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Doubts over true extent of Nusra Front split from al-Qaeda in Syria

Nusra Front says it cut ties with al-Qaeda to protect the Syrian revolution, but security experts point to its on-going links
Egyptian militant and al-Qaeda veteran Ahmed Salameh Mabrouk (left) on panel with Nusra Front leader Abu Mohamed al-Golani (centre)

Security analysts have cast doubt on claims by Syrian militant group Nusra Front that it has actually split from al-Qaeda, after it emerged that the Syrian group’s leader announced the move while flanked by a veteran al-Qaeda figure.

In a bid to prevent it from being targeted as a designated terrorist group by the US-led coalition and Russian air forces, Nusra Front leader Abu Mohamed al-Golani made his first appearance in a video on Thursday, declaring that the group had rebranded itself as the Jabhat Fateh al-Sham/Levantine Conquest Front and had severed its ties with al-Qaeda.

Still, in spite of claiming to have dissolved formal links to al-Qaeda, the Nusra Front leader appeared in the video next to Ahmed Salameh Mabrouk, an Egyptian militant who has long-standing connections to al-Qaeda and its leadeAyman al-Zawahiri.

Mabrouk has been one of Zawahiri’s closest aides since the 1990s and has operated for al-Qaeda in Egypt, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Yemen, Sudan, Russia and Azerbaijan, according to analysts at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, an American think-tank known for hawkish views on Iran.

When his laptop was reportedly captured by the CIA in Baku, Azerbaijan, it was described by the intelligence agency as the “Rosetta Stone of al-Qaeda”.

Analysts, including Charles Lister, a senior fellow at the Middle East Institute, and Hassan Hassan, a fellow at the Chatham House security think-tank, have also been quick to seize on Golani’s dress in the video, suggesting it was chosen deliberately to highlight a sense of continuity. 

During his address, Golani wore a green military camouflage jacket and white headdress, similar to the well-known images of deceased al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden, in an apparent attempt to reassure the group's followers. 

The Nusra Front's new charter also includes a “desire for global Islamic rule”. 

Mabrouk was first arrested in Egypt in the 1980s after the assassination of president Anwar Sadat. Later, he was reported to be a member of Egyptian Islamic Jihad and spent time in Sudan and Afghanistan.

In 1996, he was arrested alongside Zawahiri as he crossed the Russian border. He was detained again two years later in Azerbaijan, reportedly amid an international CIA-led manhunt, according to an account published in journalist Lawrence Wright’s 2006 book The Looming Tower.

Today, Mabrouk is thought to be a member of Nusra Front’s advisory council and, in a video released earlier this year entitled The Heirs of Glory, he labelled democracy as a “new form of colonialism”.

In Thursday's video, Golani said the split from al-Qaeda was designed to “close the gap between jihadi factions in the Levant” and to “protect the Syrian revolution,” but some security experts labelled the move as a bid to prevent it from being a target of US-led coalition and Russian air strikes.

Robin Simcox, a counter-terrorism expert at the conservative Heritage Foundation think-tank in Washington DC, told Middle East Eye that he was not “sold on the split” and that the Nusra Front leader had failed to break the group’s “oath of loyalty” to al-Qaeda during the video.

He said: “Golani gives praise to the al-Qaeda leadership in this video and does not actually say he is breaking all links with al-Qaeda.

“It seems to be a feint, which is a classic al-Qaeda manoeuvre to muddy the waters. It appears to be an attempt to integrate further with the Syrian opposition to avoid air strikes from the US and Russia.”

He added: “My understanding is other more moderate groups are wary about this, which isn’t surprising as it looks very much like a cosmetic rebranding exercise.”

Speaking at an event in London on Friday organised by the International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation and Political Violence, Aymann Jawad al-Tamimi, a research fellow at the Middle East Forum, described the transition from Nusra Front into the new group as an "al-Qaeda guided project designed to embed al-Qaeda into the Syrian insurgency".

US and UK officials have told MEE that Nusra Front remains a legitimate target for air strikes, and said that concerns remain that the group was using the chaos of war in Syria to develop a capacity to threaten targets in the US and Europe.

James Clapper, director of National Intelligence and a key adviser to US President Barack Obama, called the rebranding a “PR move". He told the Aspen Security Forum on Thursday that the move was designed to "create the image of being more moderate in an attempt to unify and galvanise and appeal to other opposition groups in Syria".

The British government does not discriminate between Nusra Front and al-Qaeda, according to Home Office documents published earlier this month. The documents detail how Nusra Front shares the larger group’s historic long-term aims of “expulsion of Western forces from Saudi Arabia, the destruction of Israel and the end of Western influence in the Muslim world”.

The militant Sunni group is known as one of the best-armed rebel organisations in the Syrian civil war. It has about 10,000 fighters and earned respect from a wide range of other Syrian militias early in the conflict. It has generally avoided tactics like brutal executions and sectarian attacks against other rebel groups, but Nusra Front engendered opposition among some Syrians early on by imposing strict religious laws in areas it controlled. 

Amnesty International has also reported that it received several allegations of summary killings carried out by the group and its allies in Aleppo and Idlib, including execution-style executions carried out in front of protesting crowds. Other reports suggested the group was involved in the torture of political activists in Aleppo in April 2015. 

The group has additionally been involved in a string of high-profile kidnapping cases, including a group of Greek Orthodox nuns and American journalist Peter Theo Curtis, who it held for two years from 2012.

The US designated the group as a terrorist entity in late 2012, as human rights bodies have recorded a string of allegations against it including summary executions, torture and kidnapping, such as the abduction earlier this month of the leader of a US-backed rebel group.

This article is available in French on Middle East Eye French edition.

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