By Paul Cruickshank and Tim Lister
(CNN) - The latest in a flurry of messages from al Qaeda leader Ayman al Zawahiri shows his growing interest in exploiting violence in Syria. In a 35-minute audio address posted on jihadist forums on Wednesday, Zawahiri claimed the United States was actually supporting the Assad regime to prevent an Islamist state from taking its place.
"Supporting jihad in Syria to establish a Muslim state is a basic step towards Jerusalem, and thus America is giving the secular Baathist regime one chance after another, for fear that a government is established in Syria that would threaten Israel," Zawahiri said, according to a translation provided by the SITE Monitoring Service.
It is not the first time Zawahiri has cast a covetous eye over events in Syria.
In February, he used most of an address to try to graft al Qaeda onto the growing insurgency.
"Our courageous mujahideen heroes are becoming more firm, patient, resistant and brave every day, and they are waging the battle of glory and dignity against the sectarian secular regime," he said.
"Establish a state that defends the Muslim countries, seeks to free the Golan, and continues Jihad until the flag of victory is raised above the usurped hills of al-Quds [mosque in Jerusalem]," Zawahiri added.
And he appealed to foreign fighters to converge on Syria, urging "every Muslim and every free honorable one in Turkey, Iraq, Jordan, and Lebanon, to rise to help his brothers in Syria with all what he can," according to a translation by the SITE Monitoring Service.
Zawahiri's vision is, however, still a long way from fruition. To date, there are probably at most a few hundred committed al Qaeda fighters in Syria, a small fraction of the tens of thousands who have joined rebel ranks.
U.S. officials have downplayed al Qaeda's presence in the country.
"I would put the numbers in the dozens to 100-plus. You know, we don't have that much granularity that we can say with any certainty exactly how many are there," Daniel Benjamin, the State Department coordinator for counterterrorism, told CNN last month.
Many analysts believe that Jabhat al Nusra, a group founded by Syrian jihadists in January 2012, is affiliated with al Qaeda in all but name. Though the group has not pledged loyalty to al Qaeda nor been recognized by Zawahiri, its propaganda is hostile to the West and non-Sunni groups. Al Nusra propagandists also appear to have received privileged access to password protected web forums used by al Qaeda and its affiliates. Al Nusra has also claimed responsibility for a significant number of suicide bombings, long the signature tactic of al Qaeda.
Noman Benotman, a former Libyan Jihadist now with the Quilliam Foundation in London, has been closely tracking Jihadists in Syria. He told CNN that al Nusra probably has several hundred mostly Syrian fighters, has developed a presence across Syria, and has emerged as one of the most effective groups in waging urban warfare.
Unlike other jihadist cells fighting in Syria, al Nusra has a strict vetting process for recruits and is focused on building an organized committee structure, Benotman told CNN. He also believes it is collaborating with al Qaeda in Iraq (AQI), newly revived by growing sectarian fissures there. U.S. intelligence agencies began to detect the presence of AQI operatives in Syria earlier this year and believe they may have had a hand in a number of vehicle-borne bomb attacks against Syrian security services.
The growth of hardline Salafism in areas such as Deir Ezzor and Idlib in the last decade has provided both groups with a potential pool of recruits, according to Mohanad Hage Ali, a Beirut-based international security expert. Hage Ali told CNN there are also a significant number of Syrian veterans of the Iraqi insurgency present in these two areas, including some skilled in urban warfare. He said sources on the ground spoke of "thousands" of returnees from Iraq.
Constraints to Expansion
Analysts say al Qaeda may nevertheless hit a recruitment ceiling in Syria. In Iraq the deeply unpopular U.S. occupation helped al Qaeda spread its global Jihadist ideology, but there are no U.S. troops on the ground in Syria.
Another drawback for the group, says Benotman, is the memory of the barbaric violence of al Qaeda in Iraq and its killing of so many Muslim civilians in attacks across the Arab world. He says most Salafist groups in Syria – even if their goal is to create an Islamic state, have been determined to keep their distance from al Qaeda because they are not motivated by global jihad.
One such group is Sukur al Sham, a Jihadist fighting force which may have several thousand fighters, including some western recruits and which has carried out a number of attacks against Syrian security forces, including suicide bombings.
"The Arab uprisings has ushered in what I call the era of the new Jihadists - they are complete newcomers to the scene. They've dropped a lot of the old al Qaeda concepts and don't want to be part of the al Qaeda narrative - we've already seen this in Libya. This is a very important development," Benotman told CNN.
Benotman nevertheless warns that if regime brutality and sectarian violence escalate, al Nusra could expand its influence over other Jihadist groups.
Reports suggest al Nusra is already impressing other Jihadist rebel units and even rank and file members of the Free Syrian Army with its fighting prowess.
"When it comes to al Qaeda you need to look at the impact, not the number of fighters. The capability to carry out operations is key and here it may not be easy to compete with al Qaeda," said Benotman.
Al Qaeda elements in Syria are already taking advantage of a regional support infrastructure which stretches from Lebanon to Jordan to Iraq and is mobilizing fighters to travel to the country, he said. Despite the arrival of fighters from al Qaeda affiliates such as the Lebanese Fatah al Islam, analysts say foreign fighters still represent a small minority of those fighting in Jihadist ranks in Syria.
However, regional security analysts say that al Qaeda elements in Syria, like many other rebel opposition fighting groups, are struggling to obtain weapons and explosives, which may blunt their ability to make an impact. In Iraq by contrast, Sunni insurgent groups were able to build explosive devices from looted regime stockpiles.
Western officials have been concerned that Jihadist groups, including those supportive of al Qaeda, may become better equipped as a result of funds raised by private donors in some Gulf countries. The fear that weapons may end up with Jihadists has been one of the key reasons why western countries have been reluctant to arm rebel forces in Syria.
Saudi authorities, conscious of al Qaeda tapping into private sources in the Kingdom in years past, have moved to take control of fundraising efforts for Syria's rebels.
In his latest video address, Zawahiri also took aim at the new Egyptian government, despite its Islamist complexion - mocking its adherence to the 1981 peace treaty with Israel.
"I appeal to the honorable members of the Egyptian army, and there are many of them, not to be guards for the borders of Israel, and not to defend its borders or participate in besieging our people in Gaza," he said.
Despite considerable output by al Qaeda's media arm (four in about 48 hours) the landscape for the organization's leadership is as challenging as at any time since 9/11.
Many of al Qaeda's senior figures, including Osama bin Laden, are dead or captured as a result of counter-terrorism operations in Pakistan. Those lost include many of its operational experts, such as Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, Younis al Mauretani and Rashid Rauf.
Most of al Qaeda's terrorist plots against the West since 9/11 have been aborted or broken up. It's unclear how far al Qaeda "central' even knew about significant attacks like the Madrid train bombing in March 2004 - although Rauf appears to have been intimately involved in the London subway bombings the following year.
The group's sources of finance in the Gulf have come under attack from the U.S. Treasury and encrypted documents discovered last year by German intelligence revealed an organization under pressure, scrambling to find new ways of attacking the West.
One document, titled "Future Works" and thought to have been written in 2009, suggests al Qaeda was in a hurry to prove its relevance, amid intense pressure from western counter terrorism agencies.
"The document delivers very clearly the notion that al Qaeda knows it is being followed very closely," according to Yassin Musharbash of the German newspaper Die Zeit, which first reported its existence.
"It specifically says that western intelligence agencies have become very good at spoiling attacks, that they have to come up with new ways and better plotting."
One idea discussed was attacks on cruise ships. There was also a recommendation to train European Jihadists quickly and send them home – rather than use them as fighters in Afghanistan and Pakistan – with instructions on how to keep in secret contact with their handlers. But al Qaeda's barren run continues.
Now al Qaeda's continuing relevance depends to a great extent on its 'franchises' - and on the course of events in the Middle East, where the iron-fist of dictators has given way to shades of democracy (Tunisia, Egypt); uncertainty (Libya); and bloodshed (Syria, Yemen and Iraq once again.)
Zawahiri acknowledged this in his latest address - underlying al Qaeda's geographical reach.
"Qaedat al-Jihad was originally in Afghanistan before the Crusader war against it, and now it has four branches outside of Afghanistan and millions of supporters in every corner of the world." It appears he was referring to al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), al Qaeda in Iraq (ISI), al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), and Shabaab in Somalia.
Growth in Africa
In Egypt, Tunisia and Libya militant Islam has found greater room to maneuver - not the least in Egypt's Sinai peninsula where Salafist cells have recently launched rocket and gun attacks against military and police outposts.
According to western counter-terrorism sources, Zawahiri has also tried to influence militant Islamic groups in eastern Libya, dispatching an envoy to the area. But al Qaeda and Salafist extremism face a growing challenge from newly-formed governments hostile to their interpretation of Islam.
Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) remains a substantial threat both in Yemen and beyond its borders. But a military offensive in recent months has driven AQAP out of southern towns and an aggressive U.S. drone campaign has begun to erode its leadership.
In the last few months, AQAP has lost deputy leader Said al Shehri and one of its most senior operatives, Fahd al Quso. An April plot to smuggle a bomb on board a U.S.-bound airliner was disrupted thanks to a Saudi double-agent who has penetrated the group.
Africa in the past few years has been a bright spot for al Qaeda affiliates, with the growth of al Shabaab in Somalia, now formally part of al Qaeda, and al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb taking advantage of a security vacuum and plentiful weapons in the Sahel. But al Shabaab is under pressure from both the Kenyan and Ethiopian military and beset by internal dissent. It's at risk of losing the port of Kismayo, its hub and main source of funds.
The seizure of much of northern Mali by Ansar Dine [Defenders of the Faith] – a group sympathetic to al Qaeda – has sent shockwaves across the region. Ansar's occupation of Timbuktu - and the imposition of sharia law in a city long accustomed to a more gentle interpretation of Islam - serves as a reminder of the feeble hold of governments in the region. But Ansar's alliance with Tuareg militia, always tentative, fell apart weeks after they had found common cause in rebelling against Mali's central government, and its grip on the region looks uncertain at best.
All of which makes events in Syria of growing importance to Zawahiri and al Qaeda "central."
"Whenever you have a case of civil strife and instability, as you have in Syria, it makes it extremely attractive to extremists," Benjamin told CNN's Christiane Amanpour last month.
Zawahiri's ultimate aim of creating a theocratic Islamist order in the Arab world has for many years rested on two foundations: creating a safe-haven for fighters in the Arab world and winning the support of the Arab masses.
The 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq provided al Qaeda with an unprecedented opportunity, but the barbaric sectarian-driven attacks of al Qaeda in Mesopotamia under the leadership of Musab al Zarqawi led to a rapid erosion of support on the Arab street.
Syria may offer al Qaeda a second chance – an opportunity to regain support across the Arab world by portraying itself as the defender of Sunnis against a merciless Alawite regime. But it has to be careful not to be perceived as trying to co-opt or impose itself on the uprising. That was its mistake in Iraq.
The growing sectarian complexion of Syria's violence may portend the fracturing of a state long held together by repression and an ubiquitous security service, providing al Qaeda with the opportunity to thrive amid a meltdown of authority - and taking it right up to Israel's border.