At the end of July 2016, Al-Qaeda’s leadership expressed willingness, for the first time in its history, to sever ties with one of its branches, Al-Nusra Front in Syria. It claimed that unity among the ranks of the mujahideen in the arena of jihad in Syria, and the importance of successful efforts by jihadist factions to defeat the forces of heresy precede all organizational and factional considerations. The decision was made at the senior echelon after long negotiations were carried out between Al-Qaeda and Al-Nusra Front leaders while considering the costs and benefits if such a move. On the surface, it seems that Al-Qaeda lost power in the decision because of, among other reasons, its “loss” of control over Syrian territory. However, in was actually a strategic decision that is likely to serve both its long-term and short-term goals, and perhaps even contribute to a positive image of the organization in the eyes of jihad fighters; to depict it as an organization that is not bound by narrow and utilitarian interests, but rather as an organization with vision, understanding of, and responsibility for what is happening in the field.
On July 28, 2016 Ahmad Hasan Abu al-Khayr, the deputy to Al-Qaeda leader, Sheikh Ayman al-Zawahiri, announced that Al-Qaeda’s leadership had thoroughly studied the political and military circumstances in the field, carefully examined the existing difficulties and challenges as well as the suffering that has befallen the Syrian people due to attacks by coalition forces, and reached the conclusion that it would be better to preserve unity among the ranks of the mujahideen and the power of jihad in Syria. Therefore, “We appeal to Al-Nusra Front leadership to continue to act in a way that will preserve the interest of Islam and Muslims, as well as jihad by residents of Al-Sham. We urge them to take the appropriate steps towards this.” Beyond the importance of the announcement itself, this was the first time that the identity of Sheikh Ayman al-Zawahiri’s deputy, Ahmad Hasan Abu al-Khayr, was revealed.
Sheikh Ayman al-Zawahiri also made a statement and emphasized that the importance of preserving unity among the ranks in the struggle against “your sectarian secular enemy supported by Shi’ite forces, Russia and China who plotted a conspiracy together with the current Crusader campaign” takes precedence above all else. These events indicate that Al-Qaeda’s leadership has essentially given the “green light” to Al-Nusra Front’s leadership to sever ties with the organization in order to enable it to unite forces with jihadist factions in Syria to focus efforts on overthrowing the Syrian regime.
It is important to note that social networks were given an important role in shaping public opinion prior to the announcement about the split. Rumors of an anticipated split were spread on social networks several days before the official announcement, and it may have been considered a test run to examine the mood surrounding such intent. Salafi-jihadist sages in Syria, some of whom belong to Al-Nusra Front, also posted on their Twitter accounts that such a move would contribute greatly to jihad efforts in Syria and to unity among the ranks. For example, a prominent Salafi-jihadist sheikh named 'Abd al-Razzāq al-Mahdī in Syria expressed support for severing ties, as indicated by one of his tweets: “Al-Qaeda is not a holy thing! A connection to it is not a required principle”.
The response by Abu Mohammad al-Julani, the leader of Al-Nusra Front, came shortly thereafter. On the same day, he welcomed the decision by Al-Qaeda leadership and – for the first time – exposed is face to the media. According to him, this decision reliably reflected the belief of Sheikh Usama bin Laden, the former leader of Al-Qaeda, that “the interest of the nation precedes the interest of any Muslim state, the interest of the state precedes the interest of any group, and the interest of the group precedes the interest of any individual”. Al-Julani added that, in light of this, he decided to cancel all activities by Al-Nusra Front and establish a new organization without ties to any external entity called “The Front for the Liberation of Al-Sham” (Jabhat Fath al-Sham), which will strive to achieve the following goals (see the appendix for further information):
From left to right: the logo of the new organization “The Front for the Liberation of Al-Sham (similar in its colors to the flag of the Taliban in Afghanistan); the announcement by Abu Mohammad al-Julani (the leader of the organization) regarding its split from Al-Qaeda, to his right is Abu Abdullah al-Shami (a member of the Shura Council), and to his left is Abu Faraj al-Misri (a member of the Shura Council)
Why then did Al-Nusra Front choose to sever ties with Al-Qaeda after fighting for three years under its banner, and why specifically now? Below are several reasons for this:
The Implications of Al-Nusra Front’s Split from Al-Qaeda
The announcement of a split between Al-Qaeda and Al-Nusra Front, and the decision to establish a new organization called “The Front for the Liberation of Al-Sham” was, without a doubt, an unusual decision. However, at its base, the new organization remains essentially identical to the previous one. It seems to be only a cosmetic change designed to display a show of tolerance to the West and to discourage attacks against its members. In other words, it is apparent that this is an operative move aimed at achieving short-term and perhaps medium-term goals, including: unity among jihadist factions in Syria and a focus of efforts on overthrowing the Syrian regime. Nevertheless, it is reasonable to assume that the branch will retain its strategic relations to the Al-Qaeda leadership (probably covertly), and the separation itself is only illusory.
The severing of ties also presents a complicated challenge for the West since not it must decide whether to continue its offensive operations against the new organization in the framework of the war on terror, or grant it legitimacy by “classifying” it as a legitimate rebel organization against the Assad regime. If the West avoids making a decision on this matter or wrestles with this dilemma for a long period of time, it will be serving the interests of the new organization and of Al-Qaeda.
The doctrine of the new organization, “The Front for the Liberation of Al-Sham”
 August 1, 2016. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OoA9pGpNvqw
 The statements by al-Khayr and al-Zawahiri were published by Al-Manara Al-Bayda (the White Minaret), Al-Nusra Front’s jihadist media institution.
 August 1, 2016. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OoA9pGpNvqw
 July 25, 2016. https://twitter.com/ShaykhRazzaq/status/757501445105152000
 July 25, 2016. https://twitter.com/ShaykhRazzaq/status/757503359653974021
 July 28, 2016. http://www.aljazeera.net/news/arabic/2016/7/28/الجولاني-يعلن-فك-ارتباط-جبهة-النصرة-عن-القاعدة
 July 28, 2016. http://www.raialyoum.com/?p=487467
 July 29, 2016. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=67tSxQnt6rI