The leader of a powerful Al-Qaeda group fighting in Syria sought to kidnap United Nations workers and scrawled out plans for his aides to take over in the event of his death, The Associated Press (AP) reported on Wednesday.
The report is based on excerpts of letters obtained by the news agency. Iraqi intelligence officials offered AP the letters, as well as the first known photograph of the Al-Nusra Front leader, Abu Mohammed al-Golani.
Members of Al-Nusra and other jihadist groups have been involved in atrocities throughout the civil war in Syria, including publicly beheading a Catholic priest in Idlib in July. The priest was executed because he was accused of collaborating with President Bashar Al-Assad’s regime.
Al-Nusra is one of 13 factions in a radical Islamist rebel council that announced its secession from the main opposition force and declared its own Islamic state in Aleppo. Al-Golani has in the past declared that his group is in favor of establishing an Islamic caliphate in civil war torn Syria.
The officials who spoke to AP said they obtained the information about al-Golani after they captured members of another Al-Qaeda-affiliated group in September. They spoke on condition of anonymity because they weren't authorized to speak to journalists.
"I was told by a soldier that he observed some of the workers of the UN and he will kidnap them. I ask God for his success," read an excerpt of a letter given by officials from Iraq's Falcon Intelligence Cell, an anti-terrorism unit that works under Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki.
The officials said other letters planned the kidnapping and killing of other foreigners, and Syrian and Iraqi civilians.
One UN worker was kidnapped for eight months in Syria and was released in October. Another two dozen UN peacekeepers were briefly held this year. It's not clear if those abductions had any relation to al-Golani's letters.
The intelligence officials did not tell AP where they found the Al-Qaeda terrorists who handed over the documents. They also would not say when the letters were written, though they said it represented a tiny sample of a large cache of documents.
The officials couldn't explain why the letter excerpts were in a sloppily written, grammatically incorrect version of an Arabic dialect used across the Levant. It is believed that al-Golani was an Arabic teacher before he rose through Al-Qaeda’s ranks, and typically hard-line Muslims try to write in classical Arabic.
Little is known about al-Golani, including his real name. He is believed to be 39 years old. The photograph suggests a man in his thirties, noted AP.
Al-Golani is a nom de guerre, indicating he was born in the Golan Heights.
A Syrian native, he joined the insurgency after moving to Iraq. He advanced through Al-Qaeda's ranks and eventually became a close associate of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the Jordanian-born leader of Al-Qaeda in Iraq.
He eventually returned to Syria shortly after the uprising against Assad began in March 2011, where he formed the Al-Nusra Front, first announced in January 2012.
The group gained prominence in April after Golani rejected an attempted takeover of the Al-Nusra Front by another rival Al-Qaeda group, now known as the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL).
Iraqi intelligence officials told AP it was members of ISIL who gave them the information about al-Golani.
In late October, Syrian state television claimed that al-Golani had been killed in the coastal Latakia province. Al-Nusra denied the report and said its leader was in good health.