The State Department on Thursday added the leader of an al Qaeda-linked Syrian rebel group to its global terror list, freezing any assets he might have in the U.S. and making it illegal for Americans or U.S.-based companies to do business with him.
"This will help choke their finances," a State department official told The Washington Times.
The move, the official said, is part of an effort by the United States and its European allies to try and marginalize the al-Nusra Front, the extremist militia which has been among the most successful rebel force on the ground in Syria — both militarily and in terms of the governance it offers the people who live in areas liberated from the Damascus regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad during the country's increasingly bloody two-year civil war.
Muhammad al-Jawlani is the leader of the al Nusra front, the State Department said in a statement Thursday.
"He has stated in videos that his ultimate goal is the overthrow of the Syrian regime and the institution of Islamist shari'a law throughout the country," the statement said, adding that he had been specially tasked by al Qaeda in Iraq to form al Nusra as a front organization behind which al Qaeda supporters could operate in Syria.
Earlier this year, Mr. al-Jawlani went public with the link, saying the subterfuge was necessary for security reasons.
"Under al-Jawlani's leadership, al-Nusrah Front has carried out multiple suicide attacks throughout Syria," said the State Department. The group has specialized in large car bombings outside police buildings and security headquarters in Damascus and other cities. "Many of these attacks have killed innocent Syrian civilians," said the department.
More than 70,000 have died in the conflict, according to the United Nations.
As the violent stalemate in Syria continues, pressure has increased on the United States and its allies to begin arming the rebels.
But there are concerns that arms might find their way to extremist groups like al-Nusra. Even more mainstream groups like the Omar al-Farooq Brigade have faced criticism from human rights groups, most recently when a video surfaced of one of their commanders eating the heart of a dead Syrian soldier and urging his followers to "kill the Alawites" and "eat their hearts."
Mr. al-Assad and most of his government and supporters are members of Syria's Shiite minority sect, the Alawites. The Omar al-Farooq Brigade, the al-Nusra Front and almost all other Syrian rebel militias are Sunni Muslims and the conflict has begun to take on an increasingly sectarian tone.
Earlier this week, London's Daily Telegraph reported that Britain and France were leading a push at the United Nations to get al-Nusra and its leaders designated by the Security Council's al Qaeda sanctions committee, which would impose a banking and asset freeze worldwide, but that effort has not borne fruit as yet.
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