'Nusra Front 2.0': Al-Qaeda's Syrian Branch Says They Are No Threat to West

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Al-Qaeda's Syrian branch is turning its focus away from the West and is solely focused on removing president Bashar al-Assad from power.

In an interview with Al Jazeera, the leader of the Nusra Front said the group had received specific orders from Ayman al-Zawahiri, the overall leader of al-Qaeda, not to use Syria as "a launching pad to attack the US or Europe".

Abu Mohammed al-Julani also rejected the existence of the mysterious Khorasan group, an alleged al-Qaeda cell based in northwestern Syria which the US suspects of plotting large-scale attacks against Europe and America.

Earlier this month, the Nusra Front led a coalition of rebel groups which routed Syrian army troops from their last remaining military base in the northwestern province of Idlib.

The group also has a significant presence in Qalamoun, on Syria's western border with Lebanon, where it has been engaged with fighting the Lebanese militia Hezbollah and Syrian regime forces over the past month.

Al-Julani, the group's leader, is believed to command troops of up to 6,000.

According to Benjamin Decker, senior intelligence analyst at the Levantine Group, the militia have swollen with recruits of moderate fighters as they have greater funding and are better armed than most Syrian rebel groups.

Decker says that the interview is part of a PR strategy by which the Nusra Front is seeking to distinguish itself as a more moderate alternative to Isis, with whom al-Julani rejected a merger in 2013.

"We could almost call this Nusra Front 2.0," he says. "What he's trying to do in the interview is cement the idea about what al-Qaeda has become and that the Nusra Front and other al-Qaeda affiliates are much more focused on nationalist interests than on the global al-Qaeda philosophy under bin Laden."

The Pentagon claims that the Khorasan group consists of an expert cell of seasoned al-Qaeda operatives in northwestern Syria, who were planning an imminent attack on Europe or the US prior to being hit by US-led airstrikes in September.

Further airstrikes against the group were conducted in November and destroyed a storage facility, but the group is still believe to be active and capable of conducting large-scale foreign attacks.

While Decker says that while al-Julani's denial of the existence of the group may not be true, the jihadist leader's emphasis on dislodging the Syrian regime and digression from al-Qaeda's traditional aggression towards America marks a welcome shift.

"The Nusra Front's priority is the Syrian civil war and, for the time being, all efforts will be directed towards that rather than the principles which founded the al-Qaeda ideology," says Decker.

The group is blacklisted by Washington as a terrorist group. Al-Julani added that, if the US continued to target his group, he would consider all options, saying: "Everyone has the right to defend themselves".

In recent months, rumours have circulated that the Nusra Front had become an independent entity. Qatar has reportedly offered support to the group is they disassociated themselves from al-Qaeda's global brand. However, al-Julani made no mention of breaking ties with al-Qaeda in the interview.

According to UK-based monitoring group the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, more than 210,000 people have died in the Syrian civil war, which has been raging since 2011.

'Nusra Front 2.0': Al-Qaeda's Syrian Branch Says They Are No Threat to West | World