On Monday the Iraqi wing of al-Qaeda announced that it will merge with Jabhat al-Nusra — a highly effective Syrian rebel force deemed a terrorist organization by the U.S. — and operate under the title the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS) .
The merger came after "al-Qaeda Central" leader Ayman al-Zawahiri released a video calling for unification of the jihad in Syria as they attempt to create a new Islamic Caliphate .
Although the influence of al-Qaeda on Nusra has been known for months, Aaron Zelin at The Washington Institute explains that the timing of the announcement shows that al-Qaeda's central leadership in Pakistan "is still relevant to the global jihad that it originally called for in 1998."
Furthermore Zelin writes that al-Qaeda's Central may have actually ordered the establishment of al-Nusra. There are several indications that al-Nusra was founded around the end of July 2011, which coincides with Zawahiri's first video related to the Syrian uprising on July 27, 2011.
In any case, the merger creates a major headache for the West. Al-Nusra are the Syrian opposition's best and most organized fighters, and they also govern villages and parts of cities — including half of Aleppo — in northern and eastern Syria.
No wonder the CIA has expanded its support of non-islamist Syrian rebels, placed itself on at least three of Syria's borders, and is collecting intelligence on al-Qaeda-linked militants in Syria for possible drone strikes.
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