The Man of the shadows

October 30 2013

The Syrian TV News network (SANA) associated with the Assad regime, reported (October 25) that Abu Muhammad Al-Joulani, the leader of the Jabhat Al-Nusra organization, which is affiliated with Al-Qaeda in Syria, was killed. Jabhat Al-Nusra rushed to deny the report, announcing that Al-Joulani, as well as Abu Anas Al-Sahabh, another senior leader of the organization, were safe and sound.

It should be mentioned that the news item was removed from SANA’s website shortly after it was published.

It also should be noted that in August 2013, Al-Mayadin, a Lebanese-based TV News station affiliated with Hezbollah, reported that the Jabhat Al-Nusra supreme leader in Syria named Imad Ahmad was killed.

Al-Joulani’s identity and whereabouts are a mystery and raise questions.

The first question is: What is his real name?

Militant Islamic activists quite often call themselves by nicknames. Many times, the nicknames are taken from admired (mostly military) figures in Islamic history or are taken from sites which have historical and emotional significance to Islam. Sometimes the nicknames are a combination of both. Using nicknames also conceals the real identity of the militants, which increases their personal security and enables them to operate relatively more freely. Accumulating information suggests that Al-Joulani’s real name is Iyad Tubasi or Abu Julbyd Tubasi.

The second question is: What is Al-Joulani’ s background?

According to accumulating information, he is of Palestinian-Jordanian origin, perhaps from the city of Zarka in Jordan.

His last name (Tubasi) may indicate that his family comes from the Palestinian town of Tubas, located in the northern part of the West Bank.

The name Al-Joulani could also be translated as “A person from the Golan” – referring to the Syrian part of the Golan Heights. Therefore, some assume that Al-Joulani is of a Syrian origin.

On the other hand, according to one single report, Al-Joulani is not of Syrian origin.

Accumulating information indicates that Al-Joulani was in Iraq for a long time where he gained military experience as a member, and later on as a senior commander, in the Al-Qaeda branch in Iraq.

Accumulating reports indicate another possible interesting link of Al-Joulani to Iraq. Reportedly, Al-Joulani is the brother in law of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the Al-Qaeda leader in Iraq who was killed by US forces in June 2006.

It is also possible that Al-Joulani was in Saudi Arabia for an unknown period of time.

The third question: Is Al-Joulani alive?

This is not the first time that Al-Joulani has reported to have been killed. None of the reports have been confirmed.

Here are some examples:

According to reports on different Arab media platforms on December 14, 2012 the Jihadist Salafi group in Jordan appointed Mustafa Abd Al-Latif Saleh AKA Abu Anas Al-Sahaba to replace Al-Joulani as the new leader of Jabhat Al-Nusra in Syria. One report attributes his nomination to the killing of Al-Joulani in the Al-Dar`a Palestinian refugee camp in southern Syria on December 11, 2012. It should be noted that that a senior leader of the Jihadist Salafi group in Jordan denied the report about the alleged nomination of a new Jabhat Al-Nusra leader. However, he did not refer to alleged killing of Al-Joulani.

On January 25, 2013 a report published in the Al-Quds Al-Arabi newspaper, quotes a Syrian officer who said: “On December 19, 2012, a Jordanian named Muhammad Jarrad, the brother-in-law of Abu Musab Al-Zarkawi, was killed together with twenty other militants in a battle that took place in the location of Mugheimer – some ten miles southwest of Sweida” (a major Druze city in southern Syria). The report also says that the Jihadist Salafi group in Jordan announced on January 17, 2013 that two of its members who were fighting within the ranks of Jabhat Al-Nusrah were killed. The report identified one of them as Muhammad Jarrad, age 22.

These reports present an intriguing puzzle.

Yet, as of now, there is no clear, decisive evidence for the killing of Al-Joulani.

The fourth question is: What does he look like?

The mystery regarding Al-Joulani’s identity and whereabouts deepens due to the fact that Al-Joulani kept a very low profile.

To the best of my knowledge, there is no certain visual identification of Al-Joulani.

In a photo published on different web platforms, the man on the right is allegedly Abu Anas Al-Sahaba (allegedly Al-Joulani’s replacement), while the man on the left is allegedly the dead Al-Joulani.

But take a look at this photo – the man standing on the far RIGHT is clearly the same man presented in the previous photo as Abu Anas Al-Sahaba. The problem is that information says that the man standing on the far LEFT is Abu Anas Alsahab.

Similar information is given about the third photo.

In my assessment Abu Muhammad Al-Joulani is not dead. My assessment is based upon two sets of criteria.

The first set is made of three relatively “weak” – yet relevant – arguments. First, Jabhat Al-Nusra published audio recordings attributed to Abu Muhammad Al-Joulani after he was allegedly killed. Second, the voice analysis of these audio records indicates that it is similar to audio records attributed to Al-Joulani prior to his alleged death. Obviously, we must take into consideration that it is very possible that the voice is not Al-Joualni’s voice at all. Third, the fact that various media platforms associated with the Syrian regime argue on different occasions that Al-Joulani was killed – yet fail to present decisive evidence.

The second set of arguments is more substantial. First, Islamist militant groups normally do not conceal the death of their members. In fact, quite the opposite, they vociferously emphasize it. It is very common to find videos and posters produced by these groups commemorating their fallen members. Why? Because it is used as a tool to gain popularity and to recruit new members, it emphasizes the core value “the pursuit of Death in the Name of Islam” that militant Islam groups revere, and it conveys the message that these groups survive and thrive even if their leaders are killed. There will be always someone else to fill in the ranks.


About the Author
Avi Melamed is a Strategic Intelligence Analyst and an Expert on the Current Affairs in the Arab and Muslim World and their impact on the Middle East. He is the Founder and CEO of Inside the Middle East: Intelligence Perspectives (ITME), an empowering intelligence analysis praxis transforming students and practitioners into knowledgeable, media literate, critical thinkers. ITME’s goal is to ensure that the next generation of policy influencers will have be equipped with the knowledge, skills and tools to independently and accurately decipher the Middle East and accurately predict the direction of future events. He is a former Israeli Intelligence Official and Senior Official on Arab Affairs. In his public service, he has held high-risk Government, Senior Advisory, Intelligence and Counter-Terrorist intelligence positions in Arab cities and communities throughout the region – often in very sensitive times - on behalf of Israeli Government agencies. His newest book, Inside the Middle East: Making Sense of the Most Dangerous and Complicated Region on Earth, (also available as an audio book) – a GPS to help you navigate the dramatically changing Middle East, offers a unique insight into the Arab world, challenges widely-accepted perceptions, provides a guide to make sense of the events unfolding in the region, and offers an out of the box idea that could lead to a positive breakthrough in the Israeli- Palestinian conflict. As an Author, Educator, Expert, and Strategic Intelligence Analyst, Avi provides intelligence analysis, briefings and tours to diplomats, Israeli and foreign policy makers, global media outlets, and a wide variety of international businesses, organizations, and private clients on a range of Israel and Middle East Affairs. An Israeli Jew, fluent in Arabic, English and Hebrew, with a unique understanding of Arab society and culture, Avi has his finger on the pulse on the Arab world. He has a proven record of foreseeing the evolution of events in the Middle East and their impact on a local and regional level. Through all of his efforts, as an analyst, educator, entrepreneur, and writer, he is a bridge builder, and dedicates himself to enhancing the Arabic, English and Hebrew speaking audience’s comprehensive understanding of the Middle East and of each other. @AviMelamed