On Thursday, Nusra Front’s infamous leader Abu Mohammed al-Jolani announced that his group would no longer be a part of Al-Qaeda. At least that’s how it was reported by international media.
Indeed, Jolani announced the formation of a new and independent group named Jabhat Fatah al-Sham (front for the conquest of the Levant). But his exact words on its relations with Al-Qaeda were less explicit than the mainstream narrative leads us to believe.
In a statement exclusively obtained by Al Jazeera, which has been translated into English by Orient News, Jolani declared the “cancellation of all operations under the name Nusra Front,” and the formation of a new group, Jabhat Fatah al-Sham. He declared that this new group has “no affiliation to any external entity.”
On his reasoning for the formation of a new group, Jolani listed a desire to “strive to bridge the gaps between the groups of mujahideen and ourselves,” “unite the masses of the sham,” and “expose the deceptions of the international community,” naming the US and Russia as its heads.
And referring to the US and Russia specifically, he criticized their “relentless bombardment and displacement of the Muslim masses of the Levant under the pretence of targeting Nusra Front, an Al-Qaeda affiliate.”
It thus seems that the decision was strategic, and not due to any beef with Al-Qaeda’s jihadist ideology. Judging by Jolani’s words, he aims to work more closely with other groups in Syria and remove the baggage associated with Al-Qaeda’s name, which leads the group to be targeted by US and Russian airstrikes.
While Jabhat Fatah al-Sham will now be independent, their exact relation with Al-Qaeda remains up for debate, according to some.
Julani never says Nusra is splitting from AlQaeda &doesnt retract his pledge of allegiance 2 Zawahiri. See subtitles pic.twitter.com/0XaN6ReANL— Jenan Moussa (@jenanmoussa) July 28, 2016
In the video, Jolani never utters the words ‘we’re splitting ties with Al-Qaeda’ or anything of the like.
On that note, Jolani actually thanked his “brothers” in Al-Qaeda in the speech, and said “their blessed leadership has and shall continue to be an exemplar of putting the needs of the community and their higher interests before the interest of any individual group.”
The words “shall continue to be” indicate that, at the least, Jabhat Fatah al-Sham will remain inspired by Al-Qaeda.
Some Syria researchers doubt that the group will now be fully independent of Al-Qaeda. “(Jolani)’s very clear on his Al-Qaeda stance. This was done not only with permission, but under Al-Qaeda’s guidance,” said a researcher in Washington, DC, who spoke on condition of anonymity. “Al-Qaeda central is telling Nusra to sever its name; we support what you’re doing. I don’t think any links will be severed.”
Others have pointed out that Jabhat Fatah al-Sham’s stated ideology remains nearly identical to Al-Qaeda’s.
Jabhat Fateh al-Sham charter, notable points:— Charles Lister (@Charles_Lister) July 29, 2016
3: desire for global Islamic rule
7: value & recognition of ijtihad pic.twitter.com/HX73PAgp2A
Finally, how separate from Al-Qaeda can Jabhat Fatah al-Sham be when Jolani’s announcement was literally made sitting next to a senior Al-Qaeda figure? In the video, Ahmed Salameh Mabrouk, a high-up Al-Qaeda-operative, is seated next to Jolani.
Al-Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri first gave somewhat cryptic permission for Nusra Front to go on its own in May.
The video is further of note for being the first where Jolani shows his face.