The Syrian branch of al-Qaeda, al-Nusra Front (ANF), said Thursday (July 28th) it was breaking ties with the global terror network in a video showing its leader Abu Mohamad al-Jolani for the first time.
The footage broadcast by Al-Jazeera news channel follows several days of online chatter over a split between al-Qaeda and its Syria affiliate, a main rival of the "Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant" (ISIL) from which it wants to distance itself as a target of foreign air strikes.
Appearing in public for the first time, Jolani said ANF changed its name to Jabhat Fateh al-Sham (Front of the Conquest of Syria) and would unify ranks with other mainstream fighters in Syria.
"We decided to stop operating under the banner of ANF and to set up a new front, called Jabhat Fateh al-Sham," he said.
Clad in military fatigues and wearing a turban, the bearded Jolani thanked "the commanders of al-Qaeda for having understood the need to break ties".
And he vowed the new group would "have no links whatsoever with foreign parties".
Analysts said Al-Nusra aims to rebrand and defend itself as it comes under increased pressure after Moscow and Washington agreed to step up joint efforts against jihadist groups.
Washington said it still considers ANF a security threat despite the announcement.
"We certainly see no reasons to believe that their actions or their objectives are any different," said State Department spokesman John Kirby.
"They are still considered a foreign terrorist organisation," Kirby said. "We judge a group by -- by what they do, not by what they call themselves."
In the brief recording, Jolani, flanked by two bearded men, said the split was aimed at "protecting the Syrian revolution" and to offset any excuse by the international community to target ANF.
Analyst Charles Lister said that one of the men sitting beside Jolani was Al-Qaeda veteran leader Ahmed Salameh Mabrouk.
"Al-Qaeda is playing a critically important role in shaping this development and their thinking and strategising will remain crucial for this new Jabhat Fateh al-Sham movement," he said.
"It will still oppose the most moderate of opposition groups in Syria; it will still be viciously sectarian, and it will still ultimately seek the establishment of an Islamic emirate in Syria and the potential launching of external attacks on the West," he said.
Analyst Aymenn Jawad al-Tamimi, speaking ahead of Jolani's announcement, said "Al-Qaeda's central leadership endorses the idea of embedding Jabhat al-Nusra more deeply in the Syrian insurgency".
Al-Qaeda, founded by Osama bin Laden and to which Al-Nusra pledged allegiance in 2013, prepared the ground for Thursday's announcement.
"We direct the leadership of ANF 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, identified as the deputy of Al-Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri, said in an audio message released online by Al-Nusra.