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Russia claims al-Qaeda leader Julani seriously injured in Syria airstrike

An airstrike seriously injured Jabhat Fateh al-Sham’s leader and killed 12 commanders of Syria’s al-Qaeda affiliate, Russia’s defense ministry said on Wednesday.

“On October 3, the Russian military intelligence found out the time and venue of the Jabhat al-Nusra leaders’ meeting led by the group’s leader, Abu Muhammad al-Julani,” defense ministry spokesperson Major-General Igor Konashenkov said, adding that the meeting was struck by Sukhoi Su-34 and Su-35 aircraft.

“After the attack, Jabhat al-Nusra leader, Abu Mohammed al-Julani, sustained multiple heavy shrapnel wounds and, having lost his arm, according to several independent sources, is in critical condition. Along with numerous (about 50 people) body guards, twelve Jabhat al-Nusra field commanders, including al-Julani’s closest assistant, head of the group’s security service Ahmad al-Ghizai, have been killed,” Konashenkov said.

Some experts have cast doubt on Russia’s claims, saying that imagery released had previously been used to illustrate Russian airstrikes in eastern Syria.

Update October 4: In a statement on its Telegram channel, HTS denied that Julani was injured, saying that he was in “good health and exercising the duties assigned to him completely.”

Abu Mohammed al-Julani

Ahmed Hussein al-Shar’a, known by the nom de guerre Abu Muhammad al-Julani, is from the Golan area of western Syria.

He went to Iraq after the 2003 U.S. invasion, and rose through the ranks of al-Qaeda in Iraq, reportedly becoming a close associate of its leader, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi.

He was eventually arrested by the U.S. military and held at Camp Bucca. After his release in 2008, Julani worked with Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the head of the then Islamic State of Iraq, and was appointed head of ISI in Nineveh Province.

Julani returned to Syria after the uprising against Bashar al-Assad in 2011, and founded Jabhat al-Nusra as a sub-group of ISI. In 2013, after refusing al-Baghdadi’s instruction to dissolve Nusra as a distinct group and make it part of ISIS, he pledged allegiance to al-Qaeda and its then leader Ayman al-Zawahri, and was listed by the U.S. as a Specially Designated Global Terrorist in May of that year.

In 2016, Julani publicly declared that Nusra was changing its name to Jabhat Fateh al-Sham and breaking links to al-Qaeda, but the alleged severing of ties was not accepted by the international community. In May, the FBI offered a $10 million reward for information leading to his identification or location.

In early 2017, JFS announced the formation of Hayat Tahrir al-Sham, an alliance between it and other jihadist groups Jabhat Ansar al-Din, Jaysh al-Sunna, Liwa al-Haqq, and Ḥarakat Nour al-Din al-Zenki, which had previously supplied with TOW anti-tank missiles by the US. More groups and individuals – including many from Turkey-backed Ahrar al-Sham – joined later.

Julani was named as the new group’s military commander, with former Ahrar al-Sham leader Hashim al-Sheikh, (also known as Abu Jabir) as it’s overall leader.

The group controls significant territory in Idlib province in western Syria.

In July, Nour al-Din al-Zenki withdrew from the alliance after conflict between HTS and Ahrar al-Sham in Idlib.

More recently, one of HTS’ biggest factions, Jaysh al-Ahrar, left the alliance, and on October 1, HTS announced the resignation of Abu Jabir and the appointment of Julani as interim leader.

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