By Tim Lister and Paul Cruickshank
Last week, al Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri added to his ever-growing video collection, with an eight-minute lecture supporting the Syrian opposition against President Bashar al-Assad.
It was the latest example of al-Zawahiri's growing focus on opportunities for al Qaeda amid the upheavals in the Arab world, from Iraq to Egypt to Yemen, Libya and now Syria. The video that appeared on jihadist forums Friday damned Syria's "sectarian, secular regime."
"The brave, jihadi Syrian people rose and will never accept anything less than victory over the criminal butchers," al-Zawahiri said.
His words were clearly designed to graft al Qaeda onto an uprising which has so far shown little association with or affinity for Salafist jihadism. But are his words anything more than bluster and opportunism?
"It remains to be seen whether the message will resonate with the disparate elements of the Syrian opposition," one U.S. official who declined to be identified told CNN. "Nor is there a sense that the Syrian oppositionists want to see Syria heading in the direction of extremism."
Nevertheless hard-line Salafist cells, whether associated with al Qaeda or not, are finding space in the upheavals cross the region.
In particular, the Islamic State of Iraq - al Qaeda's highly-active affiliate there - is well-placed to play a role in neighboring Syria, and may have begun to do so already, according to U.S. officials.
Direct evidence of its involvement is hard to establish, but a U.S. source says the United States has intercepted communications of operatives in Syria belonging to the Iraqi al Qaeda affiliate, also known as al Qaeda in Iraq.
The source, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said the latest intelligence clearly indicates that small groups of operatives have been "pushed into Syria" by their commanders in Iraq and are able to carry out intelligence and reconnaissance against Syrian targets - and subsequently carry out bombing attacks. Those operatives, the source says, are believed to be part of a network responsible for recent attacks.
Three recent attacks stand out as unlike anything the Free Syrian Army or other opposition groups have been able or even willing to stage. The first was in Damascus in late December, when powerful bombs killed more than 40 people outside two branches of the security forces. The strike carried all the hallmarks of al Qaeda in Iraq: a powerful vehicle-borne bomb driven by a suicide bomber, aimed at a government building. But the group never claimed responsibility.
The next was a January 6 suicide bombing targeting policemen on a bus in Damascus. And the third was Friday in Aleppo, Syria's commercial center and a city that is both vital to the regime's survival and had been little affected by the unrest until then. Syrian officials said 28 people were killed in a double suicide bombing on security service compounds.
Again, the ISI has not claimed responsibility, where in Iraq it usually does proclaim its role in assassinations and bombings. But it's the type of attack that is typical of its operations.
ISI fighters are battle-hardened by their struggle against the more moderate Sunni Awakening Councils in Iraq. They are now posing a growing challenge to Iraqi authorities after the withdrawal of U.S. forces.
In recent years, many would-be ISI fighters from other Arab states passed through Syria on their way to wage jihad in Iraq. In 2008-09, jihadist forums were full of advice about the best route for would-be fighters through Syria, and U.S. military officials regularly complained that Damascus was not doing enough to stop infiltration across its border.
In November, the ISI released a biography of an influential Syrian commander among its ranks who had been killed. One source in the region estimates that several hundred Syrian jihadists have returned home from Iraq.
The ISI would also have the ideological motivation to join the fight in Syria, seeing it as a Sunni struggle to be free of the heterodox Shi'ite rule by Syria's ruling Alawite minority. The ISI and its predecessor have been among the most chauvinistic franchises of al Qaeda, with ISI spokesman Abu Muhammad al-Adnani describing Shiites as an "illness" that could only be remedied with the sword, according to a translation of a January audio posting by the SITE monitoring service.
Other jihadist groups, such as northern Lebanon's Fatah al-Islam, have also called for Assad's overthrow. In a December statement, the group described the more moderate Muslim Brotherhood "as a summer cloud that will pass quickly to open the way for the leadership of the Mujahideen." There is no indication that Fatah al-Islam is actively involved in the Syrian unrest, but individuals associated with it may have helped smuggle arms across the border, according to sources in the region.
The upheaval in Egypt has also provided a space for jihadist groups to emerge, especially in under-governed areas like he Sinai Peninsula. Ansar al-Jihad in the Sinai declared its allegiance to fellow Egyptian al-Zawahiri last month, adding: "We will never quit or surrender until the last drop of our blood [is spilled] in the Cause of Allah and until Islam rules by the help of Allah the Almighty."
Egyptian military intelligence officials have told CNN in recent months they are concerned by the growth of militant cells in the Sinai. Border security has deteriorated, and in August, a jihadist group based in Gaza used Egyptian territory to attack Israeli civilian targets in Negev - killing eight civilians.
Al-Zawahiri has long harbored the dream of creating Islamic rule in his home country of Egypt and the Arab world. He was won round by Osama bin Laden in the 1990s to the need to focus attacks on the United States. But for al-Zawahiri, that was always a means to the end of pressuring the United States to stop supporting regimes like that of Hosni Mubarak in Egypt.
His ultimate goal has always been to overturn the secular order in the Arab world.
"If the successful operations against Islam's enemies and severe damage inflicted on them do not serve the ultimate goal of establishing the Muslim nation in the heart of the Islamic world, they will be nothing more than disturbing acts," al-Zawahiri wrote in a memoir published just after the 9/11 attacks.
Al-Zawahiri has always stressed the importance of cultivating support the al Qaeda organization on the Arab street and the need to create a base of operations from which al Qaeda could operate and expand its operations. For a while, Iraq seemed the promised land – until a backlash against Abu Musab al-Zarqawi's brutal campaign of violence, which al-Zawahiri tried but failed to halt, tarnished the al Qaeda brand.
The first weeks of the Arab Spring provided further bad news for al Qaeda, as it was bypassed by young, urban, pro-democracy protests. A series of videos al-Zawahiri released on Egypt last year mostly fell on deaf ears. While the partial dismantling of security apparatuses in several Arab countries offered the group the ability to rebuild its networks, its potential pool of recruits appeared to be narrowing.
But al-Zawahiri appears to have sensed that political turmoil in Yemen, Libya and, Syria offer al Qaeda an opportunity to gain a foothold - and in some instances, safe havens - across the Arab world. And his call for volunteers to defend Syria's Sunnis appears to be calculated ploy to repair the damaged al Qaeda brand.
In Yemen, al Qaeda in the Arabian Penisula (AQAP) has tried to win support by portraying itself as a defender of Yemenis against a U.S. backed-dictatorship. The group is linked to jihadist fighters who have taken control of swathes of southern Yemen.
Al-Zawahiri's strategic advice appears to have been taken on board by AQAP. In a message pledging support to Zawahiri after the death of bin Laden, AQAP leader Nasir al-Wuhayshi said he was continuing along the plan drawn by him.
As Libya descended into civil war last spring, al-Zawahiri dispatched a senior lieutenant to build up the group's operations in eastern Libya, according to a Libyan source briefed by Western intelligence officials. The al Qaeda operative has now built up a force of over 200 fighters, according to the source.
Clearly the al Qaeda leader senses multiple opportunities across the Arab world by exploiting security vacuums and growing radicalism brought on by economic collapse.
CNN Pentagon Correspondent Barbara Starr contributed to this report.