A website linked to Jabhat al-Nusra confirmed on Tuesday the merger with the Islamic State of Iraq. The leader of latter group, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, first made the announcement in a 21-minute audio statement posted on militant websites late Monday.
The claims of the merger could not be independently confirmed.
Jabhat al-Nusra has taken an ever-bigger role in Syria’s conflict over the last year, fighting in key battles and staging several large suicide bombings. The US has designated it a terrorist organization.
The Syrian group has made little secret of its ideological ties to the global jihadi movement and its links across the Iraqi border but until now has not officially declared itself to be part of al-Qaeda.
Baghdadi said that his group – the Islamic State of Iraq – had funded cells of fighters from Jabhat al-Nusra since the early days of the two-year-old uprising, but that it had refrained from announcing the link for security reasons.
He added that the combined group will now be known as the Islamic State in Iraq and Sham. Sham is a diminutive for Damascus, and is sometimes used to refer to Syria.
“It is time to announce to the Levantine (Syrian) people and the whole world that Jabhat al-Nusra is merely an extension and part of the Islamic State of Iraq,” he said.
He said that the Iraqi group was providing half of its budget to the conflict in Syria. Baghdadi said that the Syrian group would have no separate leader but instead be led by the “people of Syria themselves.”
Jabhat al-Nusra emerged as an offshoot of Iraq’s al-Qaeda branch in mid-2012 as one of a patchwork of disparate rebel groups in Syria.
A top Iraqi intelligence official told The Associated Press in Baghdad that they have always known that “al-Qaeda in Iraq is directing Jabhat al-Nusra.”
He said they announced their unity because of “political, logistical and geographical circumstance.” The official said Iraqi authorities will take “strict security measures to strike them.”
Iraqi officials say the jihadi groups are sharing three military training compounds, logistics, intelligence and weapons as they grow in strength around the Syria-Iraq border, particularly in a sprawling region called al-Jazeera, which they are trying to turn into a border sanctuary they can both exploit.
It could serve as a base of operations to strike either side of the border.
The porous border where the Euphrates river snakes through both countries, and the remote caves and hills of the desert make ideal territory for insurgents to evade Iraqi security forces and smuggle arms and fighters between Iraq and Syria.
For such a high-profile Syrian rebel group to formally join al-Qaeda is likely to spark concerns among backers of the opposition that are in the global terror network’s crosshairs, including both Western countries and Gulf Arab states.
The announcement comes a week after al-Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri called in an Internet statement for the establishment of an Islamic state in Syria, as a step towards the Islamist goal of establishing an Islamic caliphate in the Middle East.
“Let your fight be for the sake of God, for the sake of bringing God’s sharia to rule,” Zawahiri said. “Do all you can to ensure that the fruit of your struggle, God willing, an Islamic state … a state that would be a building stone in the return of the rightly-guided caliphate.”
Syria’s civil war has killed more than 70,000 people according to UN estimates.
(AP, Al-Akhbar, Reuters)