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STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

One of the unanswered questions about Syria's unrest is whether al-Qaida is taking advantage of it. Syria's government would like you to believe the terrorist group is very active there. The government has tried to discredit the opposition by linking it with al-Qaida.

U.S. intelligence officials say that, actually, al-Qaida's presence in Syria is minimal - at least for now. The future is harder to judge. NPR's Dina Temple-Raston has more.

DINA TEMPLE-RASTON, BYLINE: U.S. intelligence officials tracking what's going on in Syria are watching one group in particular: al-Qaida's affiliate in Iraq. An interesting detail about that group is that its early members weren't just Iraqis. For the most part, they were Syrians.

JUAN ZARATE: Zarqawi, the once-leader of al-Qaida in Iraq, had recruited heavily from the ranks of Syrian fighters to create his northern Iraqi faction of al-Qaida.

TEMPLE-RASTON: That's Juan Zarate at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. He's a former deputy national security advisor. And he says al-Qaida's arm in Iraq still has close ties to Syrian jihadi groups. During the war, al-Qaida used a network of tribesmen and smugglers to get suicide bombers into Iraq to attack U.S. forces. Now that so-called rat line has been reversed, and al-Qaida is sending operatives the other way, back to Syria. Again, Juan Zarate.

ZARATE: Weapons, material, people are flowing back from Iraq into Syria. Assad allowed that rat line to flourish, and he fed the jihadi beast in Iraq. That beast is now coming back to bite him.

TEMPLE-RASTON: U.S. intelligence officials are watching that flow of foreign fighters. That's one of the barometers by which they're measuring al-Qaida's actual role in Syria - which they admit, at this point, is murky.

BRIAN FISHMAN: I am Brian Fishman. I'm a counter-terrorism research fellow at the New America Foundation.

TEMPLE-RASTON: Fishman says al-Qaida hasn't overtly announced its presence.

FISHMAN: We don't have an al-Qaida organization that is a declared al-Qaida organization saying we are operating directly in Syria.

TEMPLE-RASTON: And that kind of announcement might never happen. That's because more recently, al-Qaida has chosen to play a behind-the-scenes role in regional conflicts. It's been training fighters in Somalia and schooling bomb-makers in Nigeria, but hasn't taken credit for doing so. That's why intelligence officials are looking for more subtle signs.

In addition to tracking the foreign fighters heading into Syria, they're watching for increased suicide attacks, particularly car bombs, which are al-Qaida's specialty. And a third indicator: jihadi propaganda, in particular al-Qaida messages that focus on Syria. And that's already happened.

(SOUNDBITE OF VIDEO)

AYMAN AL-ZAWAHIRI: (Foreign language spoken)

TEMPLE-RASTON: That's al-Qaida's new leader, Ayman al-Zawahiri, in a video message he released last month.

(SOUNDBITE OF VIDEO)

AL-ZAWAHIRI: (Foreign language spoken)

TEMPLE-RASTON: You face their tanks with your bare chests, Zawahiri says in the video. Then he calls on Muslim fighters to travel to Syria to topple the government there.

Zawahiri isn't the only one making propaganda videos. One declared jihadi organization in Syria released its own video. Again, here's counter-terrorism expert Brian Fishman.

FISHMAN: They actually interviewed a woman who said that Syrian security forces came into her home, killed her son. And she's telling this story in a very compelling and powerful way.

TEMPLE-RASTON: Then the video 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's almost exactly the kind of propaganda al-Qaida in Iraq used to rally suicide bombers against the U.S.

Now, all this comes at a time when counterterrorism officials are just beginning to consider that al-Qaida, as a group, is on life support.

ZARATE: The reality, though, is al-Qaida is resilient. It takes advantage of opportunities.

TEMPLE-RASTON: Again, Juan Zarate of CSIS.

ZARATE: And if we're not careful, this could become the moment of rejuvenation of an al-Qaida in 2012.

TEMPLE-RASTON: In other words, said one counterterrorism official, Syria could be al-Qaida's best hope for survival.

Dina Temple-Raston, NPR News.

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