PHOTO: 1st public appearance, without disguise, of Jabhat al-Nusra leader Abu Mohammad al-Joulani
UPDATE 1645: GMT: Jabhat al-Nusra Abu Mohammad al-Joulani has now released his four-minute video statement, announcing separation from Al-Qa’eda and the renaming of the group as “Jabhat Fatah al-Sham”.
ORIGINAL ENTRY: Al-Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri has appeared to endorse the separation of Syria’s Jabhat al-Nusra, in an audio recording released on YouTube.
Nusra leader Abu Mohamed al-Jolani is expected to speak this evening, hours after his photograph was released by the group for the first time.
Zawahiri said in his audio message:
The brotherhood of Islam that bonds us is stronger than any obsolete links between organizations. These organisational links must be sacrificed without hesitation if they threaten your unity.
Nusra supporters have been indicating for several days that the separation was imminent. Local sources said the detachment was “highly possible”, although they advised waiting for the official announcement.
Rebel factions such as Ahrar al-Sham and foreign backers of Saudi Arabia, notably Saudi Arabia, sought the detachment in spring 2015, but al-Joulani set back any hopes when he used a rare TV interview to reject any revocation of allegiance to Al-Qa’eda.
Action to “Preserve Jihad in the Levant”
However, Abu al-Khayr al-Masri, a deputy to Zawahiri, said in Thursday’s message that Al-Qa’eda approved “any possible action” that would improve the unity among groups battling the Assad regime and the Islamic State, creating a “new generation” of fighters:
After studying the situation in Syria… we approve any possible action that will preserve jihad in the Levant. We say now to the leaders of the Nusra Front: do what preserves the unity of Islam and Muslims, and jihad in the Levant.
We urge you to take the necessary steps in this direction. This is also a call to all the other jihadi factions in the Levant… You must form one rank to protect our people and our land.
According to Middle East Eye, Masri was at a meeting in Idlib city in northwest Syria on April 5. Taha Rifai — a leading Egyptian Islamist subsequently killed in a US drone strike — tried to convince Nusra members that they needed to focus on fighting the Assad regime.
Soon after the meeting, Rifai was killed by a US drone strike.
A Tactical, Local Shift
A Dutch member of Nusra said this week that the detachment will only be “to change…organizational ties”: “If Jabhat al-Nusra change their ties and name, they still share the same strategy and methodology as Al Qa’eda.”
However, a local analyst noted that the shift will put Nusra in line with many of its Syrian fighters: “Al-Qa’eda’s ideology has always been mostly for [Nusra’s] leadership.”
Jabhat al-Nusra first entered the Syrian conflict in 2012. While intervening as part of an approach by the Islamic State, Nusra soon established ties with local communities, recruiting most of its fighters from the area and pursuing religious, social, and cultural activities.
Nusra broke with the Islamic State in early 2014, after ISIS turned on Syria’s rebels and then renounced its allegiance to Al-Qa’eda.