Pentagon will strike rebranded Nusra Front after split from al Qaeda

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The Pentagon is planning to strike Islamist group formerly known as Jabhat al Nusra, or the Nusra Front, even though it has split from al Qaeda, its parent organization, a spokesman said Friday. 

“It remains a terrorist target as it has been for some time,” Pentagon press secretary Peter Cook told reporters during a briefing. 

{mosads}The group, now called Jabhat Fatah al-Sham, officially split from al Qaeda earlier this week in what some experts say is an attempt to avoid being targeted by the U.S.-led military coalition fighting the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, as well as other terrorist groups. A potential deal between the U.S. and Russia would also see Russian airstrikes targeting Jabhat al Nusra. 

Unlike its parent organization, Jabhat Fatah al-Sham is planning to focus its operations on opposing the Syrian regime and establishing an Islamic state in Syria, versus going after Western targets. 

The split from al Qaeda raised questions over whether the U.S. would continue its fight against the newly rebranded group. The U.S. has been targeting the organization, as well as the Khorasan Group, under the 2001 Authorization for the Use of Military Force, which authorizes U.S. troops to target al Qaeda and its affiliates. 

“The Fatah al-Sham name change attempts to slip U.S. counterterrorism justifications and Foreign Terrorist Organization (FTO) designations for targeting,” terrorism expert Clint Watts wrote Friday. 

“A new name should not provide devoted American enemies a free pass,” wrote Watts, a fellow at the Foreign Policy Research Institute and senior fellow at the Center for Cyber and Homeland Security. 

The U.S. similarly has continued a fight against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria under the 2001 authorization since it originated from the al Qaeda network, even though it has since cut ties with the group.

Critics of that argument, like Sen. Tim Kaine (Va.), the Democratic vice presidential nominee, have argued that extending the 2001 AUMF to ISIS is legally questionable and that the U.S. needs a new authorization to target organizations outside of al Qaeda’s network.

It’s not yet clear what effect the formal split will have on followers on the ground in Syria or on potential U.S.-Russian cooperation to work together to target the group.   

Russia has been hitting Western-backed rebels in Syria despite a temporary ceasefire, arguing that the rebels are intermingled with Jabhat al Nusra, and the U.S. has proposed sharing intelligence to help Russia separate the two.  

Cook’s indicated the U.S. would treat the new group the same as Jabhat al Nusra. 

“Just because they’ve changed their name doesn’t mean they’ve changed their actions, and this will continue to be a group that we’ll continue to focus our efforts on for the understandable reason that this is a terrorist group that has in the past and continues to threaten the United States, American citizens and our interests,” he said. 

Some experts say there was no actual split, but an attempt to rebrand in the face of potential U.S.-Russian cooperation.

The group’s leader, Abu Muhammad al Julani, said in a message announcing the move that the relaunch is “fulfilling the request of the people of Al Sham to expose the deceptions of the international community, the leaders being the U.S. and Russia, in their relentless bombardment and displacement of the Muslim masses of Al Sham under the pretense of targeting Jabhat al Nusra, an al Qaeda affiliate.” 

“In other words, Al Nusra’s overt relationship with al Qaeda made it easy for Russia and the U.S. to justify bombing Syria. For this reason, others in the Syrian insurgency objected to Al Nusra’s status as an al Qaeda branch,” wrote Thomas Joscelyn, senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, in The Long War Journal. 

“Jabhat Fath Al Sham’s principles are the same as Al Nusrah’s,” he added. 

— Updated at 7/30/2016 at 6:50 a.m.  

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