Former terrorists held at the U.S. prison in Guantanamo, Cuba were detected by U.S. intelligence agencies recently working with Islamist rebels in Syria, according to U.S. officials.
The al Qaeda-linked terrorists in Syria are part of a group called the Al Nusrah Front that is fighting alongside the Free Syrian Army (FSA), the rebels opposing the Bashar al-Assad regime in the civil war.
The number and names of the former Guantanamo inmates were not disclosed.
A Pentagon spokesman declined to comment, citing a policy of not discussing intelligence matters on Syria.
However, the al Qaeda parolees who are re-engaging in terrorism further highlight the problem of releasing prisoners from the U.S. Naval Base prison in Cuba.
U.S. intelligence agencies recently reported that 168 terrorists of 602 detainees that were transferred to other countries from Guantanamo rejoined terrorist groups or otherwise took part in insurgent and terrorist activities. Many of the released terrorists are being held by foreign governments or were killed.
"They're not only in Syria but in adjoining countries," said one official familiar with intelligence reports. "A number of Gitmo parolees have graduated out of their rehab programs and returned to the fight."
The official was referring to several programs run by governments in the Middle East and North African states that use special "rehabilitation" program designed to re-educate Islamist terrorists and prevent them from returning to violent jihadism.
Saudi Arabia's government has claimed that its terrorism rehabilitation program has converted former terrorists.
However, U.S. critics have said many Islamist radicals are able to fool the government officials running those programs into believing they have changed and then they flee and re-join terrorist groups.
Frank Gaffney, director of the Center for Security Policy, said both the Obama and George W. Bush administrations mistakenly released terrorists from Guantanamo under the misguided notion they could be rehabilitated.
"You cannot take the terrorists out of jihad by letting them go from Gitmo and rehabilitating them, or otherwise pretending that they have been transformed into previously dangerous but no longer threatening people," Gaffney said in an interview.
"The truth is as long as they are adherents to the doctrine of Sharia [Islamic law], you can't take the jihad out of terrorists, and therefore you cannot take the terrorism out of jihad," he said.
Disclosure that former Gitmo terrorists are fighting in Syria comes as al Qaeda is experiencing a resurgence in North Africa and the Middle East, despite U.S. counterterrorism activities that have led to the deaths of key al Qaeda leaders and commanders.
Recent al Qaeda attacks took place in Libya in September and last month in Algeria.
According to the most recent Director of National Intelligence report on former Guantanamo inmates returning to terrorism, 95 of the 602 terrorists released from the prison are confirmed to have returned to the practice of Islamist terrorism, with a total of 56 terrorists on the loose and other killed or in custody. The report, using data current as of July 19, stated another 73 terrorists released from Guantanamo are suspected of re-engaging in terrorism, with 43 at large.
The report stated that based on the past 10 years, "we assess that if additional detainees are transferred without conditions from GTMO, some will reengage in terrorist or insurgent activities."
"Transfers to countries with ongoing conflicts and internal stability as well as active recruitment by insurgent and terrorist organizations pose a particular problem," the report said.
The report said former Guantanamo terrorists "routinely communicate with each other, families of other former detainees and previous associates who are members of terrorist organizations."
The communications vary from reminiscing about their prison experience to planning terrorist operations," the report said.
"We assess that some GTMO detainees transferred in the future also will communicate with other former GTMO detainees and persons in terrorist organizations," the report said.
The Treasury Department in December designated Al Nusrah Front as a terrorist organization in Syria that is seeking to subvert Syrian opposition forces.
However, the U.S. government response to the influx of al Qaeda in Syria has been to ignore the problem, two U.S. officials said.
No direct action intelligence or military operations have been carried out against the group or its leaders as part of the Obama administration's hands-off approach to dealing with Syria.
"The United States will continue to aggressively pursue those who undermine the desires of the Syrian people to realize a representative government that does not employ violence against its own people," Under Secretary for Terrorism and Financial Intelligence David S. Cohen said in announcing the financial sanctions against Al Nusrah.
The Treasury identified two Al Nusrah leaders. They are Maysar Ali Musa Abdallah al-Juburi and Anas Hasan Khattab.
Al-Juburi, an Iraqi, moved from Mosul, Iraq to Syria in late 2011 and became the religious and military commander of Al Nusrah Front in eastern Syria since the middle of 2012. He ran a training camp for the group and was linked to an attack against a U.S. military checkpoint in Ninawa province Iraq in 2004.
Khattab, a Syrian, helped form the Al Nusrah Front for Al Qaeda in Iraq (AQI) and "communicated periodically with AQI leadership to receive financial and material assistance and helped facilitate funding and weapons for Al Nusrah Front," a Treasury statement said.
"Khattab works closely with al Qaeda-linked facilitators to provide logistical support to Al Nusrah Front."
The State Department announced on Monday that it was closing a special office devoted to prisoner resettlement from the Guantanamo prison, and reassigned its director. A State Department official told the New York Times that closing the office did not mean efforts to shut down the prison had been abandoned.
President Barack Obama promised to close the Guantanamo prison but reversed himself shortly after taking office in 2009.
The fiscal 2013 Defense Authorization Act signed by the president Jan. 3 requires the government to certify that before any prisoners are transferred from Guantanamo to other countries there is a limited risk they will re-engage in terrorism.
Obama, in a signing statement Jan. 3, opposed the restrictions and said they were an effort by Congress "to foreclose my ability to shut down the Guantanamo Bay detention facility."
"I continue to believe that operating the facility weakens our national security by wasting resources, damaging our relationships with key allies, and strengthening our enemies," Obama said.
According to a Jan. 12 report in the Middle East news outlet Al-Monitor, activities by the group Jabhat al-Nusra, as the Al Nusrah Front is also called, in the Syrian civil war are raising concerns about terrorist infiltration of the Syrian opposition forces.
"Many fear that its power is increasing as the opposition gains strength, especially now that some political and military analysts argue that the end is approaching for the Syrian regime," Lebanon-based journalist Mohammad Harfoush stated.
"Jabhat al-Nusra is alleged to include Islamist extremists who plan to implement their personal agendas once Bashar al-Assad's regime falls and Syria enters a transitional phase," he said.
Al Nusrah advocates the creation of an Islamist state in Syria. The group has claimed responsibility for several bombings in Syria, including a blast at the Air Force Intelligence Directorate building in Harasata last fall.
By Bill Gertz