By Elise Labott and Tim Lister
The U.S. State Department is planning to designate the al-Nusra Front, a radical Islamist group in Syria, as a Foreign Terrorist Organization, according to two U.S. officials who spoke to CNN on background.
The announcement is likely to come within the next week, the officials said. The State Department has been building the case against the group, which is called Jabhat al-Nusra in Arabic, for several months, according to the officials.
The hope is to finalize the designation just before the next so-called Friends of Syria meeting, scheduled to take place in Morocco December 12. One official said the exact timing of the announcement was still in flux.
The goal of the designation is to isolate extremists groups in Syria while giving a boost to the new political opposition group unveiled at a summit in Doha, Qatar, last month. The United States and other western governments had pushed for the formation of a new opposition group that was more representative of people inside Syria, as opposed to a group mostly comprised of Syrian expatriates.
Al-Nusra and several other groups announced their opposition to the new anti-government coalition last month. "An agreement has been reached to establish a just Islamic state and to reject any foreign project, alliances or councils that are forced on us domestically from any entity, whatever it is," the statement read.
The latest U.S. data estimates al-Nusra makes up roughly 9% of the rebel forces battling the regime.
Officials said the administration is not of one mind as to how much the group is intertwined with the rebels. They said the group has deliberately not affiliated itself publicly with al Qaeda, in an apparent effort to not paint itself as extremist.
U.S. officials say the designation of al-Nusra is an effort to highlight the good opposition and express concern about the bad guys.
"We want to put the opposition on notice that these guys are becoming more of an issue and they need to do something about them," one official said.
The al-Nusra Front has emerged as one of the most effective groups in the Syrian resistance over the last few months, often drawing on the experience of foreign fighters who have had combat experience in Iraq and elsewhere.
It has claimed responsibility for a number of complex attacks in Damascus and Aleppo, frequently involving suicide bombers.
Analysts who follow the group have told CNN recently that al-Nusra has been preparing to intensify its campaign of suicide bombings against the regime's military and intelligence facilities. At the beginning of October, al-Nusra carried out a series of devastating, coordinated attacks in Aleppo. The first phase was by suicide attackers with car bombs, followed by a gun attack by men disguised in Syrian military uniforms, and then the detonation of two parked car bombs.
Analysts believe the group has close links with al Qaeda's affiliate in Iraq. Noman Benotman, a former Libyan jihadist now with the Quilliam Foundation in London, told CNN recently that al-Nusra's "focus now is on recruiting suicide bombers. They want to copycat the Zarqawi model."
Benotman was referring to the devastating campaign launched by al Qaeda in Iraq leader Abu Musab al Zarqawi after U.S. troops occupied Iraq.
But units of al-Nusra have also become an important factor on the battlefield in northwestern Syria, joining other brigades of the Free Syrian Army in laying siege to and then overrunning military bases and training establishments. At least four bases have fallen to rebel forces in the last month, or are surrounded and virtually cut off from other regime forces.
This week, rebel commander Ali Jadlan told CNN's Arwa Damon that among the three brigades laying siege to a military academy near Aleppo were fighters from al-Nusra. He said they were responsible for the most dangerous area - along the road to Aleppo.
It's unclear how many fighters belong to al-Nusra. Most analysts believe it has several thousand men, predominantly in the north and east.
According to Benotman, al-Nusra has a strict vetting process for recruits, who must provide references before joining. He told CNN that the group already probably has several hundred fighters, but is looking to recruit more - including men from other rebel groups.
In September, a video emerged of several dozen Free Syrian Army fighters in Damascus announcing that they had joined al-Nusra. They said that one of the reasons they were joining was that they were impressed with al-Nusra's 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," Benotman told CNN in October.
CNN's Jamie Crawford contributed to this report