BEIRUT— An Al Qaeda-affiliated militant group in Iraq has united with one of Syria’s most-feared Islamic opposition groups in a vivid display of how the two-year Syrian civil war has emboldened extremists across the two countries’ borders.
The group known as the Islamic State of Iraq also revealed its formative role in creating Al Nusra Front, or Jabhat al Nusra, a Syrian group conceived last year that the U.S. has designated as a terrorist organization, according to an announcement posted on militant websites late Monday.
“The time has come to declare before the people of Syria and the whole world, that Jabhat al Nusra is nothing more than an extension of the Islamic State of Iraq, and a part of it,” said the purported voice of Islamic State of Iraq leader Abu Bakr al Baghdadi in an audio message.
The message said the Iraqi and Syrian groups had dropped their old names and were instead calling themselves “the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria” and rallying under the banner of the “Caliphate,” in reference to the territorial empires that existed under Muslim rulers until the demise of the Ottoman Empire.
“We extend our hands widely and open our arms and hearts to the jihadi factions in the name of Allah, and to the defiant clans in the land of beloved Syria, so that the word of Allah is the highest,” the audio statement said.
The message was testament to the ambitions of religious extremists to use Syria’s continuing war and Iraq’s sectarian divisions as an opportunity to ignore state boundaries and seize territory.
Nusra is one of the most feared and effective fighting groups in the Syrian uprising against the government of President Bashar Assad. The group’s leadership role in rebel-held areas around northern and eastern Syria, however, has raised concerns that Assad’s government will be replaced by a Sunni extremist government with close ties to Al Qaeda.
The United States has called the group a front for Al Qaeda. U.S. officials believe many of its members fought for the Islamic State of Iraq against Baghdad’s Shiite-Islamist government during that country’s civil war.
A website affiliated with Nusra confirmed the new union, according to the Associated Press.
Some Syrian rebel fighters not affiliated with Nusra spoke with open hostility Tuesday about the group.
Abu Azzam, an opposition fighter, said other Syrian rebel groups were uniting against Nusra “so as to stop this cancer.”
Iraq’s Shiite Islamist elite has long warned that the uprising in Syria could lead to Sunni extremists bringing their violence to Iraq.
The Iraqi Cabinet during the weekend approved a package of reforms meant to meet Sunni demands for greater rights that must now go to the parliament. Some politicians wondered whether the announcement by the Islamic State of Iraq was meant to sabotage the reform package.
“Why is Al Qaeda announcing this now?” said Muhanned al Hussam, a senior advisor to Iraq’s Deputy Prime Minister Salih Mutlaq.