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BEIRUT — The leader of Al Nusra Front, militant Islamist fighters whose role in the Syria uprising has raised concerns in Washington, acknowledged Wednesday for the first time his group's affiliation with Al Qaeda and the extremist movement’s Iraq affiliate.
In a seven-minute audio message posted online, Abu Mohammed Jolani pledged Al Nusra Front’s loyalty to Al Qaeda chief Ayman Zawahiri and acknowledged its ties to the Islamic State of Iraq, or ISI.
However, the Syrian militant expressed surprise at a statement by ISI late Monday of a merger between the the front and ISI.
He said the leadership of Al Nusra Front, or Jabhat al Nusra, “had no prior knowledge of this [announcement] ... and was neither consulted nor commanded” in this matter. He added that the union was premature and hasty, although he did not reject it.
Jolani emphasized such a union would change nothing in his group's policies and behavior. He also added on a more aesthetic note that the "banner of the Jabhat will remain as it is, unchanging, despite our pride in the banner of the ISI.”
The ISI's leader, Abu Bakr Baghdadi, had already announced the name of the new organization, the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, that would replace both Nusra and ISI. Baghdadi also described Jolani as “one of our soldiers” and that ISI had given money, manpower and logistical support to the Syrian group.
The Obama administration in December formally designated Al Nusra Front a terrorist organization and has long maintained that it has ties with Al Qaeda.
With tensions already high between Al Nusra and other Syrian rebel groups, Jolani appeared mindful of a Syrian backlash over ISI’s declaration and of being labeled a foreign pawn.
Al Nusra’s opponents almost immediately hammered the group for the statement by its Iraqi brethren. Moaz Khatib, one of the leaders of the Syrian political opposition, stated on his Facebook page that “there are those who would impose themselves even on Jabhat Al Nusrah” and that “Al Qaeda's thinking does not suit us, and the revolutionaries in Syria must make a clear decision in this regard.” Other leaders of Islamist brigades in Syria also voiced their dismay.
Jolani made no attempt to obscure Al Nusra’s loyalty to Zawahiri, Osama bin Laden’s deputy at the time of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks against the United States and Al Qaeda’s leader since Bin Laden’s death nearly two years ago. Al Nusra had previously refrained from linking itself to Al Qaeda, but now admitted they had vowed their fealty to Zawahiri long before.
“This is a pledge of allegiance from the sons of Jabhat Al Nusra and their general commander,” Jolani said. “We renew it to the sheik of jihad, Sheik Ayman al-Zawahiri. May God preserve him.”
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Times staff writer Ned Parker contributed to this report.