Syrian Al Qaeda looking to attack America, training European fighters, U.S. official warns
Syrian Al Qaeda-linked groups want to attack the United States and are training a growing cadre of fighters from Europe, the Mideast and even the United States, United States intelligence chief James Clapper warned on Wednesday.
Director of National Intelligence Clapper told the Senate Intelligence Committee that groups such as the Al Nusra Front in Syria have inaugurated training camps “to train people to go back to their countries,” the Associated Press quoted him as saying.
He described this as “one of the newest threats emerging in the past year to U.S. security.”
He added: “Al Nusra Front, to name one .... does have aspirations for attacks on the homeland.”
However, Clapper did not elaborate or offer any evidence of al-Nusra’s desire to attack the U.S.
He said the civil war in Syria has become a “huge magnet” for these groups while sub-Saharan Africa has become a “hothouse” for extremists even as Al Qaeda’s core leadership has been steadily weakened in Pakistan.
America’s intelligence agencies estimated that there were about 26,000 fighters deemed to be “extremists” operating in Syria out of a total opposition force of 75,000 to 110,000 from some 50 countries, Clapper said
He said more established groups, like Yemen’s Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, are still more capable of carrying out attacks against the U.S., but described steep growth in numbers of fighters in Syria.
He also offered a warning on advances in Syria’s biological weapons program.
Although Syria has agreed to eliminate its large arsenal of chemical weapons, the regime may now have the ability to produce biological weapons on a limited scale, he said.
“We judge that some elements of Syria’s biological warfare program might have advanced beyond the research and development stage and might be capable of limited agent production, based on the duration of its longstanding program,” the Associated Press quoted Clapper as saying in written testimony.
Clapper offered no further details, but it was the first time an official has publicly stated that spy agencies believed Syria had made strides in its biological program.
Neither President Bashar Al Assad’s regime nor the rebel groups appear able to achieve a decisive victory on the battlefield in the next six months, said Clapper, adding that the war would further foment Sunni-Shiite sectarian tensions across the region.
Meanwhile, another U.S. official warned of extremist rebels getting access to technologies that could be used against Washington.
“Not only are fighters being drawn to Syria, but so are technologies and techniques that pose particular problems to our defenses,” the Associated Press quoted committee chairwoman Dianne Feinstein as saying.
She warned Syria could become “a launching point or way station for terrorists seeking to attack the United States or other nations,” in the annual hearing Wednesday to hear the U.S. intelligence committee’s assessment of worldwide threats.
U.S. intelligence analysts have told the Associated Press that Al Qaeda leader Ayman Al Zawahri and his lieutenants are too preoccupied by the constant threat of U.S. drone strikes to plot a major attack against the U.S. similar to Sept. 11.
This has pushed Zawahri to empower various “nodes” of his organization to choose their own, often local targets, though he encourages them to focus on the “far enemy” of the U.S. when they can.
U.S. intelligence officials told the Associated Press that Zawahri so far has not called on the Syrian branches to attack U.S. targets, allowing them to focus on the war against Assad.
Meanwhile, Clapper compared Syria to the semi-autonomous tribal belt in northwest Pakistan, which has served as a sanctuary for the Taliban and members of Al Qaeda.