By Carlo Muñoz - 08/13/12 07:55 PM EDT
The al Qaeda cells currently on the ground inside Syria have been operating independently alongside anti-government forces looking to force current Syrian president Bashar Assad from power.
However, those individual al Qaeda units have begun to join forces and coordinate attacks against government troops in Syria, U.S. intelligence officials tell the Associated Press.
That type of consolidation among al Qaeda forces in the country could lead to the growth of a new Syrian terror cell, akin to those headquartered in Yemen, Africa and Iraq, according to the AP.
"There is a larger group of foreign fighters ... who are either in or headed to Syria," Daniel Benjamin, the State Department's top counterterrorism official, told reporters in July.
The Defense Department in May confirmed that elements of al Qaeda's Iraqi faction are on the ground in Syria. The majority of those foreign al Qaeda insurgents likely came from the group's cell in Iraq.
Syria was a common thoroughfare for al Qaeda insurgents heading to Iraq during the bloodiest days of the war.
Concerns over a new al Qaeda cell in Syria come as administration officials and American allies are beginning to lay out contingency plans for a post-Assad regime in the country.
DOD spokesman George Little on Monday would not comment on the Pentagon's participation in these U.S. working groups looking at how to mitigate the fallout if and when Assad is deposed.
The department's focus is on ending the violence in Syria and ensuring no more lives are lost in a possible transition from the Assad regime to a new government, Little said.
The White House has already signed off on a plan ordering American officials to begin laying the groundwork for arming Syria's rebels, vetting certain elements of the FSA to evaluate whether they meet the criteria to receive equipment and arms supplied by various Gulf states.
President Obama has also authorized the CIA and other government agencies to provide support for anti-government rebels.
Administration officials have not abandoned plans to use American air power to establish no-fly zones over rebel enclaves in northern Syria near Aleppo, where fierce fighting between Assad forces and anti-government troops has engulfed the area.
But DOD and the White House have held off on efforts to supply Syrian fighters with weapons directly, amid concerns that if heavy weapons are funneled into Syria, it’s possible those arms could later be turned against American or allied troops by al Qaeda fighters.