Al Qaeda in Iraq has merged with Syria's Jabhat al-Nusra, a rebel-allied militant group recently blacklisted by the US, according to the Associated Press, a move that suggests heightened cooperation among extremist groups in the Middle East.
Citing an al-Nusra-linked website, AP quoted a Monday video from Islamic State of Iraq (AKA Al-Qaeda in Iraq) leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi as saying: "It is time to announce to the Levantine people and the whole world that Jabhat al-Nusra is merely an extension and part of the Islamic State of Iraq."
More from GlobalPost: Syria: One on one with the leader of Jabhat al-Nusra
Al-Baghdadi said the new organization is called the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant, reported AP, but according to The Telegraph, it's the "Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham." Al-Sham is reportedly a word commonly used to refer to Syria or the whole Levant, i.e., nations bordering the Mediterranean Sea from Turkey to Egypt.
But there was more to the bussinesslike merger announcement than new branding, jihahi monitor Aaron Zelin of the Washington Institute for Near-East Policy told The Telegraph.
"What's new is Al-Qaeda's explanation for why they waited this long to officially state the nature of the connections," he said. "They wanted Syrians to get to know Jabhat and not to be clouded by media misperceptions ahead of time. Further, it tells us that Al-Qaeda/Jabhat al-Nusra split their funding on a monthly basis evenly. It also reiterates that Iraqis infiltrated Syria and helped set up Jabhat," Zelin told The Telegraph.
Baghdadi said his organization has been providing al-Nusra with money and training, identifying the group's leader in Syria as Abu Mohammed al-Jolani, according to Agence-France Press.
Al-Nusra is known to be working with Syrian rebels seeking the overthrow of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, a conflict that so far as left an estimated 70,000 people dead.
Although the US has lent tentative support to anti-Assad efforts in Syria, the US State Department declared al-Nusra a terrorist organization in December.