BEIRUT: The Syrian branch of Al-Qaeda, Al-Nusra Front, announced Thursday it was breaking ties with the global terror network, in a video showing its leader Abu Mohamad al-Jolani for the first time.
The footage broadcast by Al-Jazeera news channel follows several days of online chatter over a split between Al-Qaeda and its Syria affiliate, a main rival of the militant Islamic State (IS) group from which it wants to distance itself as a target of foreign air strikes.
Appearing in public for the first time, Jolani said Al-Nusra would change its name to Jabhat Fateh al-Sham (Front of the Conquest of Syria) and unify ranks with other mainstream fighters in Syria.
“We decided to stop operating under the banner of Al-Nusra and to set up a new front, called Jabhat Fateh al-Sham,” said Jolani.
Clad in military fatigues and wearing a turban, the bearded Jolani expressed his gratitude to “the commanders of Al-Qaeda for having understood the need to break ties”.
And he vowed the new group would “have no links whatsoever with foreign parties”.
Analysts said 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 militant groups.
Last week, US Secretary of State John Kerry and his Russian counterpart Sergei Lavrov said they had agreed “concrete steps” to save a failing Syria truce and tackle militants like Al-Nusra and IS.
But with the amicable break from Al-Qaeda , Jolani “can now call upon a broad spectrum of armed groups in Syria to agree to unite initiatives that will by necessity be heavily influenced by Nusra itself”, said analyst Charles Lister.
In the brief recording, Jolani, who was flanked by two bearded men, said the split from Al-Qaeda was aimed at “protecting the Syrian revolution”.
He also pledged to unite ranks with other fighters in order to “liberate Syria from the oppressors”.
“We hope to form a unified body, based on the shura (Islamic law), uniting the masses of the people of Al-Sham, liberating their lands, giving victory to their faith and upholding their testimony of faith,” he said.
Lister said that one of the men sitting beside Jolani was a veteran Al-Qaeda leader he identified as Ahmed Salameh Mabrouk.
“Al-Qaeda is playing a critically important role in shaping this development and their thinking and strategizing will remain crucial for this new Jabhat Fateh al-Sham movement,” he said.
“It will still oppose the most moderate of opposition groups in Syria; it will still be viciously sectarian, and it will still ultimately seek the establishment of an Islamic emirate in Syria and the potential launching of external attacks on the West.”
Militant 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.
'For the good of Islam'
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.
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 preeminent militant group, along with its key rival IS.
But unlike IS, 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.
Analyst Aymenn Jawad al-Tamimi, speaking ahead of Jolani's announcement, said “Al-Qaeda's central leadership endorses the idea of embedding Jabhat al-Nusra more deeply in the Syrian insurgency”.
Lister said the split between Al-Nusra and Al-Qaeda had been prompted by the US-Russia agreement to coordinate efforts and target jihadists operating in Syria.