The Nusra Front, one of the strongest radical Islamist groups in Syria, announced Thursday that it was splitting from its global sponsor Al-Qaeda and rebranding itself in a bid to prevent it being targeted as an extremist group by the U.S.-led coalition and Russian air forces.
The group’s leader Abu Mohamed al-Jolani made his first appearance in a video for the group, declaring that the group had renamed itself as Jabhat Fatah al-Sham, the front for the liberation of al-Sham, using an ancient term for the Levant region.
“We have stopped operating under the name of al-Nusra Front and formed a new body…This new formation has no ties with any foreign party,” he said in a recorded message broadcast on Al-Jazeera’s Arabic channel.The group is the main jihadi rival to the Islamic State militant group (ISIS) in Syria and is blacklisted by the U.S. and the European Union as an extremist organization.
Jolani said that the rebrand was an attempt to “remove the excuse used by the international community—spearheaded by America and Russia—to bombard and displace Muslims in the Levant: that they are targeting Nusra Front, which is associated with al-Qaeda.” He added that the group would “have no links whatsoever with foreign parties.”
But the U.S. said that the rebrand would not affect Washington’s thinking about the group as a radical Islamist organization, saying that it feared the group had plans to launch attacks in the West.
“The United States continues to assess that Nusra Front leaders maintain the intent to conduct eventual attacks in and against the West and there continues to be increasing concern about Nusra Front’s growing capacity for external operations that could threaten both the United States and Europe,” White House spokesman Josh Earnest said.
Al-Qaeda said in a statement that it backed the split and its deputy chief Ahmed Hassan Abu al-Khayr said that the group had ordered “the leadership of the Nusra Front to go ahead with what protects the interests of Islam and Muslims and what protects jihad.”
Leader of the group Ayman al-Zawahiri said that “the brotherhood of Islam is stronger than any organizational links that change and go away.”