In advance of Jabhat al-Nusra rebranding as Jabhat Fatah al-Sham (JFS) on 28 July 2016, there were carefully coordinated media releases between al-Qaeda “central” (AQC) and al-Nusra. First, al-Manara al-Bayda (The White Minaret), al-Nusra’s media arm, released a six-minute audio speech by Abdullah Muhammad Rajab Abd al-Rahman (Abu Khayr al-Masri), identified as the deputy to al-Qaeda’s leader Ayman al-Zawahiri; then there was the first ever picture of al-Nusra’s leader, Abu Muhammad al-Jolani, whose real name is Ahmad Husayn al-Shara, and shortly thereafter a video of al-Shara ostensibly severing ties with al-Qaeda; and finally the founding document for JFS was published.
The speech by al-Qaeda’s deputy, Abu al-Khayr, said [summary translation by al-Maqalaat]:
Ages and days differ, developments and circumstances change, minds and thoughts vary, times move forward and the Sunna of Allah stays, passing through His creations: the Sunna of conflict and struggle between the truth and falsehood and between goodness and evil. There is no meeting nor compromise, jihad will continue until the Day of Resurrection, until the religion is completely for Allah. A religion which supports the truth and annuls the falsehood, in which the Muslims enjoy live with honour and dignity in the shadow of the Law of the Most Merciful. …
After studying the condition on the field in Syria from both angles, militarily and politically, and what it entails in terms of challenges and difficulties; all of this accompanied by suffering and hardship in which the people of Syria live—from killings, bombings and displacements. It rooted in us, with this vision, to work and use any possible means to safeguard the jihad in Syria, righteously and strongly, and to remove from it any weak excuses which the enemy places to split the mujahideen from their supporting Sunni environment.
Our mujahid [jihadist] brothers in Bilad al-Sham [the land of Syria] have become a force which cannot be underestimated, excellently managing the liberated territories with legitimate courts that rule with the Law of Allah, and service institutions that guard and take care of the matters of people. Accompanied by a new generation which is brought up on the jurisprudence of honour, and the jihad as a means to protect the religion and its sanctuaries. The stage which the umma [Muslim community or nation] has reached in terms of the jihad spreading and entering the Muslim community and shifting from the understanding of an elitist jihad to the jihad of a nation [i.e. the masses], should not be held back by group-thinking or an organization. Rather the organizations and groups should be a facilitation of gathering and mobilization; not division and separation. These efforts must be headed towards a future stage that establishes an entity for the Sunnis which represents their demands and requests their rights.
Regarding what I have set forth and as a part of my responsibility: We call upon the leadership of Jabhat al-Nusra to work for that which works in the interest of Islam and the Muslims and safeguards the jihad of the people of Syria, and we press them to take the appropriate steps towards this matter. This is a step from us, and likewise a call for all the mujahid factions in the land of Syria to unite over that which pleases Allah, and to comply over the issues between you and vow loyalty for the people of faith and declare your dissociation from the people of oppression and disbelief. Be one row that protects our people and defends our land and please our eyes with your unity over a righteous Islamic government which returns the rights [to its people] and establishes justice between the Muslims. And we, with the permission of Allah, will be the first one who aids and supports it, and this is confirmed by the words of our leader and our Shaykh Dr. Ayman al-Zawahiri, may Allah protect him.
The picture of Ahmad al-Shara (Abu Muhammad al-Jolani that Jabhat al-Nusra released was:
Then the short video saw al-Shara flanked by Abdulrahim Attuon (Abu Abdullah al-Shami) [on al-Shara’s left], a senior religious official in al-Nusra, and Ahmad Salama Mabruk (Abu Faraj al-Masri), one of al-Zawahiri’s closest confidants for decades:
Al-Shara then gave a short speech:
In the name of Allah, the Beneficent, the Merciful. All praise is due to Allah, Lord of all and may the peace and blessings of Allah be upon His Messenger, Muhammad, his family and his companions; as for what is to follow. To my fellow Muslims everywhere, to the honourable people of Syria, assalam alaikum wa rahmatullah wa barakatuh.
We would like to thank our brothers, the commanders of al-Qaeda in general, Dr. Shaykh Ayman al-Zawahiri and his vice, Shaykh Ahmad Hasan, Abu al-Khayr especially, may Allah protect them. We thank them for their stance, whereby they gave priority to the interests of the people of Syria [al-Sham], their jihad, their revolution, as well as their proper assessment of the general benefits the jihad. This noble stance will be recorded in the annals of history. Their blessed leadership has, and shall continue to be, an example of putting the needs of the community and their higher interests before the interest of any individual group. They have practically implemented the words of Shaykh Usama bin Ladin (may Allah have mercy on him) when he said: “The interests of the umma take precedence over the interest of any state, the interests of the state take precedence over the interest of any jama’a [group]; the interests of the jama’a take precedence over any individual.”
We, of the central command of Jabhat al-Nusra, in accordance with the general guidelines and directives of the aforementioned leadership, our obligations in serving the people of Syria and their jihad, lightening the weight upon the shoulders of the people, without compromising or sacrificing our solid beliefs, or laxity in the necessity of the continuity of the jihad of Syria, which we will continue protecting, using all Islamically legitimate means which assist in the attainment of these objectives or ends in the achievement of these lofty goals as we strive to bridge the gaps between the groups of mujahideen and ourselves, we hope to form a unified body, whose basis is al-shura [consultation], uniting the masses of the people Syria, we hope to form a unified body, whose basis is al-shura, uniting the masses of the people of Syria, liberating their lands, giving victory to their faith and upholding their testimony of the faith … fulfilling the requests of the people of Syria 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 Syria under the pretence of targeting Jabhat al-Nusra, an al-Qaeda affiliate.
For the aforementioned reasons, we declare the complete cancellation of all operations under the name of Jabhat al-Nusra, and the formation of a new group operating under the name “Jabhat Fatah al-Sham,” noting that this new organization has no affiliation to any external entity. This new organization aims to fulfil the following:
1) Work toward establishing the religion of Allah, having His shari’a as legislation, establish justice amongst all people.
2) Strike toward unity with all groups, in order to unify the ranks of the mujahideen and liberate the land of Syria from the rule of the tyrant [Bashar al-Assad] and his allies [Iran and Russia]. Allah said, “And hold onto the rope of Allah all of you together and do not be disunited” [Ali Imran: 103].
3) Protect the jihad of Syria and assure its continuity, utilizing all Islamically legitimate means to do so.
4) Strive to serve the Muslims, attending to their daily needs and ease their hardship in every possible way.
5) Ensure security, stability and an honourable life for the general masses.
All praise is due to Allah, Lord of all. Your brother, Abu Muhammad al-Jolani.
The founding manifesto for Jabhat Fatah al-Sham was released on jihadi websites:
“Victory from Allah and an imminent conquest”
1) We derive our aqeeda [creed, ideology], manhaj [methodology], and fiqh [jurisprudence] from the Qur’an and Sunna, as understood by the righteous salaf [ancestors] from among the companions [of the Prophet Muhammad] and tabi’een [those who followed the companions], may Allah be pleased with them, as well as the devoted Imams and scholars who follow in their footsteps, such as Abu Hanifa, Al Shafi’i, Malik, Ahmad [these four individuals represent the main schools of Sunni jurisprudence] and many others, may Allah have mercy on them all.
2) We fight against the enemy who aggresses religion and the sanctities of the Muslims. We see this as one of the major Fard al-Ayn [an obligations incumbent on every individual Muslim] and one of the most obligatory forms of establishing the religion. This is not conditioned by any condition, as the enemy has to be fought by all possible means, for nothing is more important than faith and then fighting against such an enemy.
3) We perform jihad for the sake of establishing the governorship of the shari’a until fitna [strife] disappears, the religion of Allah reigns supreme across the Earth, and the glory and dignity of our umma is restored.
4) Through our jihad, we follow Islamic laws and take universal laws into consideration to reach our goal according to our understanding of shari’a and reality, all the while adhering to the satisfactory religious rules and the regulations of shari’a politics, as derived from the biography of our Prophet, Muhammad, peace and blessings be upon him.
5) We strive to lift oppression from all those who are oppressed, be them people of Islam or disbelief. We strive to stop the oppressor from oppressing others by all possible means and to the utmost of our power.
6) We call to Allah with wisdom and fine admonition by being gentle to people and delivering to them the message of their Lord leniently, gently and by good words.
7) We hold the scholars of our umma in very high esteem and recognize their rights and favours. We ally with them and follow them, though we know that no one is completely infallible. We also take their significant ijtihad in matters of fiqh into consideration.
8) We ally with the Muslims through the loyal bond of faith while we display enmity towards the disbelievers and we disown them [al-wala wal-bara]. If one Muslim’s character combines both evil and good, obedience and disobedience, Sunna and innovations, then our loyalty to them would be in proportion to their adherence to goodness and Sunna. Similarly, our enmity towards them would be in proportion to their involvement in evil deeds and innovations.
9) We renounce divisions and quarrels and call to unity and harmony. We regard the unity of the umma in general, and that of the mujahids in particular, on righteousness and under one banner, as an obligation that should be carried out in compliance with realistic and correct shari’a principles.
10) We strive for the Word of Allah to be supreme and spend our most precious assets for its sake. We perform jihad by the hand and the tongue, as well as the money, body, heart and possessions until Allah makes it victorious or we die defending it.
 Bilad al-Sham Media gave this short biography of Abu al-Khayr yesterday:
Who is Ahmad Hasan Abu al-Khayr al-Masri? He is an Egyptian al-Qaeda veteran operative and one of the son-in-laws of Shaykh Usama bin Ladin. Until he was arrested by Iran in Baluchistan in 2003. In 2008 the Mujahideen succeeded in kidnapping Heshmatollah Attarzadeh, the commercial attache at the Iranian consulate in Peshawar, Pakistan, and they exchanged him for a number of al-Qaeda operatives and family members of Shaykh Usama bin Ladin, including his daughter Iman and his other son-in-law Sulayman Abu Ghayth. In 2013 the Mujahideen in Yemen again succeeded in kidnapping the Iranian diplomat Nour Ahmad Nikbakh, who was exchanged for the remaining five al-Qaeda operatives held captive in Iran. Among them the infamous Sayf al-Adel, Abu Muhammed al-Masri, Ahmad Hassan Abu al-Khayr Al-Masri, Khalid al-Aruri, and Sari Shihab. It is reported that some of them have traveled to Syria after their release in March 2015. This audio message by Jabhat al-Nusra’s media wing Al-Minarat Al-Bayda seems to confirm these rumours.
ISIS also published a statement a while ago after their release in which they threatened Sayf al-Adel and his companions and warned them not to enter their territory, and they also warned their own soldiers not to engage with these Al-Qaeda veterans. It is clear from this anxious statement that ISIS understands how great the influence of these Mujahid veterans would be on their own soldiers if they come into contact with them.