Syria’s Al-Nusra Front ‘loyal to Zawahiri’

Syria’s Al-Nusra Front ‘loyal to Zawahiri’

Syria’s Al-Nusra Front ‘loyal to Zawahiri’

Members of Liwa Hamzah, an Islamist brigade hold flags of Jabhat al-Nusra. AFP photo

The head of Syria’s jihadist al-Nusra Front pledged allegiance yesterday to al-Qaeda chief Ayman al-Zawahiri but distanced his group from claims it had merged with al-Qaeda in Iraq.

“The sons of al-Nusra Front pledge allegiance to Sheikh Ayman al-Zawahiri,” Abu Mohammed al-Jawlani said in a recording. But, he added, “we were not consulted” on an announcement by al-Qaeda in Iraq chief Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi on April 9 that a merger had occurred between the Iraqi group and al-Nusra. 

“We inform you that neither the al-Nusra command nor its consultative council, nor its general manager were aware of this announcement. It reached them via the media and if the speech is authentic, we were not consulted,” al-Jawlani said, adding that the group would not be changing its flag or its “behavior.” 

“Al-Nusra Front will not change its flag, though we will continue to be proud of the flag of the Islamic State of Iraq, of those who carry it and those who sacrifice themselves and shed their blood for it,” said al-Jawlani, acknowledging he had fought in Iraq alongside the ISI, al-Qaeda’s Iraqi branch.

The group is considered among the most prominent organizations involved in Syria’s conflict. The Islamist militant group has gained notoriety for its suicide bombings but also won admiration from some insurgents for its reputation as a formidable fighting force leading attacks on battlefronts across Syria. Washington blacklisted the group as a terrorist organization for its deadly suicide attacks in December 2012, fearing that money and arms meant for the rebels would instead flow into the hands of the jihadist group. The group has also reportedly seized control of nearly 90 percent of Syria’s oil wells, its granaries and its stores of cotton, and it has set about selling the stocks to raise money.

“We reassure our brothers in Syria that al-Nusra Front’s behavior will remain faithful to the image you have come to know, and that our allegiance [to al-Qaeda] will not affect our politics in any way,” al-Jawlani said.

His comments came a day after al-Qaeda’s Iraqi branch made a surprise announcement that al-Nusra was part of its network, confirming long-held suspicions that led the United States to put the Syrian jihadist group on its terror blacklist. 

The announcement followed a message from al-Zawahiri, urging rebels to fight to establish an Islamic state in Syria, and was received with caution by the mainstream rebel Free Syrian Army (FSA). 

“We don’t support the ideology of al-Nusra,” FSA spokesman Louay Muqdad told Agence France-Presse. “There has never been and there will never be a decision at the command level to coordinate with al-Nusra.”

The U.S. and European Union are currently providing non-lethal aid to the rebels, but Britain and France want an EU arms embargo on Syria lifted so they can supply the rebels with weapons. But many countries have refused to arm the opposition fearing the weapons could fall into the hands of al-Qaeda-linked militants.