BEIRUT (AP) — The leader of Syria's Nusra Front said in recording aired Thursday that his group is changing its name, claiming it will have no more ties with al-Qaida in an attempt to undermine a potential U.S. and Russian air campaign against its fighters.
The announcement is the first time that an entire branch of al-Qaida has said it is leaving the terror network. But the move took place with the endorsement of al-Qaida's central leadership, and its ideology remains the same, raising questions whether the change really goes beyond the new name, the Levant Conquest Front.
The United States, which considers Nusra a terrorist organization, immediately expressed its skepticism. White House spokesman Josh Earnest said Thursday the U.S. continues to assess that Nusra leaders intend to attack the West and said the U.S.-led military campaign is focused on a number of extremist groups, including Nusra and the Islamic State group.
But the step could complicate U.S. efforts in Syria.
Without the al-Qaida name, the group will now seek to expand its alliances with other Syrian rebels, including relative moderates backed by Washington and its allies. Those factions may then oppose international airstrikes against Nusra fighters, arguing that they are now simply fellow rebels against President Bashar Assad, not an al-Qaida affiliate.
Nusra's leader, Abu Mohammed al-Golani, made his first appearance showing his face in the video message, aired on the Syrian opposition station Orient TV and Al-Jazeera.
Sitting between two members of the Front's senior leadership, al-Golani said the delinking from al-Qaida aimed to remove "pretexts" by the U.S. and Russia to strike other rebel groups while claiming they are targeting Nusra.
He underlined the step took place with the blessings of al-Qaida's leadership, and he thanked them for their understanding. He also said the move upholds dictates of Osama bin Laden and was necessary "to protect the Levantine Jihad." Notably, one of those seated next to al-Golani in the video was Ahmed Salama Mabrouk, an al-Qaida veteran who is close to its leader Ayman al-Zahwari and who recently came to Syria to join Nusra — a sign of how intertwined the group and the parent organization remain.
"We decided to cancel work under the name of Nusra Front and form a new group under a new front called the Levant Conquest Front. This new front will have no links to any outside groups," he said.
Before his announcement, al-Qaida's central leadership gave its blessing in a message from Ahmed Hassan Abu el-Kheir, the deputy of al-Qaida chief Ayman al-Zawahri. He said in an audio file posted online that the Nusra Front should do "whatever protects the interests of Islam and Muslims and protects jihad" in Syria.
He also urged the Nusra Front to unite with other factions against "Crusaders" and form a good "Islamic government."
The message also included a brief comment from al-Zawahri, saying, "The brotherhood of Islam is stronger than any organizational links that change and go away." It was not clear when he made those recorded comments.
Ludovico Carlino, a senior analyst with IHS Country Risk, a risk-assessment group, called the move "a smart public relations exercise."
Breaking from the al-Qaida brand removes an obstacle to creating a broader alliance with Syrian Islamist rebel factions, Carlino said in an email. It will allow the group "to embed itself more deeply in the Syrian insurgency and to indoctrinate local Syrians to its jihadist ideology, while retaining its long-term goal of establishing Islamic governance in Syria."
Nusra, for example, has been seeking an alliance with the powerful hardline Islamist rebel faction Ahrar al-Sham. But Ahrar al-Sham has been reluctant, seeking to be closer to the Syrian opposition political scene dealing with the West. For example, it leaders approved U.S.-Russia-backed Geneva peace process, though it has not taken part. Nusra's purported break with al-Qaida could ease its reluctance.
Currently, the U.S. and Russia are trying to hammer out an agreement on a new military partnership in Syria. One leaked U.S. proposal would call for a sharing of intelligence and targeting for strikes against IS and Nusra on the condition Russia commits to convince its ally Assad to ground Syria's bombers and start a political transition process.
Washington and its allies have been pressing Syrian rebel factions to distance themselves from areas where Nusra is active. But the efforts have had little success, given Nusra's prowess on the battlefield. The attempt to cut a clear line between rebels and Nusra could be even more difficult after Nusra's announcement.
The White House spokesman, Earnest, acknowledged the difficulties, saying it's complex to distinguish between extremist groups and moderate opposition groups and those complexities aren't diminished by Nusra's public denial that it's associated with al-Qaida.
U.S. airstrikes have targeted the group in the past, including a wave of attacks that Washington said hit a cell called the Khorasan Group that was plotting terror attacks abroad.
The Nusra Front was created in January 2012 and emerged as one of the strongest groups fighting against the forces of Assad and his allies, including Lebanon's Hezbollah.
It has also been in a fierce rivalry with the Islamic State group. IS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdad tried to force Nusra to absorb into his ranks. But al-Golani refused, pledging his allegiance directly to al-Zawahri, who went on to throw al-Baghdadi and his group — at the time al-Qaida's Iraq branch — out of the terror network.
IS conquered large parts of Iraq and Syria and declared its own "caliphate," fighting any group — Incluing Nusra and other rebel factions — that refused to submit to its rule. Nusra, in contrast, took a more pragmatic path, forming alliances with other rebels, particularly those with Islamist ideologies.
Although not as brutal as IS, Nusra Front militants have been accused in atrocities, including gunning down more than dozen members of the Druze community last summer. They shot an alleged prostitute in the head on camera in front of a group of people in Idlib province and arrested a number of opposition activists earlier this year for taking part in protests. The group has also crushed a couple of U.S.-backed rebel groups, confiscated their weapons and arrested their leaders. It has also been blamed for kidnapping journalists.
AP correspondent Josh Lederman in Washington contributed to this report.