Beirut-The leader of al-Nusra Front Abu Mohamad al-Jolani struggled on Thursday to show a new face of the organization while announcing a decision to end the relationship of al-Nusra’s Syria branch with al-Qaeda.
Jolani was trying to comfort the West that his organization has no links to “any foreign party.”
In the first video statement ever to show his face, Jolani announced that the group would reorganize itself under a new name.
“In an attempt to remove the excuse used by the international community, spearheaded by America and Russia, to bombard and displace Muslims in the Levant by attacking the Nusra Front, which is associated with al Qaeda, we have decided to annul the work of the Nusra Front and establish a new group under the new name of Jabhat Fatah al-Sham (Front of the Conquest of Syria),” Jolani said.
An informed source told Asharq Al-Awsat newspaper that the leader of the Nusra Front chose a new name that is not only restricted to Syria. The source said that the term “sham” is taken from the phase prior to World War I, when it was used to designate the region of Syria and areas located outside its current geographic borders.
During the announcement, two other officials from the Nusra Front appeared near Jolani. According to several tweets, the man sitting on his right is Qaeda veteran leader Ahmed Salameh Mabrouk, known by the name of Abu al-Faraj al-Masri. On his left side sat leading member of the Nusra Front Shura Council, Abdelrahim Atoun, who goes by the nom de guerre of Abu Abdullah al-Shami.
The decision of al-Nusra Front to split from al-Qaeda came following eight months of negotiations, which culminated on Thursday by a voice recording broadcasted by al-Qaeda. The message said al-Nusra Front could sacrifice its organizational links with al-Qaeda if such a matter was necessary to protect its unity and to continue the battle in Syria.
“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 the Nusra.
“We urge them to take the appropriate steps towards this matter,” said Abu al-Khayr, identified as the deputy of al-Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri.
Jihadist groups expert Abdulrahman al-Haj told Asharq Al-Awsat that the audio message of Abu al-Khayr was “coordinated with al-Nusra Front with the aim of supporting the decision to ends its relations with al-Qaeda, and therefore, offer al-Nusra the legacy it needs to prevent a possible split in its ranks.”
Al-Haj said that despite the split, al-Nusra Front would certainly keep the same ideology.
The expert confirmed the presence of a division within the ranks of al-Nusra Front.
The White House said on Thursday its assessment of al-Nusra Front has not changed, despite news that the group was cutting its ties with al-Qaeda, Reuters reported.
“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 told reporters at a briefing.
Meanwhile, president of the Syrian National Coalition Anas Al-Abdah described what was happening in Aleppo after the regime of Bashar Assad took control of it as “a war crime, a genocide and a forced displacement.”
Al-Abdah blamed Russia for being responsible of the legal, political, humanitarian and ethical violations against the Syrian people.
On Thursday, Russia announced the start of the “humanitarian operation” in Aleppo in collaboration with the Syrian regime, while Assad said rebels who surrendered within three months would be amnestied.
However, politicians and military officials inside Aleppo said that any talks about an amnesty and the humanitarian corridors were a simple maneuver and a “media trick” conducted by the regime and Russia.
In his first appearance, Jolani confirmed photos leaked earlier by the Iraqi Intelligence.
A source told Asharq Al-Awsat said Jolani is Syrian citizen Osama al-Absi Al-Wahdi, 35, from the Shaheel village, which is part of Deir Ezzor city.
He had joined al-Qaeda in 2003 under the leadership of slain militant Abu Musab al-Zarqawi.
Jolani left Iraq following the assassination of al-Zarqawi in a U.S. raid in 2006, and went to Lebanon where he trained militants from Jund al-Sham, an organization linked to al-Qaeda.
Following the start of the war in 2011, al-Qaeda sent Jolani to Syria to establish a branch that could launch attacks against the regime.