Al-Nusra Front (ANF) has changed its name but not its nature, experts tell Diyaruna, noting that its recent decision to sever ties with al-Qaeda and rename itself merely reveals al-Qaeda's disintegration.
In his first public video appearance, posted online on July 28th, ANF leader Abu Mohammed al-Joulani said his group changed its name to Fateh al-Sham Front and would attempt to unify its ranks with other groups fighting in Syria.
Al-Joulani appears in military attire in the video, sporting a long beard and turban. He thanks al-Qaeda leaders "for understanding the need to break ties" and pledges "the new front will have no links whatsoever with any external party", saying the split from al-Qaeda aims to "protect the Syrian revolution".
The same day, al-Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahri issued an audio message in which he publicly acknowledged and condoned ANF's decision to break away from al-Qaeda.
Analysts say ANF seeks to dissociate itself from its rival, the "Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant" (ISIL), which has been targeted by coalition airstrikes and is not protected by ceasefire agreements.
Al-Qaeda's influence wanes
"ANF’s split from al-Qaeda is the second blow dealt to al-Qaeda, the first being the defection of Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the [former] emir of al-Qaeda in Iraq who moved to Syria and founded ISIL," said retired Egyptian army officer Maj. Gen. Yahya Mohammed Ali, who specialises in extremist groups.
"This confirms the decline in the major role that al-Qaeda used to play and its inability to exercise control over its branches, particularly the Syria branch," he told Diyaruna.
Ali attributed this largely to the military, security and international pressures al-Qaeda is under.
"Thus, the battle with terrorism moves on to another stage, where it will be easier to eliminate separate terrorist groups than fight one large group," he said, noting that the break up will heighten the tension between the two groups.
The political conflict will push the two groups towards a confrontation as they struggle to secure maximum gains on the ground, while trying to maintain their grassroots support bases, he said.
"The next phase in Syria will undoubtedly witness numerous significant splits within the ranks of ANF, because the decision is not compatible with the aspirations of a large number of the front’s emirs and elements," he said.
Some ANF elements "are categorically inclined towards the fundamental jihadist ideology and had joined ANF because it was al-Qaeda’s Syrian branch", he said.
'Sealing the fate of al-Qaeda'
Former jihadist Sheikh Nabil Naim, who was a founding member of the Islamic Jihad in Egypt, said with its announcement, ANF effectively "sealed the fate of al-Qaeda, whose leader, Ayman al-Zawahiri, is currently unable to exercise control over the group’s arms and branches, especially in Iraq and Syria".
All signs indicated that the split was on the horizon, he told Diyaruna, noting that the financial link between ANF and al-Qaeda had been severed.
"In the past, the affiliates looked to the head of al-Qaeda for financing," he said. "Now, however, the head, represented by Ayman al-Zawahiri, is the weakest financially compared to the money being generated by both ISIL and ANF."
Extremists who espouse al-Qaeda's ideology now have two options, he said: They can engage in terror operations as part of ISIL -- which is facing a dramatic decline in fortunes -- or join the rebranded ANF and fully engage in the Syrian conflict, knowing full well the faction will have no role in the future.
"Thus, it is possible that more fragmentation could occur [as they] look for a third option," he added.
ANF attempts to preserve itself
"Whoever closely examines the speeches of both al-Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri and ANF emir Abu Mohammed al-Joulani in which they addressed the split, will clearly see they took extreme care not to exacerbate the general tense atmosphere between the jihadist factions," said military analyst and retired Egyptian military officer Maj. Gen. Abdul-Karim Ahmed.
This was an attempt to minimise the losses resulting from this split, he told Diyaruna.
It is remarkable that in his speech, al-Joulani insisted on upholding the ideology of al-Qaeda founder Osama bin Laden, he said, as this has been a point of contention between ANF and al-Qaeda in the past, with each accusing the other of deviating from bin Laden’s ideas.
"With this shift maneuver, ANF is seeking to dissociate itself [from al-Qaeda] and attempting to play a political role to preserve itself in the coming period and give the impression that it has abandoned the terrorist approach," Ahmed said.
This is the result of the international community's rejection and targeting of any group affiliated with al-Qaeda, he noted.
Al-Qaeda and ISIL will undoubtedly try to win over the other armed opposition groups fighting in Syria to diminish the influence of ANF on the ground, he added, and this is bound to further increase the fragmentation of terror groups.