Skip to main content

Syrian jihad group pledges allegiance to al Qaeda, denies merger

By Saad Abedine and Jason Hanna, CNN
April 10, 2013 -- Updated 1845 GMT (0245 HKT)
A Syrian rebel sniper observes the movement of Syrian government forces near Al-Kendi hospital in Aleppo on Wednesday.
A Syrian rebel sniper observes the movement of Syrian government forces near Al-Kendi hospital in Aleppo on Wednesday.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • NEW: Syrian opposition coalition leader: We reject ownership of any of the rebel factions
  • Al-Nusra Front denies it has merged with al Qaeda in Iraq, according to purported message
  • But al-Nusra Front leader says he pledges allegiance to al Qaeda chief Ayman al-Zawahiri
  • Abu Muhammad al-Joulani: Syrian Islamic state can be built only with all rebel groups' help

(CNN) -- A Syrian jihadist group appears to have pledged allegiance to al Qaeda's leader -- but also stressed it can achieve a Syrian Islamic state only by working with other rebels, including secularists.

The group, al-Nusra Front, also denies an earlier claim that it has merged with Iraq's al Qaeda affiliate, according to an audio message purported to be from al-Nusra general commander Abu Muhammad al-Joulani.

The message was posted on various radical Islamist websites known for posting similar statements by al Qaeda figures.

Al-Joulani's message comes after the leader of the al Qaeda-affiliated Islamic State of Iraq purportedly claimed this week in an audio statement that al-Nusra Front is part of its network.

Opinion: Syria rebel group's dangerous tie to al Qaeda

Sexual violence in Syria
Syrian antiquities looted for gun money
6,000+ killed in Syria's deadliest month
Syrians use humor, weapons to survive

A speaker identifying himself as Islamic State of Iraq leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi had said -- in a message posted to online jihadist forums -- that the two groups would combine their names and be known as "The Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (Syria)."

But al-Joulani distanced himself from al-Baghdadi's message, saying it took al-Nusra off guard.

"We would like to inform the public that we were not informed or consulted of the content of the announcement," al-Joulani said.

Despite denying a merger, al-Joulani said that he is raising the bar higher by pledging allegiance to al Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri.

Still, such a pledge "will not change the policies of Nusra Front on the ground," al-Joulani said.

READ MORE: Syrian rebels issue warning to Hezbollah

He said the group's goal of achieving an Islamic state in Syria "can only be built with the help of everyone -- without excluding any of the main parties who bled and fought with us and waged jihad in Syria."

Al-Joulani said that includes "all the other rebel factions."

Al-Joulani, acknowledging that al-Nusra Front fought with jihadists in Iraq before turning its attention to the Syrian civil war, said he would delay consideration of a merger with al Qaeda in Iraq in part so his group can consult with various supporting groups.

The U.S. State Department labeled al-Nusra Front a foreign terror organization linked to al Qaeda in Iraq back in December.

Moaz al-Khatib, president of the main Syrian opposition alliance, said this week on his official Facebook page that al Qaeda's way of thinking "does not suit us."

Al-Khatib heads the National Coalition for Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces, which has leadership largely consisting of expatriates. He said that "there are those who want to impose themselves even on al-Nusra Front."

"We reject ownership of any of the rebel factions inside Syria," he said.

Al-Joulani's message comes a week after the White House, according to U.S. officials, signed off on new nonlethal aid for Syrian rebels. Officials said it is expected to include equipment such as body armor, night vision goggles and other military equipment that is defensive in nature, but could be used to aid in combat by Syrian rebels battling forces loyal to President Bashar al-Assad.

READ MORE: Al-Assad warns of domino effect

Syrian opposition leaders asked for more aid, including lethal aid, at a meeting with U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry in London on Wednesday, according to two senior State Department officials who briefed reporters on condition of anonymity. But the requests weren't specific, and Kerry didn't make any promises, the officials said.

Kerry urged the opposition to work together and organize more effectively, the officials said. Opposition officials said they were in the process of doing that.

Meanwhile, Kerry, who also discussed Syria with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, will head to Turkey on April 20 for more talks with European and Persian Gulf states on the crisis, the officials said.

READ MORE: Syrian war is everybody's problem

President Barack Obama agreed last month to send food and medicine to the rebels, the first direct U.S. support for the armed opposition. But the package falls short of the heavy weapons and high-tech equipment sought by the rebels.

The decision also comes as Britain and France are leading efforts to lift a European Union arms embargo on Syria. Both have suggested they are prepared to join nations like Qatar in providing the rebels with weapons and are urging the United States to do the same.

The United Nations says more than 70,000 people have been killed in Syria's two-year civil war. Opposition activists reported at least 75 more deaths on Wednesday amid heavy fighting in and around Damascus and Daraa.

CNN's Hamdi Alkhshali and Elise Labott contributed to this report.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
Syrian crisis
June 26, 2014 -- Updated 1243 GMT (2043 HKT)
Jihadists have kidnapped over 140 Kurdish boys to "brainwash" them. But a few boys made a daring escape.
June 26, 2014 -- Updated 1248 GMT (2048 HKT)
Reports that Syrian warplanes carried out a cross-border attack on Iraqi towns is further evidence of the blurring of the two countries' borders.
June 24, 2014 -- Updated 2133 GMT (0533 HKT)
CNN's Atika Shubert speaks to a father whose teenage son joined the Jihad movement in Syria.
June 23, 2014 -- Updated 1141 GMT (1941 HKT)
At the start of Syria's civil unrest, Omar would rally against the government alongside his schoolmates, later taking to the streets in his hometown of Salqin.
June 23, 2014 -- Updated 2117 GMT (0517 HKT)
Atika Shubert looks at the rise of European jihadists traveling to Syria and whether they soon could join ISIS in Iraq.
June 23, 2014 -- Updated 1453 GMT (2253 HKT)
The final stockpile of Syria's chemical weapons has been shipped out of the country, according to the OPCW, the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons.
June 25, 2014 -- Updated 2025 GMT (0425 HKT)
The US isn't doing airstrikes in Iraq. Is there a vacuum for Syria and Iran to step in? CNN's Fareed Zakaria weighs in.
June 10, 2014 -- Updated 0804 GMT (1604 HKT)
CNN's Nick Paton Walsh reports on Syrian rebels using underground explosions against the better-equipped regime.
June 9, 2014 -- Updated 1151 GMT (1951 HKT)
CNN's Nick Paton Walsh returns to the besieged rebel areas of Aleppo, a pale skeleton of a city that has had the life bombed out of it.
June 2, 2014 -- Updated 1151 GMT (1951 HKT)
Syria may be embroiled in a brutal three-year civil war, but that's not stopping the government from holding presidential elections.
June 3, 2014 -- Updated 1123 GMT (1923 HKT)
CNN's Nick Paton Walsh meets an ISIS defector in hiding and gets a rare look into the group's recruitment process.
June 5, 2014 -- Updated 1610 GMT (0010 HKT)
Over a thousand Syrian refugees have turned an abandoned shopping mall in Lebanon into makeshift living quarters.
May 28, 2014 -- Updated 2119 GMT (0519 HKT)
What caught our experts' ears was as much about what he didn't address as much as what he did.
May 20, 2014 -- Updated 1019 GMT (1819 HKT)
The three-year war in Syria has claimed 162,402 lives, an opposition group said Monday, as the raging conflict shows no signs of abating.
May 31, 2014 -- Updated 0141 GMT (0941 HKT)
Official: The U.S. believes a jihadi featured in a suicide bombing video in Syria is Moner Mohammad Abu-Salha who grew up in Florida.
May 20, 2014 -- Updated 1437 GMT (2237 HKT)
For the first time, Britain has convicted someone of a terrorism offense related to the Syrian civil war.
ADVERTISEMENT