The head of Al-Nusra Front in Syria said his jihadist group was breaking ties with al Qaeda and changing its name, in remarks broadcast Thursday by Al-Jazeera.
Abu Mohamad al-Jolani said Al-Nusra would change its name to Jabhat Fateh al-Sham (Conquest of Syria in Arabic) and expressed his gratitude to the “commanders of al Qaeda for having understood the need to break ties”.
In a rare televised message, Jolani said the new group “will have no links whatsoever with foreign parties”.
The announcement came a week after US Secretary of State John Kerry and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said they had agreed on “concrete steps” to save a failing Syria truce and tackle jihadist groups like Al-Nusra and the Islamic State group.
Jihadist sympathisers and observers have been speculating online about a possible split between Al-Nusra and the network founded by Osama bin Laden to which it pledged allegiance in 2013.
Al Qaeda prepared the ground for the announcement earlier Thursday in an online message.
“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 Al-Nusra.
“We urge them to take the appropriate steps towards this matter,” said Abu al-Khayr, who was identified as a deputy of al Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri.
Al-Nusra first emerged in January 2012, 10 months after Syria’s conflict began with anti-government protests that were brutally repressed by President Bashar al-Assad’s regime.
It is Syria’s preeminent jihadist group, along with its key rival, the Islamic State group.
“Whatever Nusra does, its ultimate objective is to further embed itself into Syria’s revolution and secure its long-term future” as a legitimate rebel group, analyst Charles Lister tweeted.