It was a quiet Saturday morning in the Damascus neighborhood of Qassaa when a car bomb ripped through the headquarters of Air Force Intelligence, Syria’s most powerful and notorious security agency.
The building was devastated; drivers unfortunate enough to be near the blast were burned alive in their cars; Syrian state TV beamed horrific images of body parts strewn on the pavement.
A few miles away, a second car bomb soon exploded, this time in front of the Criminal Security building. All told, 27 people were killed and 140 were wounded — the deadliest blow the government had sustained in the uprising at the time.
Ever since that attack, on March 17, 2012, the name of the Al Qaeda-affiliated Al Nusra Front has evoked fear in its enemies.
But on Thursday, following days of intense speculation on social media, the group’s leader said it had disassociated itself from Al Qaeda. It will also “cease operating under the name of Al Nusra Front.” In its stead would rise a new faction: the Front for the Conquest of Syria.
“This new formation has no affiliation to any external entity,” said Abu Mohammed Jolani in a debut video sent to Qatari broadcaster Al Jazeera Arabic on Thursday.
Yet Jolani insisted the change did not represent an ideological shift. The new body aims to establish Islam and sharia as the law of the land and to “liberate the land of Syria from the rule of the tyrants and [destroy] the regime and its helpers.“
It would also continue to “protect the jihad in Syria” and “strive to serve the Muslims.”
It was the first time Jolani had shown his face, almost five years after he was dispatched from Iraq to create an Al Qaeda affiliate in Syria by Abu Omar al-Baghdadi, the head of Islamic State’s precursor organization, the Islamic State of Iraq.
In that time, Al Nusra Front, which reportedly has been supported by Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and Turkey, has risen to prominence on the battlefield.
We judge a group by what they do, not by what they call themselves.
Its jihadists, battle-hardened veterans of other conflicts such as Iraq and Afghanistan, have become the opposition’s shock troops, essential to the success of any offensive against pro-government forces, whether launched by hard-line Islamist groups or the so-called moderate factions of the Free Syrian Army.
Al Nusra Front has also created a bastion of control in Syria’s northwest province of Idlib, where it enjoys considerable support from local populations, who see it as a homegrown alternative to Islamic State, whose ranks are dominated by foreign fighters.
One reason for the disassociation, Jolani said, was to “remove the excuses before the international community, headed by America and Russia, in their bombardment and displacement of the Muslims in Syria under the pretense of targeting Al Nusra Front, which is part of Al Qaeda.”
Hours earlier, Al Qaeda’s second in command, Ahmad Hassan Abu al-Khayr, gave his blessing to the split as long as it preserved “the good of Islam … and protected the jihad of the Syrian people.”
Jolani thanked Al Qaeda for its “noble stance,” which he said would be “recorded in the annals of history with letters of light.”
But the amicable split seemed to matter little to U.S. officials, who dismissed it as little more than a rebranding exercise.
“We judge a group by what they do, not by what they call themselves,” State Department spokesman John Kirby said. “We certainly see no reasons to believe that their actions or their objectives are any different. And they are still considered a foreign terrorist organization.”
Earlier this month, the U.S. proposed to work with Russia on launching airstrikes against Al Nusra Front. Both countries have called on other factions to move away from the group — both physically and ideologically -- to avoid being targeted.
But for Jolani, the primary aim of the disassociation was to bring the group closer to other opposition factions.
“The Nusra Front was in talks with other Syrian Islamist groups earlier about joining force in an alliance of some sort,” said Aron Lund, a nonresident associate in the Carnegie Endowment’s Middle East Program.
“Their Al Qaeda affiliation seems to have been one of the main stumbling blocks, including for some leaders of big groups like Ahrar al Sham,” he continued, referring to a major Islamist hard-line group that was one of Al Nusra Front’s main battlefield allies.