Al-Nusra chief in Syria announces break with al Qaeda
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The head of the al-Nusra Front in Syria said his jihadist group was breaking ties with al Qaeda and changing its name, in remarks broadcast Thursday by Al-Jazeera.
In a rare televised message, Abu Mohamad al-Jolani said the group had renamed itself Jabhat Fatah al Sham ("Conquest of the Levant" in Arabic) so that foreign powers could no longer use the pretext of its affiliation with al Qaeda to attack Syrians.
He expressed his gratitude to the "commanders of al Qaeda for having understood the need to break ties", adding that the new group "would have no links whatsoever with foreign parties".
The announcement came a week after US Secretary of State John Kerry and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said they had agreed on "concrete steps" to save a failing Syria truce and tackle jihadist groups like al-Nusra and the Islamic State (IS) group.
Jihadist sympathisers and observers had been speculating online about a possible split between al-Nusra and the network founded by Osama bin Laden to which it pledged allegiance in 2013.
Al Qaeda prepared the ground for the announcement earlier Thursday in an online message.
"We direct the leadership of al-Nusra Front to go ahead with what preserves the good of Islam and the Muslims, and protects the jihad of the Syrian people," Ahmed Hassan Abu al-Khayr said in an audio message released online by al-Nusra.
"We urge them to take the appropriate steps towards this matter," said Abu al-Khayr, who was identified as a deputy of al Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri.
No change for Washington
Al-Nusra first emerged in January 2012, 10 months after Syria's conflict began with anti-government protests that were brutally repressed by President Bashar al-Assad's regime.
It is Syria's pre-eminent jihadist group, along with its key rival, the IS group.
But unlike the IS group, which opposes all those who fail to swear allegiance, al-Nusra has worked alongside an array of rebel groups fighting Assad's regime and has popular support.
Analysts say al-Nusra aims to rebrand and defend itself as it comes under increased pressure after Moscow and Washington agreed to step up joint efforts against the group.
"Whatever Nusra does, its ultimate objective is to further embed itself into Syria's revolution and secure its long-term future" as a legitimate rebel group, analyst Charles Lister tweeted.
Reacting to Jolani's announcement, the US State Department said on Thursday that al-Nusra militants remained a fair target for US and Russian warplanes in Syria.
State Department spokesman John Kirby said al-Nusra's change of name could simply be a rebranding exercise and the United States would judge it by its actions, goals and ideology.
(FRANCE 24 with AFP)