A screen shot from a video released by the Al Nusrah Front. Image from the SITE Intelligence Group.
The Al Nusrah Front for the People of the Levant, one of two official al Qaeda branches in Syria, denied a report by Syrian state-run television that its emir, Abu Muhammad al Julani, was killed today by government forces during fighting in a contested coastal area of the country.
SANA, the government-run news, reported that al Julani (or Golani) was killed during fighting in the western province of Latakia. But SANA later pulled the report of al Julani’s death from its website. SANA did post a report of heavy fighting in Latakia, and named fighters who were killed, but did not indicate the group to which they belonged. Al Julani’s name was not on the list.
“What was claimed by one channel alone, regarding what it claimed was the killing of the emir of Al Nusrah Front, was a lie,” the al Qaeda group said in a statement, according to AFP.
Senior commanders in the Al Nusrah Front also denied reports of al Julani’s death to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.
“Leading members of Jabhat al Nusrah in Latakia and Deir Ezzour provinces have denied, during calls with SOHR activists, the reports that Abu Muhammad al Julani was killed,” the Observatory reported on its Facebook page. “Other sources in al Nusrah have stated that they were not able to confirm or deny the report, since communication with al Julani has been cut.”
Al Julani has been reported killed in the past. In December 2012, rumors of his death surfaced, but the al Qaeda group quickly denied the reports.
The Al Nusrah Front has made advances in Latakia, a coastal area in western Syria thought to be a major stronghold and base of support for President Bashir al Assad’s regime. In the summer, the Al Nusrah Front, the Islamic State of Iraq and the Sham, Ahrar al Sham, and other Syrian rebel groups launched “Operation to Liberate the Coast” as part of an effort to take control of a series of villages in Latakia. In early August, the Al Nusrah Front, the ISIS, Ahrar al Sham, the Muhajireen Army, and Suquor al Izz killed 190 civilians; 67 of them were summarily executed. The groups still hold more than 200 civilian hostages [see LWJ report, Report highlights al Qaeda affiliates’ role in Syrian atrocities].
Syrian forces, backed by civilian militias, Hezbollah, and Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps, have counterattacked in Latakia in an effort to retake the villages.
Al Julani formed the Al Nusrah Front in January 2012, and the group quickly claimed credit for its first suicide attack the next month. The group secretly was formed by the Islamic State of Iraq, al Qaeda’s affiliate in Iraq, and operated under the overall command of Abu Du’a, or Abu Bakr al Baghdadi al Husseini al Qurshi, the group’s emir.
In April this year, Abu Du’a attempted to subsume the Al Nusrah Front into a new group called the Islamic State of Iraq and the Sham, but was rebuffed by al Julani. But while rejecting Abu Dua’s takeover, the Al Nusrah Front emir publicly renewed allegiance to Ayman al Zawahiri, the emir of al Qaeda.
The Al Nusrah Front was designated by the US as a Foreign Terrorist Organization on Dec. 11, 2012. Additionally, two senior Al Nusrah leaders, Maysar Ali Musa Abdallah al Juburi and Anas Hasan Khattab, both members of al Qaeda in Iraq, were added to the US’ list of global terrorists. Al Julani was not added to the list of designated terrorists until May of this year. [See LWJ reports, US adds Al Nusrah Front, 2 leaders to terrorism list, for information on the designation of the Al Nusrah Front and the two designated leaders, and Al Nusrah Front’s emir to be added to US terrorism list].
The group continues to conduct joint operations with the ISIS despite the leadership disagreements between the two groups. The Al Nusrah Front also conducts joint operations with the remnants of Free Syrian Army and other Islamist jihadist groups, and has numerous foreign fighters in its ranks.
Correction: al Julani was added by the US State Department as a Specially Designated Global Terrorist in May 2013. The report has been updated to reflect this.