Syria’s Nusra refutes Qaeda merger but pledges support

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The head of Syria's jihadist al-Nusra Front on Wednesday pledged allegiance to al-Qaeda chief Ayman al-Zawahiri in an audio message, 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 the recording.

But, he added, “we were not consulted” on an announcement by al-Qaeda in Iraq chief Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi on Tuesday of a merger with al-Nusra Front.

“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 Jawlani, acknowledging he had fought in Iraq alongside the ISI, al-Qaeda’s Iraqi branch.

“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,” he added.

Al-Qaeda’s announcement

Al-Qaeda in Iraq said for the first time on Tuesday that al-Nusra Front, a jihadist group battling President Bashar al-Assad’s regime, was part of its network and fighting for an Islamic state in Syria.

The remarks by the leader of al-Qaeda’s front group in Iraq, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, seemed to confirm widespread suspicions of links between the two groups.

“It's now time to declare in front of the people of the Levant and [the] world that the al-Nusra Front is but an extension of the Islamic State in Iraq and part of it," the SITE monitoring service quoted Baghdadi as saying in an audio speech issued on jihadist forums on Monday.

The announcement, now refuted by the al-Nusra Front, could have undermined support for them, or Jabhat al-Nusra in Arabic, which has been credited with playing a major role in rebel gains against forces loyal to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, analysts told AFP.

“This could potentially hurt Jabhat al-Nusra within the country, which would then affect the insurgency on some level,” Aaron Zelin of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy told AFP.

“Jabhat al-Nusra has got a really good reputation in the country, and the name Al-Qaeda is discredited throughout most of the Muslim world at this point.

“Do people not remember what the guys in Iraq did five years ago?” he asked, referring to the group’s reputation for brutality to civilians during the height of Iraq’s bloody sectarian conflict.

Both groups have achieved notoriety for their use of suicide attacks and car bombs, as opposed to the more conventional warfare of other insurgent factions in Iraq and Syria.

But al-Nusra had appeared to have learned from mistakes made by al-Qaeda in Iraq, in particular by insisting that its targets were military or part of the regime apparatus, even though they have often caused civilian casualties.