Al-Sharaa. He was misidentified as Osama Al-Abbasi Al-Wahidi because that was the name of the fake identity card he was carrying when arrested by the Americans in Iraq in 2008. Al-Sharaa was born in Damascus in 1981 and grew up there, though his family is originally from the governorate of Deraa in southern Syria.

Al-Golani, the son of an ordinary, middle-class family that lived in the Al-Mazza area of Damascus, showed little interest in religion as he was growing up.

“His father is an economist,” one of his neighbours told the Weekly. “He worked in more than one Arab country as a teacher then returned to Syria and took an administrative position with the cabinet. He decided to leave the public sector and open a mini-market about 100 metres from his home so his sons could work with him. Later he opened a small real estate office. More than a year ago the family left Syria. The authorities confiscated all their property though at the time no one knew why.”

This last detail suggests that the Syrian regime was aware of Al-Golani’s true identity all along.

“Religion was the last of his concerns,” a former schoolmate told the Weekly. “He was more interested in flirting with girls than studying religion. His female relatives aren’t veiled. He was an average student, nothing exceptional. He used to skip secondary school if he could to spend time having fun with his friends. He wasn’t a leader. He didn’t have a jihadi bent. He loved life and enjoyed it.”

Al-Sharaa registered as a student at Damascus University but did not show up for classes. It is alleged he secretly went to Aleppo to attend lessons by preacher Mahmoud Ghul Aghasi (Abul-Qaaqaa), a man accused of recruiting jihadis for Iraq. Aghasi was assassinated in 2007, probably by Syrian intelligence.

The 20-something youth decided to head to Iraq to fight the Americans. The decision, according to one of his neighbours, was “a shock to his family, friends, and neighbours”.

“His father tried to deter him without success. He often complained to his friends of his son’s conduct. Those who knew him say he didn’t leave for religious or jihadi reasons. They stress that he had less political education than usual.”

The young man returned from Iraq two years later and was detained by the Syrian security services for a short period before being released. He then disappeared again, reappearing a few days ago as Al-Golani.

No one knows how the young man who arrived in Iraq as a regular fighter with little if any ideology evolved into the head of an organisation that has tens of thousands of fighters across Syria becoming, in the process, a member of the inner circle of Al-Qaeda leader Ayman Al-Zawahiri.

It is difficult to know what influenced the young man and took him from being a university student to a jihadi then leader of one of Al-Qaeda’s most active franchises though the confiscation of his family’s property more than a year ago and the family’s flight from Syria suggest that if any one does know the truth it is the Syrian security authorities.

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