Syria’s Jabhat al-Nusra splits from al-Qaeda and changes its name

The Washington Post reports: Syria’s al-Qaeda affiliate split from its parent organization and changed its name Thursday in a move widely interpreted as a bid to head off a U.S.-Russian plan to launch joint airstrikes against the group.

Jabhat al-Nusra announced that it would henceforth be known as Jabhat Fatah al-Sham — or Front for the Conquest of Syria — and said it no longer owes allegiance to al-Qaeda.

The announcement was made in a video statement delivered to the Al Jazeera television network by the group’s leader, Abu Mohammed al-Jolani, who revealed his face for the first time since he declared the formation of the Syrian branch of al-Qaeda in early 2012.

He said the split was intended to remove any “pretext” for the United States and Russia to conduct airstrikes against the wider rebel movement while claiming they are targeting Jabhat al-Nusra. He also outlined a plan aimed at promoting unity among Syria’s fractious rebel groups at a critical time for the rebellion against President Bashar al-Assad’s rule. [Continue reading…]

Charles Lister writes: Al Qaeda’s central leadership has played a significant role in determining the trajectory of this move, which was underlined in the sequencing of the announcement. Six hours before Abu Mohammed al-Jolani appeared on television, Nusra Front media wing al-Manara al-Bayda (the White Minaret) published an audio statement in which al Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri and his deputy, Ahmed Hassan (Abu al-Khayr), gave their public blessings for the severance of ties. “The bonds of Islamic brotherhood are stronger than any obsolete links between organizations,” Zawahiri said. “These organizational links must be sacrificed without hesitation if they threaten your unity.”

That Abu al-Khayr also spoke was especially interesting, given the likelihood that he has been based inside Syria since at least late 2015, as I revealed earlier this year.

The Nusra Front also published the first confirmed photo and then video footage showing Jolani, who had previously insisted on concealing his face. Intriguingly, despite dissolving his ties to al Qaeda, Jolani appeared dressed in green military fatigues and a white headdress in what appeared to be a clear attempt to replicate well-known images of Osama bin Laden. In the video address, Jolani was also flanked by two key al Qaeda-linked figures, including Ahmed Salameh Mabrouk (Abu Faraj al-Masri), a veteran jihadi figure with experience fighting in Egypt, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Yemen, Sudan, Russia, and Azerbaijan. Having been Zawahiri’s closest aide through the 1990s, Mabrouk’s laptop was famously captured by the CIA in Baku, Azerbaijan, and described as the “Rosetta Stone of al Qaeda.”

Simply put, al Qaeda is coordinating its Syrian affiliate’s dissolution of ties to its own core leadership for the sake of preserving the long-term viability of the Nusra Front and its jihadi strategic objectives. The ideological ties between al Qaeda and Jabhat Fateh al-Sham remain strong. [Continue reading…]

Charles Lister this month published a 55-page profile of Jabhat al-Nusra.

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