Rebels from the al-Qaeda affiliated group Jabhat al-Nusra, or the Nusra Front, wave their brigade flag as they step on top of a Syrian air force helicopter at Taftanaz air base in northern Syria, which was captured by anti-regime forces earlier this year. This photo is a citizen journalism image provided the by Edlib News Network and authenticated based on its contents and other reporting. Edlib News Network/Associated Press
The shadowy 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, according to excerpts of letters obtained Wednesday by The Associated Press.
Iraqi intelligence officials offered the AP the letters, as well as the first known photograph of the Nusra Front leader, Abu Mohammed al-Golani, the head of one of the most powerful and feared bands of radicals fighting the Syrian government in the country's civil war. The photograph showed a man with light olive skin and large brown eyes who had a scruffy, unshaven face.
The officials said they obtained the information about al-Golani after they captured members of another al-Qaeda group. 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," reads 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.
It wasn't immediately clear when the letters were written, or what else they may have contained. The intelligence officials did not provide more excerpts. 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.
They said the letters particularly focused on Shiite Muslims. Hard-line Sunni Muslim extremists particularly loathe Shiites, seeing them as heretics for practising a different style of Islam.
Another letter excerpt scrawled out rough plans for succession should al-Golani be killed.
The Nusra Front is mostly composed of Syrian fighters, but has some foreigners.
Alluding to the sensitivities between them, and suggesting that high-level positions were mostly filled by foreigners, al-Golani asks for a man called "Hajj Rashid" to be his deputy "until there is a Syrian man qualified to take the position."
Iraqi officials could not 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 ranks, and typically, hard-line Muslims try to write in classical Arabic.
It may have been that an aide was writing down al-Golani's speech: Arabs typically speak in dialects that are often quite different from the 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.
Al-Golani is a nom de guerre, indicating someone born in the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights.
A native of Syria, he joined the insurgency there after moving to Iraq, regional intelligence officials have said.
He advanced through al-Qaeda's ranks and eventually became a close associate of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the Jordanian-born leader of the militant group al-Qaeda in Iraq.
He eventually returned to Syria shortly after the uprising against President Bashar al-Assad began in March 2011, where he formed the Nusra Front, first announced in January 2012.
Under al-Golani's leadership, Nusra has grown into one of the most powerful rebel groups, with an estimated force of 6,000 to 7,000 fighters across the country.
The group gained prominence in April after Golani rejected an attempted takeover of the Nusra Front by another rival al-Qaeda group, now known as the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant.
Iraqi intelligence officials said it was members of ISIL who gave them the information about al-Golani.