>> NARRATOR: He waged Jihad in Iraq and Syria.
Accused of terror and torture... >> You’re a wanted man, there’s a ten-million-dollar price tag on your head.
>> NARRATOR: The former Al Qaeda commander says he’s changed.
Speaking to a western reporter for the first time.
>> How is it that somebody is going to want to trust you?
>> NARRATOR: Now on Frontline correspondent Martin Smith investigates The Jihadist.
(flight attendant speaking Turkish on P.A.)
>> MARTIN SMITH: I'm flying over Southern Turkey.
I'm on my way to Syria to meet one of the most wanted men in the world.
You have not spoken to an American reporter in the past.
>> ABU MOHAMMED AL JOLANI (speaking Arabic): >> SMITH: So why have you chosen now to speak to the United States?
>> JOLANI: >> SMITH: His name is Abu Mohammed al Jolani.
As a former al Qaeda leader, the U.S. has a $10 million reward for information leading to his capture.
He heads the Organization for the Liberation of the Levant, Hay'at Tahrir al Sham, the most powerful Islamist faction in Syria.
He has agreed to meet because he is trying to overhaul his image.
>> Not much is known about its leader, Abu Mohammed al Jolani.
He joined al Qaeda... >> SMITH: In the past, he's battled Americans in Iraq.
He's deployed suicide bombers in Syria.
And to this day, he stands accused of imprisoning and torturing his critics.
(siren blaring) You're, you're recognized, you're designated as a terrorist by the United States, by the United Nations, by many governments.
What do you say to them?
>> JOLANI: >> SMITH: We sat down together in a secure location in Idlib province in Northwest Syria.
He insists that today, Americans should trust him.
You pledged allegiance to al Qaeda.
You worked with Abu Bakr al Baghdadi, the emir of ISIS.
So for you to say that you were not committed to fighting Americans, when that's in your past, is impossible for people to understand.
>> JOLANI: (loud explosions) >> And we're seeing a proliferation of these groups: al Qaeda, the local insurgency... >> JOLANI: >> SMITH: I came to this story fully aware of the controversy it would generate.
I would be speaking to a designated terrorist.
But after 20 years of covering the region, I thought this was an important opportunity.
Since Bin Laden in 1998, no senior al Qaeda leader has agreed to a televised interview with a Western reporter.
Today, Jolani, who says he's long since broken with al Qaeda, controls Syria's last opposition stronghold, a safe haven for refugees from around the country.
If he falls, many more migrants could flood north.
>> MAN (in Arabic): >> SMITH: Jolani's 10,000-plus- man army, effectively backed by Turkey, is now the only thing that prevents it.
There are some people in Washington who think it may be wise to work with Jolani-- including a top American diplomat in the region during the Bush, Obama, and Trump administrations, James Jeffrey.
>> Look, he's the least bad option of the various options on Idlib, which is one of the most important places in Syria, which is one of the most important places right now in the Middle East.
When there is not the normal set-up of nation-states and of international norms and rules, you wind up with groups like this that do things you don't like.
But in the here and now are the folks you have to deal with to avoid even worse things.
>> How can you trust somebody that's just trying to survive and continue to remain in power?
>> SMITH: There are people that have met with Jolani who are saying, "We should give him a chance."
>> I think it's letting him and the organization off the hook.
>> JOLANI: >> SMITH: I spent seven days in Idlib.
seeing, of course, what Jolani wanted me to see.
>> JOLANI: >> SMITH: And hearing what he wanted me to hear.
>> JOLANI: >> SMITH: I also spoke to his critics and his victims.
Jolani told me that, "We don't torture.
There is no torture in our prisons."
>> That's a difficult one to believe.
I mean, we have testimony that says otherwise.
>> (in Arabic): >> SMITH: Jolani, they say, is a man that can't be trusted.
I've come here to investigate.
(Jolani speaking Arabic) >> JOLANI: >> SMITH: He was born in 1982 and grew up in Damascus.
His birth name was Ahmed Hussein Al-Sharaa.
>> War in the Middle East.
The Israeli forces drive spearheads across the Sinai peninsula.
>> SMITH: But long before Ahmed was born, he says his family was shaped by conflict.
The Al-Sharaas had fled their home during the 1967 Arab-Israeli War.
>> Israeli forces launched an all-out attack on Arab forces.
And so began the Six-Day War.
With Israeli paratroops capturing the center of Jerusalem, Israel now turn their attention to Syria, bombing Damascus and advancing into the Golan Heights.
>> JOLANI: >> SMITH: Years later, Ahmed took the nom de guerre Abu Mohammed al Jolani.
Jolani is a reference to the Golan Heights.
As a teenager, he worked in his father's grocery store in Damascus.
But like other young men of his generation, he was drawn to politics through religion.
He also says he was influenced by the second Palestinian intifada of the early 2000s.
>> JOLANI: >> SMITH: And at that point in your life, that was 2000, approximately, just before 9/11.
(Jolani agreeing) What did you think and feel on 9/11 at the time?
>> JOLANI: >> SMITH: Of course, people everywhere abhorred 9/11.
>> The United States had always warned the events of September 11 would not go unanswered.
Unleashing its wrath, America, with the help from Britain, has struck at Taliban targets and terrorist training camps across Afghanistan.
>> SMITH: After 9/11, few Arabs went to Afghanistan to defend the Taliban.
The Taliban fell in a matter of months.
>> Our war against terror is only beginning.
>> SMITH: But as America prepared to invade Iraq nearly two years later, Syrian President Bashar al Assad saw an opportunity to punish America.
Assad encouraged young men from all over the Arab world to come fight the U.S. (crowd chanting in Arabic) >> So if you wanted to go try your chance at killing Americans, you could fly into Damascus airport, and you could go to a jihadi sign-up that was run by the government of Syria.
They used to have it at Damascus Fairgrounds.
You'd go there and they'd put you on a minibus and bring you to Baghdad.
So this wasn't an underground railroad.
There were tons of people who were coming in.
>> SMITH: Assad even set up a recruitment center where Americans wouldn't miss it.
>> These volunteers were collected out in front of the American embassy in Damascus, and they recruited people to go to fight... >> SMITH: I spoke with Andrew Tabler, who was a reporter in Damascus at the time.
>> ...and the fact that they were gathering people by the busload in front of the embassy was a message to the diplomats inside.
I was at the embassy and it raised a lot of eyebrows, amongst other things, that I'm sure a flurry of cables back to Washington.
>> SMITH: When did you first go to Iraq?
>> JOLANI: (loud explosion) >> Shock and awe.
Hundreds of bombs and cruise missiles ripping into Saddam Hussein's palaces, into the headquarters of his secret police, and his security structure.
>> On the ground, U.S. and British forces pushed into Iraq from the south.
They are moving steadily toward Baghdad.
>> Syria made clear that they were going to do everything in their power to make sure the United States failed.
>> This was central Baghdad today as Saddam Hussein's regime finally lost control.
The fall of Baghdad was... >> SMITH: I entered Iraq two weeks later with a group of returning Iraqi exiles.
As we drove into Baghdad, the bombed-out hulks of Iraqi tanks and anti-aircraft guns littered the sides of the highways.
In the city center, buildings had been blasted by missiles.
>> There has been widespread looting in Baghdad as law and order collapses.
Looters plundered anything they could carry from official buildings.
>> SMITH: The widespread looting prompted an unfortunate U.S. response.
(guns firing) >> We try to stop them from looting.
They don't understand.
So we take their car and we crush it.
United States Army.
>> SMITH: We came upon this group of U.S. soldiers destroying a car belonging to a suspected looter.
The car turned out to be his taxi cab.
>> The U.S. military and the U.S. government were woefully unprepared to deal with the reality on the ground in Iraq.
>> That's what you get when you loot!
>> I cannot begin to describe the idiocy of this whole endeavor.
>> U.S. forces are facing a fierce new wave of insurgent attacks.
Since Friday, at least four U.S. troops have died.
>> SMITH: Jolani was around 21 when he joined the insurgency led by a Jordanian, Abu Musab al Zarqawi.
Jolani says he never met him.
>> The leader of al Qaeda in Iraq, Zarqawi, he's doing roadside bombs and sniping.
And they were attacking the Americans in villages and towns, in ambushes, anything they could think of, to wear down American dedication or commitment.
>> A car bomb exploded today at a mosque in the Iraqi holy city of Najaf, killing scores of people.
>> SMITH: Jolani claims he was opposed to these tactics.
It was hard to believe.
One of Zarqawi's core goals in Iraq was to attack civilians in order to ignite sectarian civil war.
>> JOLANI: >> SMITH: Why didn't you quit, then?
I mean, why stay with an army whose major tactic is to do mass suicide bombings that inevitably or intentionally killed civilians?
>> JOLANI: >> SMITH: The Americans will say, well, you know, they came to liberate Iraq.
And that had you not resisted that-- constant car bombings, I.E.Ds., um... Snipers, all of that, there would not have been so much bloodshed.
>> JOLANI: >> SMITH: Can we learn anything about Jolani from the fact that he had gone there and linked up with this group?
>> Listen, I think we know that he is committed to the jihad.
We know that he is committed to not only, um, repelling the crusaders, the Americans, but also to this sort of austere ideology being promoted by al Qaeda, for a reversion to the old type of Islamic society.
So they killed Shiites, right?
Or infidels, or apostates.
And we see they, they also kill, with some frequency, Sunnis who are not adhering to the precepts of Islam.
(rapid gunfire) >> SMITH: Jolani would rise through the ranks of Zarqawi's organization and caught the attention of a C.I.A.
I mean, my job was to identify some of the initial leaders of Zarqawi's organization, and to keep track of who is in his network, and who's helping make decisions.
>> SMITH: Jolani came up as a commander or, of some sort in Zarqawi's organization?
>> SMITH: Can you say anything about that?
>> Probably not.
I mean, he wasn't top-tier, but he had cell leadership at that point.
>> SMITH: At that time, around 2004, Iraq faced near daily attacks from insurgents including those that targeted civilians.
In fact, the toll was so high that even al Qaeda's leadership, concerned about their image, protested the killing of so many innocents.
They sent a letter by courier to Zarqawi.
>> "Let us not merely be people of killing, slaughter, blood, cursing, insult, and harshness."
>> SMITH: Zarqawi rejected the advice.
(loud explosions) >> Shock and awe, but this time Sunni insurgents were sending in the bombs.
The series of coordinated blasts were in mainly Shia areas.
Sunni militants out to stoke sectarian tensions did so with ferocious efficiency.
>> SMITH: In 2005, Jolani's jihadist career in Iraq was cut short.
He was arrested by U.S. troops in Mosul.
He would spend most of the next five years imprisoned in Camp Bucca near the Kuwaiti border.
Around 100,000 detainees came through Bucca, including nine future al Qaeda in Iraq and ISIS commanders.
>> In fact, it was the training ground for a whole new generation of Middle Eastern extremist terrorists.
The most extreme elements had total control of the camp.
The U.S. military didn't see Bucca as a big problem.
But what was happening in Bucca was, it was a wholly owned subsidiary of al Qaeda.
>> SMITH: Jolani was 23 when he arrived here.
He says he used his time to write a 50-page paper on how to fight jihad back home in Syria.
>> I definitely heard that from some of his key lieutenants, that he spent his time in Bucca quite wisely, and that he did come up with a pretty long document about how he wanted to take the jihad to Syria.
>> JOLANI: >> SMITH: Do you have a copy of that document?
>> JOLANI: (people shouting) >> SMITH: Then, after his release from custody, Jolani became a commander of al Qaeda forces in Mosul.
What he did exactly we don't know.
But it wasn't long before the Arab Spring came to Syria.
♪ ♪ In March 2011, 15 boys were arrested for writing anti-government graffiti on school walls.
The boys were taken into custody by Assad's secret police.
Soon after, a video emerged.
It was believed that several of the boys had been tortured.
(crowd chanting) Over the next few days, people took to the streets across the country, fed up with 40 years of living under a corrupt Assad regime, facing rising food prices and a severe drought.
(crowd chanting) Jolani told me that after his release from prison, he met with the jihadist leader Abu Muslim in Mosul, a man he had known in Bucca.
>> JOLANI: (crowd chanting) >> JOLANI: >> CROWD: >> SMITH: Abu Muslim then suggested Jolani send his paper, the one he had written while in Bucca, to Abu Bakr al Baghdadi, the new head of the Islamic State of Iraq, I.S.I.
>> JOLANI: >> Iraq today was swept by another wave of deadly attacks.
>> SMITH: He says that he stressed that he didn't want to fight a sectarian war, as Zarqawi had.
He wanted to fight Assad.
>> JOLANI: >> SMITH: What do you get when you sign up to be the al Qaeda affiliate establishing a new chapter in Syria; what comes with that?
>> JOLANI: >> SMITH: Jolani and his men, all wearing suicide belts in case they were caught, crossed into Syria a few months later.
>> JOLANI: >> New deadly violence in Syria.
Army and security forces fired on peaceful protesters.
>> SMITH: When they arrived, the uprising had already turned violent.
>> Reports of another 24 people killed.
>> SMITH: People had taken up arms to survive.
>> To Syria: violence and protests; will the government there buckle?
>> SMITH: Assad retaliated by bombing neighborhoods suspected of harboring resistance.
(loud explosion) (debris clattering, sirens blaring) (men shouting) >> MAN (in Arabic): (Jolani speaking Arabic) >> SMITH: Jolani had spent several months recruiting and formed Jabhat al Nusra, the Front of the Supporters of the People of Syria.
But he hid his al Qaeda affiliation to protect Nusra's reputation.
>> All of those ties were hidden.
He had learned the lessons of al Qaeda in Iraq, Islamic State of Iraq, and he was not going to emulate them in Syria.
He worked to ingratiate himself in the local communities.
>> SMITH: He began his attacks on Assad by sending young fighters on suicide missions.
>> JOLANI: (truck horn honking) >> SMITH: Jolani's stated plan was to topple Assad, seize Damascus, and set up an Islamic state in Syria under Sharia law.
(loud explosion) The U.S. State Department put Jolani on its terrorist watch list.
But he insists he used the funds he got from Baghdadi to strike military targets, not civilians.
>> JOLANI: >> Two high profile government security buildings have been bombed in the heart of the Syrian capital Damascus.
State televison blamed both explosions on terrorist trying to overthrow President Bahar al-Assad.
>> It's true, Jolani's methods were a lot less bloody than the others.
>> Jolani made it not about civilians, but instead about fighting the regime and its supporters.
But their hands were not clean by any stretch of the imagination.
>> Authorities say at least forty people were killed and more than a hundred wounded.
The front of Syria's General Intelligence Agency appeared to be blown off.
This is very different from Islamic State of Iraq which use to send suicide car bombs into markets and kill Muslims as indiscriminately as it killed anybody else.
>> SMITH: Freelaner Rania Abouzeid reported from Idlib with rebel forces in those early years.
>> So they were liked.
They weren't trying to impose their views on others.
Unlike, say for example, some other conservative Salafi groups.
Nusra was so popular in fact, that when the United States designated it a terrorist organization, Syrians in the political opposition all rallied around it.
And the next Friday, during protests, the chants were, "We are all Jabhat al Nusra."
>> CROWD: >> Watching Nusra grow inside of Syria, and he seems to be following the same playbook as Hamas, a little bit of Hezbollah and the Muslim Brotherhood, in where they were providing the basic necessities that people need to survive, like food and water, medical care, education, security.
>> SMITH: A smart tactic, right?
>> A very smart tactic.
And very different than what he did under Zarqawi.
It was like night and day.
(men chanting in Arabic) >> SMITH: Al Nusra was able to grow quickly.
>> JOLANI: (men chanting in Arabic) >> SMITH: Nusra was taking in money from sympathizers in Gulf states and from looting factories.
Under Jolani, the group also kidnapped foreign civilians and took in tens of millions of dollars from ransom payments.
>> You had at one point Nusra, which had received half of its funding from Iraq, was actually sending money to Baghdadi.
It was at the height of its game.
>> SMITH: One payment to the Islamic State of Iraq was for $2 million.
It seems Jolani didn't mind supporting Baghdadi, even if I.S.I.
was killing Iraqi civilians.
But Jolani's success was a problem for Baghdadi.
He wanted Nusra's territory.
>> These two men did not trust each other.
And Baghdadi relocated to Syria to keep closer tabs on Jolani.
>> MAN (in Arabic): >> SMITH: Then, in early April 2013, Baghdadi announced that Nusra would be subsumed into what he was calling the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria-- ISIS.
>> MAN: >> SMITH: Jolani responded the next day.
>> JOLANI: >> SMITH: Around this time, Jolani agreed to an interview with an al Jazeera reporter.
>> (in Arabic): >> SMITH: His face hidden, Jolani tried to downplay the split.
>> JOLANI: >> SMITH: A freelance reporter from Vermont, Theo Padnos, listened to that interview from a Nusra prison cell where he was being held.
>> All the guards were outside watching their leader being interviewed on al Jazeera, and I'm, like, "Well, I wonder what any of those media people were asking Jolani about their American prisoner."
But instead they were asking, like, strategic questions.
"Do you intend to attack the regime from the left flank or the right flank?"
Or, "What are your demands?"
And, you know, I'm, like, "Well, how do you treat your own people?"
My name is Peter Theo Curtis, today's date is July 18... >> SMITH: Padnos had been a hostage for 22 months.
He says he was subjected to torture and frequent beatings.
And when you were being beaten by guys that identified themselves as Jabhat al Nusra, where were you?
Did you know?
>> I was in the basement of a building in Aleppo.
I really didn't think I could survive being tortured.
It just goes on forever.
And you don't know when it's going to stop, you don't know why they're doing this to you.
They would take me back to my cell and they would say, "You Christian, you liar, tomorrow night is going to be worse."
Three days, they've given me three days to live, three days!
>> SMITH: During his time in captivity, Padnos-- who shared a cell with ISIS fighters captured by Nusra-- learned about the rivalry between Jolani and Baghdadi.
A lot of it was about money.
>> When the ISIS guys would argue with the Jabhat al Nusra men, they'd go, "It's all about money-- it's all about money."
Like, Jabhat al Nusra's taking all the cash.
And we want, ISIS want more of that cash.
Money is the mother's milk of the jihad.
Everything turns on money.
And the moment that the commanders don't have cash to pay the gunmen beneath them, those gunmen are gone within the day.
They need falafel to eat.
They need gas to put in their trucks.
Every few hours, the trucks get flat tires.
They can't fix the flat tires and move around and shoot people if they don't have cash.
(car horns honking) (men exclaiming) >> SMITH: By mid-2014, Baghdadi and Jolani were bitter rivals.
Baghdadi seized the Northern Syrian city of Raqqa from al Nusra and then moved to take Mosul in Iraq.
(Baghdadi speaking Arabic) >> SMITH: He declared a caliphate, an Islamic State encompassing large swaths of Iraq and Syria.
(Jolani speaking Arabic) >> SMITH: Jolani switched his allegiance to bin Laden's successor, Ayman al Zawahiri.
At one point, he even harbored some of Zawahiri's men suspected of plotting to attack the West.
Jolani denies it.
He insisted to me that he always remained focused on fighting Assad.
>> Mix FM Syria.
>> Mix FM Syria, Syria, Syria.
>> New music first.
(dance music playing) >> SMITH: That year, 2015, I traveled across Syria's regime-controlled areas.
>> (speaking indistinctly) >> SMITH: This is Latakia, the heartland of Syria's Alawite community, a small but powerful religious minority aligned with Assad.
The Alawites have lost thousands of young men and women fighting Nusra, ISIS, and other rebel factions.
Their pictures line the streets of the provincial capital.
(engine roaring) Nearby, Syria's rich frolic on Latakia's Mediterranean beaches.
In part, this represents what they are fighting for: a secular way of life away from Islamist influences.
>> (speaking indistinctly) >> SMITH: In Latakia, I met a pro-regime militia commander who invited me to visit his mountaintop village near Latakia's border with Idlib.
And how close is the front to here?
>> (in Arabic): >> SMITH: Just over these mountains, the men were fighting Jolani's Nusra army.
What's the toll of the war been on this town?
>> (in Arabic): >> SMITH: At the time, Assad's popularity and his grip on Syria were slipping.
And Nusra was threatening Latakia.
>> (man speaking Arabic) >> SMITH: I was taken to lunch, where the militia commander defended Assad and attacked the Nusra rebels killing his men.
Many say that the president is a war criminal, and he is conducting a war indiscriminately and killing civilians.
>> (in Arabic): >> SMITH: Some of Nusra's most well-documented attacks on Syrian minorities took place at this time, despite Jolani's claims of not pursuing a sectarian war or targeting civilians.
>> The Nusra Front face accusations of killing civilians indiscriminately.
>> (in Arabic): >> SMITH: It was a tense time in Syria.
Mortar attacks, even in downtown Damascus, were becoming routine.
This man was hit just outside my hotel.
But everything was about to change.
That summer, Iran had sent a top emissary to Russia on behalf of Assad to convince the Russians that the war could turn in Assad's favor with just a little help.
>> JOLANI: >> SMITH: Two months later, in September 2015, Russian forces came to Assad's rescue.
(explosion booming) >> Russian airstrikes have killed hundreds of civilians and caused massive destruction to residential areas.
>> The Russians had come in.
So we now had Syria running amok, and we had a roaring geostrategic crisis.
(explosion booming) (people yelling) >> Activists say the strikes have intensified since Russia began its air campaign to bolster the Assad regime.
>> MAN (in Arabic): >> SMITH: In retaliation, Jolani began attacking Russian targets in Syria and called for attacks inside Russia.
>> Jabhat al Nusra has proven quite effective at "poking the bear," so to speak, but it's only led the Russians to come out and indiscriminately bomb in Idlib.
The Russians have dropped tons and tons of munitions on Idlib in response to Jabhat al Nusra attacks.
>> SMITH: So they killed a lot of civilians-- indiscriminate bombing is what is.
>> And most importantly, not only killed them, but displaced them, sent them running for their lives towards the Turkish frontier and creating a refugee crisis.
>> SMITH: Jolani was being squeezed.
In October 2015, Jolani said Alawite villages should be targeted.
Jolani said, "There is no choice but to escalate the battle and to target Alawite towns and villages in Latakia.” >> Mm-hmm.
>> SMITH: Do we know?
>> That's complicated.
If those are civilian targets, thus attacking them is terrorist.
It also is what national liberation movements and resistance organizations do.
(man speaking Arabic) >> SMITH: We also came across numerous reports of torture in Jolani's prisons during this period.
Yarub al Dali, a journalist, was held at an al Nusra prison known as Hell Station.
>> AL DALI (in Arabic): >> SMITH: Al Dali spent 40 days there.
Many weeks after he returned home, the signs of torture were still visible on his back.
>> AL DALI: (men exclaiming) >> SMITH: Russia and the regime compared Nusra to ISIS, and seized on Nusra's ties to al Qaeda.
>> Russia says its cruise missiles are hitting parts of Northern Syria where both ISIS and al Qaeda-linked groups have a heavy presence.
>> SMITH: Jolani knew his affiliation with al Qaeda was a liability.
>> He did not want to give Assad that justification, to paint all of his opponents as terrorists, as Islamists, they are these al Qaeda fighters.
>> You have to clean, you have to keep cleaning this area, and to push the terrorists to go back to where they come from, or to kill them.
There is no other option.
>> SMITH: So, in mid-2016, Jolani decided it was time to sever ties with al Qaeda.
>> JOLANI: >> He said it's to stop the international community using his affiliation with al Qaeda as a pretext to attack Syrians.
>> JOLANI: >> Well, I mean, you know, al Qaeda is not exactly a popular brand name, especially if you're trying to run a province.
This split from al Qaeda would save face, it would enable them to establish relations with other political groups and political parties, foreign players.
Turkey, for example, which borders Idlib province.
So there are all sorts of practical reasons for a split from al Qaeda.
>> SMITH: Jolani then went to war against al Qaeda, ISIS, and other fellow jihadis.
>> They started going against other Islamist groups, because they felt that they were their rivals.
They wanted to have a monopoly on violence, essentially, in the area.
(cameras clicking) >> SMITH: Two weeks after my first interview with Jolani, he agreed to sit down again.
You fought against Ahrar al Sham, you fought against those who stayed with al Qaeda, Hurras al Din, and ISIS, of course, and even the Free Syrian Army that was backed by the C.I.A.
How much blood and treasure was spilled in that time?
>> JOLANI: (rapid gunfire) (gun firing) >> SMITH: So what is it about Jolani do you think that allowed him to be the one that came out on top of all of this?
>> He clearly has survival instincts, 'cause it's been a very bloody civil war.
(explosions booming) Jolani has gone where the wind has blown in many respects over time, to try and survive different challenges that have come up at various points within the last ten years.
>> JOLANI: >> SMITH: In 2017, Jolani joined a coalition of factions called Hay'at Tahrir al Sham, or HTS.
And Jolani claimed he was going through a major transformation.
HTS, he said, was not ISIS.
>> JOLANI: >> I think Jabhat al Nusra, at the very early stages of its existence, did exhibit practices that were similar to ISIS.
But Jabhat al Nusra has now partially or fully transformed into Hay'at Tahrir al Sham.
(both speaking softly) Since then, we've seen an attempt to try to put up a, sort of a civilian front.
>> JOLANI: >> JOLANI and MAN: >> But we continue to document violations including arbitrary arrests and mistreatment that are similar in approach to other parties to the conflict.
>> SMITH: Today, there is a semblance of normal life here.
Jolani has a roster of ministries that make up what is called Syria's Salvation Government, or SSG.
They pick up the garbage, supply water and electricity, run the hospitals, the courts, and the schools.
(teacher speaking Arabic) >> JOLANI: (Jolani speaking Arabic) >> SMITH: Jolani is clear.
Society should be organized according to Sharia law.
He claims to be a man of the people, but he opposes democracy.
Women hold no political offices in the Salvation Government and women's rights are severely restricted.
>> I think that he has a extremist Islamic view of how society should be organized-- I would say a Salafist viewpoint-- and he's willing to use force to achieve that.
>> SMITH: What does that mean, Salafist?
>> What that means is, you run society by the Sharia, and carry that out in the governance of the here and now should rule.
>> SMITH: He says that he's willing to guarantee rights to minorities, to women, Christians... >> That doesn't surprise me that he would say it.
It wouldn't surprise me that he actually believes it.
The problem is that close to these groups, there are people who nurse a true hatred of anybody who isn't like them, and so Christians, Shia, Yazidis, they're all-- secular Muslims, Sunnis-- they're all apostates, they're all the enemy.
>> JOLANI: >> SMITH: You want to impose Sharia law on society.
What gave you the authority, the legitimacy, to call for this?
>> JOLANI: >> SMITH: But evidence and allegations persist to this day that Jolani arrests and tortures journalists and pro-democracy activists.
Consider the recent case of Samer al Salloum.
He had complained about HTS corruption on social media.
I spoke to his brother Mohammed.
>> (speaking Arabic): >> SMITH: In 2019, after a little over a year in prison, he was executed.
>> (speaking Arabic): >> SMITH: Human rights groups continue to document cases of torture in Jolani's prisons.
Is it appropriate in your view to torture these prisoners?
>> JOLANI: >> SMITH: You're saying Human Rights Watch, Syria Observatory for Human Rights, and other human rights groups have an open invitation, from you, to visit your prisons?
>> JOLANI: >> SMITH: I talked to Jolani and I asked him about the situation with prisons, and I said that perhaps you could have human rights organizations come.
And he said, "Yes, they can come supervise the prisons.” How does that strike you?
>> I mean that would be very good if they're able to follow through on it, and if they're able to provide access to both official and unofficial detention facilities.
That kind of monitoring is exactly the kind of monitoring that we recommend.
It provides protection to detainees.
It also helps to provide feedback to detaining authorities about improving practices.
I mean, if this is a promise that they follow through on, that would be very good.
>> SMITH: As of this airing, no human rights monitors have been able to visit Idlib's prisons.
(explosion booming) >> Syrian regime forces have begun a new bombing campaign and there are fears that a full- scale offensive could be next.
>> SMITH: In mid-May 2019, the Assad regime, with Russia's help, began a major campaign to retake Idlib.
>> The cause for concern is that you've got a huge number of civilians in Idlib province that are caught in the middle of this.
>> MEN (in Arabic): >> MAN: (guns firing) >> SMITH: After nearly a year of heavy fighting, Syria's neighbor to the north, Turkey, began to fear a new Syrian refugee crisis and intervened.
>> Turkish President Erdogan said his country had reached its limit.
Turkey's stepped up its military campaign... >> SMITH: The regime's advance was halted and the front line was frozen.
(camera clicking) (birds cawing) There's not much more to destroy here.
>> (in Arabic): >> SMITH: This is Assad militia?
>> MAN: >> Turkey's president is defending his country's invasion of Northern Syria.
President Erdogan says the international community should "either join our efforts or begin admitting refugees."
>> Turkey is trying to keep the Assad regime and its allies from targeting civilians and getting them running for their lives across the Turkish frontier into that country, a scenario they claim they can't handle.
And that's a real fear.
(men speaking Arabic) >> SMITH: Jolani is now trying to persuade nations that, despite his past, he is worth another look.
What do you make of this charm offensive that he's on now?
>> In some ways, it has to be done, right?
I mean, how to solve the problem of Idlib province?
Here is this large Syrian province, it borders Turkey.
It is home to millions of Syrians.
They have Islamists on the one side, and they have Assad's forces on the other.
And they're hemmed in by a Turkish border that is effectively closed to them.
So, how to solve this issue?
I mean, can Idlib remain this independent island in the middle of Syria and bordered by Turkey?
Maybe part of the solution is saying, "Hey, look, guys, you know, we've changed.
Give us another look."
>> JOLANI: >> SMITH: When I visited, a Salvation Government crew had recently repaved a washed-out road with gravel.
>> JOLANI: >> SMITH: Today, Jolani rules a population of over three million people.
Over one-third live in makeshift camps, enduring freezing rains, floods, disease, and hunger.
They rely on insufficient humanitarian aid for food, water, and clothing.
Last month in Washington, there were high-level discussions about Jolani.
>> JOLANI and MAN: >> SMITH: During the Trump years, Jolani reached out to Ambassador Jeffrey through intermediaries.
Were you receiving messages from HTS?
>> SMITH: What were those messages?
>> Basically, "We want to be your friend.
We're not terrorists.
We're just fighting Assad."
>> SMITH: What do you do in response to that?
>> SMITH: You don't bring it up?
You don't go to the secretary and say, "They're calling us..." >> Why should I... take the high-risk position of urging somebody get dropped from the terrorist list?
>> SMITH: We repeatedly asked the Biden administration for comment, but they declined.
A stated policy has not yet been issued on Idlib, HTS, and what to do about Jolani.
>> Go to pbs.org/frontline for extended interviews from the film.
>> Look, he’s the least bad option of the various options on Idlib, which is one of the most important places in Syria.
>>He learned the lessons of Al Qaeda in Iraq.
>> It’s all about money, it’s all about money.
>> And see more of our extensive coverage of Syria.
Connect with FRONTLINE on Facebook, Instagram, Twitter and TikTok and stream anytime on the pbs app or pbs.org/frontline.
Captioned by Media Access Group at WGBH access.wgbh.org >> For more on this and other "Frontline" programs, visit our website at pbs.org/frontline.
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