BEIRUT (AP) — Al-Qaida's branch in Iraq said it has merged with Syria's extremist Jabhat al-Nusra, a move that shows the rising confidence of radicals within the Syrian rebel movement and is likely to trigger renewed fears among its international backers.
A website linked to Jabhat Al-Nusra confirmed on Tuesday the merger with the Islamic State of Iraq, whose leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi first made the announcement in a 21-minute audio posted on militant websites late Monday.
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 U.S. has designated it a terrorist organization.
The Syrian group has made little secret of its ideological ties to the global jihadist movement and its links across the Iraqi border but until now has not officially declared itself to be part of al-Qaida.
Al-Baghdadi said that his group — the Islamic State of Iraq — and Syria's Jabhat al-Nusra will now be known as the Islamic State in Iraq and Sham. Sham is a name for Syria and the surrounding region.
"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. Al-Baghdadi said that the Syrian group would have no separate leader but instead be led by the "people of Syria themselves" — implying that he would be in charge in both countries.
For such a high-profile Syrian rebel group to formally join al-Qaida 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.