BEIRUT—Al Qaeda’s branch in Iraq said it has merged with a Syrian rebel extremist faction, in a push by the terrorist organization to exert more influence on the Syrian rebellion and its outcome.
The declaration reflects cross-border coordination between al Qaeda in Iraq and Syria’s Jabhat al Nusra, or the al Nusra Front, a force with growing battlefield clout that has been a target of U.S. efforts to isolate rebel extremists in Syria. The two groups are already closely linked; when the U.S. designated the Syrian group as a terrorist organization in December, it described al Nusra as an alias for the Iraqi group.
The announcement from Iraq followed a statement on Sunday by al Qaeda chief Ayman al-Zawahiri calling on Syrian rebels to direct their fight at establishing a “jihadist Islamic state” there as they seek to overthrow President Bashar al-Assad.
On Wednesday, al Nusra’s leader appeared to distance himself slightly from the announcement, saying al Nusra’s leadership hadn’t been consulted on the move, but swore his group’s allegiance to the broader al Qaeda organization and its leader Mr. Zawahiri.
In an audio statement, Abou Mohamad al Golani said members of al Nusra “swear allegiance to, listen to and follow orders” from al Qaeda. He also confirmed ties with al Qaeda in Iraq and said Nusra fighters have benefited from their expertise and aid, but that the Syrian group would continue to hold its own black flag rather than come under a new name. The new signs of al Qaeda’s influence are likely to deepen a schism within the Syrian rebel movement between Islamist extremists who shun Western involvement and more moderate fighters trying to work with the…