U.S. intelligence officials tracking the situation in Syria have their eye on one group in particular: al-Qaida's affiliate in Iraq.
The group has longstanding ties to Syria, and its early members weren't just Iraqis; many of them were Syrians. The former leader of al-Qaida in Iraq, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, not only established a network of fighters in Syria, but he also folded them into his northern Iraqi faction of al-Qaida.
"Al-Qaida's arm in Iraq has maintained those relationships," says Juan Zarate, a former deputy national security adviser for terrorism who is now at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. "This is very much a strategic opportunity for al-Qaida. Al-Qaida is very good, like a parasite, at taking advantage of this kind of conflict."
White House spokesman Jay Carney said as much this week.
"Without getting into assessments of our intelligence capabilities, I would simply say that we are aware of the fact that al-Qaida and other extremists are seeking to take advantage of the situation," he said.
Carney's careful language reflects the fact that intelligence officials aren't entirely sure how large a role, at this point, al-Qaida is playing in the Syrian uprising and whether it has ties to the opposition at all. What they seem more certain about is al-Qaida having some presence there, and they suspect the group will try to make itself relevant again by exploiting it.
President Bashar Assad's government had tried to discredit the Syrian opposition by trying to link it to al-Qaida. Carney was circumspect.
"It's not clear right now the extent to which al-Qaida extremists are working with the Syrian opposition," he said. Al-Qaida championing the cause of freedom and democracy is "contrary to their history, their rhetoric, their reason for being," he added.
The situation is so murky because during the Iraq War, al-Qaida used a network of Syrian tribesmen and smugglers to get suicide bombers into Iraq to attack U.S. forces. Now that so-called "rat line" has been reversed; al-Qaida is starting to send operatives the other way — back to Syria.
"Assad allowed that rat line to flourish, and he fed the jihadi beast in Iraq," said Zarate, who was a national security adviser in the Bush administration during the war. "And that beast is now coming back to bite him."
No Official Announcement Of Presence
Brian Fishman, a counterterrorism fellow at the New America Foundation in Washington, tracked the flow of foreign fighters, particularly Libyan fighters, during the Iraq war. He says part of the problem is that al-Qaida hasn't announced its presence in Syria.
"We don't have an al-Qaida organization that is a declared al-Qaida organization saying we are operating directly in Syria," he said.
Officials say that kind of announcement might never happen.
In recent years, al-Qaida has chosen to play a behind-the-scenes role in regional conflicts instead of lending local groups the al-Qaida brand. It has been training fighters for al-Shabab in Somalia. There are indications it is schooling bomb-makers in Nigeria. But in both cases, al-Qaida has shied away from taking credit for doing so. That has forced U.S. intelligence analysts to troll for more subtle cues. In addition to tracking the foreign fighters heading into Syria, for example, they are watching for an uptick in suicide attacks — particularly car bombs, which are al-Qaida's specialty.
Another indicator: jihadi propaganda and in particular al-Qaida messages that focus on Syria. In a small way, that has already happened. Osama bin Laden's successor, al-Qaida leader Ayman al-Zawahiri, released a short video message a couple of weeks ago throwing al-Qaida's weight behind the uprising in Syria. He talked directly to the Syrian fighters and said, "You face their tanks with your bare chests." Then he called on Muslims throughout the Levant region to travel to Syria and help topple the government there. It is too early to tell whether that call has been answered.
Zawahiri's video is only the beginning. One declared jihadi organization in Syria called Jabhat al-Nusra released its own offering. The group seemed to steal a page out of al-Qaida's jihadi playbook.
"They actually interviewed a woman who said that Syrian security forces came into her home, killed her son and raped her multiple times," Fishman said. "She's telling this story in a very compelling and powerful way."
The video then cuts to a man who says he's a suicide bomber. He looks into the camera and asks how could anyone hear such a story and not rush to defend its victims? That is almost exactly the kind of propaganda al-Qaida in Iraq used to rally suicide bombers against the U.S.
All these questions about al-Qaida's intentions come at a time when counterterrorism officials are allowing themselves to believe that the threat the group presents is vastly diminished — some have called it a terrorist organization on life support.
"The reality, though, is that al-Qaida is resilient, and it takes advantage of opportunities," says Zarate, voicing a broader concern in the intelligence community. "If we're not careful, this could become the moment of rejuvenation of an al-Qaida in 2012, and it could focus its efforts in this region."
That could make Syria, in the words of one counterterrorism official, al-Qaida's best hope for survival.