News / Middle East

Syria’s Islamist Nusra Rebels Pledge Allegiance to al-Qaida

Syria's al-Nusra rebels posted this photo of its fighters using an M-60 anti-tank weapons, March 24, 2013
Syria's al-Nusra rebels posted this photo of its fighters using an M-60 anti-tank weapons, March 24, 2013
The head of Syria's main Islamist rebel group has sworn allegiance to al-Qaida, deepening a rift with moderate rebels over how to rule the nation if they topple President Bashar al-Assad.

Abu Mohammad al-Golani, leader of Jabhat al-Nusra, or Nusra Front, made the pledge of loyalty to al-Qaida leader Ayman al-Zawahiri in an audio message posted on militant websites Wednesday.

Golani also acknowledged that his group receives logistical support and training from al-Qaida's Iraq-based affiliate, AQI.  He expressed "pride" in AQI’s achievements, but said it did not consult him before declaring that both groups have merged under the banner of the "Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant."

AQI chief Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi announced the alliance in a separate audio message posted on the Internet a day before.

Earlier in the week, Zawahiri sent out his own Internet message urging all Islamist militants in the region to join forces to create an Islamist state in Syria.
The United States exposed the Nusra Front's al-Qaida links last December, calling it a "terrorist" group created by AQI to "hijack the struggles of the Syrian people for its own malign purposes."
Washington Institute for Near East Policy analyst Aaron Zelin said AQI acknowledged forming the Nusra Front because its position in Syria has become secure enough for it to confirm what many observers already had known.
In the past year, Nusra Front militants have captured towns and bases from the Assad government, earning them a reputation as a formidable force.  Their suicide bombers also have killed many Syrian troops and authorities.
Zelin said Nusra fighters also have won support from Syrians by taking responsibility for local governance in rebel-held northern and eastern communities.
"They have been seen as doing it in a fair manner and also providing these services at a below-market price," Zelin said.  "As a result, people have been appreciative of this and therefore they are seen as a good force within the rebellion."
Benedetta Berti, a researcher at Tel Aviv University’s National Security Studies Institute, said AQI’s support has helped the Nusra Front to "outperform" the secular and lesser-equipped factions of the Syrian opposition.
But she said the group also owes its success to Sunni-dominated Arab states Qatar and Saudi Arabia delivering weapons to Islamists in Syria to help oust Mr. Assad, an ally of Shi'ite-majority Iran.
"It is a combination of a number of factors: the cooperation with al-Qaida in Iraq, the arrival of better weapons for these Islamist groups, and also the fact that they been showing a high degree of cohesion and internal discipline," said Berti.
In his audio message, Nusra Front chief Golani said his rebels will continue to fight under their original flag, an indication that they want to maintain some independence from AQI.
Zelin said Nusra rebels have avoided calling themselves "al-Qaida in Syria" partly because of the stigma associated with AQI, a Sunni group that has alienated many Iraqis in recent years by attacking civilians, especially Iraqi Shi'ites.
"They wanted people to get to know Jabhat al-Nusra for who they were themselves, [rather than] basing [opinions] off of what they perceived as potential media distortions," said Zelin.

Berti said the Nusra Front also has tried to present itself as committed to Syria rather than pursuing a transnational Islamist agenda.

"I think at the moment we'll see very much a [Nusra Front] stance in Syria focused on that particular conflict, without any particular interest in expanding their battlefield, which is already very complex and challenging."
Zelin of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy said the Nusra Front’s goal of imposing al-Qaida’s extreme interpretation of Islam on Syrians may backfire.

"There has been a small backlash against some of the social issues that they are trying to push, in terms of banning alcohol or forcing women to wear the full veil as well as some other issues.  But this is still not that large scale," said Zelin.
Tel Aviv University analyst Berti said that if the radical Islamists continue to grow more powerful, they will become a "nightmare" for moderate and secular Syrian rebels who want an orderly and peaceful transition of power.
"On the one hand, one can read the interviews of [outgoing Syrian opposition coalition leader Mouaz] al-Khatib and see a view of a country that is pluralist, respectful of minorities, good for democracy, and all these ideas.  And on the other hand, you can read the statements of the al-Nusra Front and see that their idea of what Syria should look like is the exact opposite."
Berti said how those different visions can coexist after Assad leaves power is a predicament that is likely to pre-occupy Syria's moderate opposition in the coming weeks.
Susan Yackee contributed to this report.

Michael Lipin

Michael covers international news for VOA on the web, radio and TV, specializing in the Middle East and East Asia Pacific. Follow him on Twitter @Michael_Lipin

You May Like

Multimedia Brussels Schools, Metro Reopen Under Heavy Guard

City remains under the highest threat alert level due to what authorities have described as a 'serious and imminent' threat of attack

Video Debt-ridden Refugees Await Onslaught of Lebanese Winter

Aid agencies are attempting to reduce potentially devastating consequences of freezing conditions and snowstorms that killed eight last year, including three Syrian refugees

Americans Think About Strange Stuff at Thanksgiving

Millions of Americans are celebrating Thanksgiving, but they’re not necessarily thinking about turkey and stuffing

Featured Videos

Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
After Paris Attacks, France Steps Up Fight Against ISi
November 24, 2015 3:04 AM
The November 13 Paris attacks have drawn increased attention to Syria, where many of the suspected perpetrators are said to have received training. French President Francois Hollande is working to build a broad international coalition to defeat Islamic State in Syria and in Iraq. Zlatica Hoke reports.

Video After Paris Attacks, France Steps Up Fight Against IS

The November 13 Paris attacks have drawn increased attention to Syria, where many of the suspected perpetrators are said to have received training. French President Francois Hollande is working to build a broad international coalition to defeat Islamic State in Syria and in Iraq. Zlatica Hoke reports.

Video US, Cambodian Navies Pair Up in Gulf of Thailand

The U.S. Navy has deployed one of its newest and most advanced ships to Cambodia to conduct joint training drills in the Gulf of Thailand. Riding hull-to-hull with Cambodian ships, the seamen of the USS Fort Worth are executing joint-training drills that will help build relations in Southeast Asia. David Boyle reports for VOA from Preah Sihanouk province.

Video Americans Sharpen Focus on Terrorism

Washington will be quieter than usual this week due to the Thanksgiving holiday, even as Americans across the nation register heightened concerns over possible terrorist threats. VOA’s Michael Bowman reports new polling data from ABC News and the Washington Post newspaper show an electorate increasingly focused on security issues after the deadly Islamic State attacks in Paris.

Video World Leaders Head to Paris for Climate Deal

Heads of state from nearly 80 countries are heading to Paris (November 30-December 11) to craft a global climate change agreement. The new accord will replace the Kyoto Protocol on Climate Change that expired in 2012.

Video Uncertain Future for Syrian Refugee Resettlement in Illinois

For the trickle of Syrian refugees finding new homes in the Midwest city of Chicago, the call to end resettlement in many U.S. states is adding another dimension to their long journey fleeing war. Organizations working to help them integrate say the backlash since the Paris attacks is both harming and helping their efforts to provide refugees sanctuary. VOA's Kane Farabaugh reports.

Video Creating Physical Virtual Reality With Tiny Drones

As many computer gamers know, virtual reality is a three-dimensional picture, projected inside special googles. It can fool your brain into thinking the computer world is the real world. But If you try to touch it, it’s not there. Now Canadian researchers say it may be possible to create a physical virtual reality using tiny drones. VOA’s George Putic reports.

Video New American Indian Village Takes Visitors Back in Time

There is precious little opportunity to experience what life was like in the United States before its colonization by European settlers. Now, an American Indian village built in a park outside Washington is taking visitors back in time to experience the way of life of America's indigenous people. Carol Pearson narrates this report from VOA's June Soh.

Video Even With Hometown Liberated, Yazidi Refugees Fear Return

While the northern Iraqi town of Sinjar has been liberated from Islamic State forces, it's not clear whether Yazidi residents who fled the militants will now return home. VOA’s Mahmut Bozarslan talked with Yazidis, a religious and ethnic minority, at a Turkish refugee camp in Diyarbakır. Robert Raffaele narrates his report.

Video Nairobi Tailors Make Pope Francis’ Vestments

To ensure the pope is properly attired during his visit, the Kenya Conference of Catholic Bishops asked the Dolly Craft Sewing Project in the Nairobi slum of Kangemi to make the pope's vestments, the garments he will wear during the various ceremonies. Jill Craig reports.

Video Cross-Border Terrorism Puts Europe’s Passport-Free Travel in Doubt

The fallout from the Islamic State terror attacks in Paris has put the future of Europe’s passport-free travel area, known as the "Schengen Zone," in doubt. Several of the perpetrators were known to intelligence agencies, but were not intercepted. Henry Ridgwell reports from London European ministers are to hold an emergency meeting Friday in Brussels to look at ways of improving security.

Video El Niño Brings Unexpected Fish From Mexico to California

Fish in an unexpected spectrum of sizes, shapes and colors are moving north, through El Niño's warm currents from Mexican waters to the Pacific Ocean off California’s coast. El Nino is the periodic warming of the eastern and central Pacific Ocean. As Faiza Elmasry tells us, this phenomenon thrills scientists and gives anglers the chance of a once-in-a-lifetime big catch. Faith Lapidus narrates.

Video Terrorism in Many Forms Continues to Plague Africa

While the world's attention is on Paris in the wake of Friday night's deadly attacks, terrorism from various sides remains a looming threat in many African countries. Nigerian cities have been targeted this week by attacks many believe were staged by the violent Islamist group Boko Haram. In addition, residents in many regions are forced to flee their homes as they are terrorized by armed militias. Zlatica Hoke reports.

Video Study: Underage Marriage Rate Higher for Females in Pakistan

While attitudes about the societal role of females in Pakistan are evolving, research by child advocacy group Plan International suggests that underage marriage of girls remains a particularly big issue in the country. VOA’s Ayesha Tanzeem reports how such marriages leads to further social problems.

VOA Blogs