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.
Jolani is also the leader of the dominant force in Syria’s Idlib province, which after more than 10 years of conflict is the last remaining opposition stronghold to President Bashar al-Assad’s regime — and which is home to more than 3 million Syrian civilians, many of them displaced from other parts of the country.
Jolani says he is seeking a new relationship with the West. But can he be trusted?
In tonight’s new documentary, The Jihadist, veteran FRONTLINE correspondent Martin Smith travels to Idlib to investigate that question, becoming the first Western journalist to interview Jolani. Smith also tracked down and interviewed his critics and victims.
“I came to this story fully aware of the controversy it would generate. I would be speaking to a designated terrorist,” Smith says. “But after 20 years of covering the region, I thought this was an important opportunity.”
In the film, Smith investigates 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 ongoing human rights abuses by his current Islamist group, Hayat Tahrir al-Sham — to change his image into that of a viable leader who is not a danger to the United States and Europe.
“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,” James Jeffrey, a top diplomat in the region during the Bush, Obama and Trump administrations, told Smith.
But when it comes to the wisdom of potentially working with Jolani, others disagree.
It would equal “letting him and the organization off the hook,” Aaron Zelin of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, whose research focuses on jihadi groups in North Africa and Syria, told Smith. “How can you necessarily trust somebody that’s just trying to survive and continue to remain in power?”
For the full story, watch The Jihadist: a hard look at Jolani’s past, his ascent and his aspirations, as he seeks wider acceptance from the global community, and the fate of Syrians living in Idlib hangs in the balance.
The Jihadist premieres tonight at 10/9c on PBS stations (check local listings) and on YouTube. It will be available to stream starting at 7/6c at pbs.org/frontline and in the PBS Video App.