The head of Syrian rebel group Jabhat al-Nusra has pledged allegiance to the global leader of Al Qaeda.
"The sons of [al-Nusra] renew their pledge to the sheikh of jihad, Ayman al-Zawahiri, and declare obedience," said al-Nusra's Abu Mohammed al-Jawlani in a recording posted online Wednesday.
Jawlani downplayed reports that his group had merged with Al Qaeda in Iraq, however, as the Iraqi branch had announced the day before.
"Neither the al-Nusra command nor its consultative council, nor its general manager were aware of this announcement," Jawlani said today. "It reached them via the media and if the speech is authentic, we were not consulted."
Acknowledging he had fought in Iraq alongside the Islamic State of Iraq — Al Qaeda's Iraqi faction — Jawlani said al-Nusra would "continue to be proud" of the ISI's flag, but would not be adopting it as its own.
"We reassure our brothers in Syria that al-Nusra's behavior will remain faithful to the image you have come to know, and that our allegiance [to Al Qaeda] will not affect our politics in any way," Jawlani insisted.
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His assurances are perhaps a sign that, as the BBC's Middle East bureau chief Paul Danahar suggests, even al-Nusra knows that tying up with Al Qaeda is "lousy PR."
The alliance prompted Syria's "official" armed opposition, the Free Syrian Army, to seek to distance itself from al-Nusra, which the US government designates a terrorist organization.
FSA spokesman Louay Meqdad told Agence France-Presse that the rebel army didn't support al-Nusra's ideology and "there has never been and there will never be a decision at the command level to coordinate" with them, though "certain brigades of the FSA cooperate with them on certain operations on the ground."
Zawahiri, the global Al Qaeda leader to whom al-Nusra pledged allegiance, has urged rebels fighting to overthrow President Bashar al-Assad to replace his government with an Islamic state.
Meqdad, however, told AFP that "no one has the right to impose on Syria what shape their state will take ... Our goal is clear — to bring down the regime and establish a democratic state."
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