In a new documentary, The Jihadist, veteran FRONTLINE correspondent Martin Smith travels to Idlib to investigate whether Jolani can be trusted, becoming the first Western journalist to interview him. Smith also tracked down and interviewed Jolani’s critics and victims. Jolani’s group and its earlier incarnations stand accused of human rights violations, including indiscriminate attacks on civilian areas, torture and arbitrary arrests of civilians.
As the documentary reports, Jolani’s life has been a roadmap of Islamist militancy in Iraq and Syria. He battled U.S. forces in Iraq and was jailed by the Americans. He rose through the ranks in the group then known as the Islamic State of Iraq, or ISI, and founded an Al Qaeda affiliate in Syria, Jabhat al-Nusra. He later broke with Al Qaeda and ISI, striking out with his own group to oppose Assad. He has deployed suicide bombers in Syria, and to this day, evidence and allegations persist that he imprisons and tortures his critics, charges he denies.
In the film, Smith examines the fight over the future of Idlib, Jolani’s emergence as a leading Islamist militant, and his efforts — despite his history with Al Qaeda and allegations of human rights abuses — to change his image into that of a viable leader who is not a danger to the United States and Europe.
Abu Mohammad al-Jolani, a former leader of an Al Qaeda affiliate in Syria, is one of the most wanted men in the world. The United States designated him a terrorist in 2013, with a $10 million reward for information leading to his capture.