Al Qaeda affiliated Islamist groups in Syria are trying to identify, recruit and train Americans and other Westerners in the country to get them to carry out attacks upon their return home, the New York Times reported senior American intelligence and counterterrorism officials as saying.
According to the officials, 70 Americans have either traveled to Syria or tried to since the conflict started three years ago.
Director of the FBI, James B. Comey, said Thursday that tracking the activities of Americans who have returned from Syria had become one of the bureau’s highest counterterrorism priorities, reported the newspaper.
“We are focused on trying to figure out what our people are up to, who should be spoken to, who should be followed, who should be charged,” Comey told reporters. “I mean, it’s hard for me to characterize beyond that. It’s something we are intensely focused on.”
The FBI is conducting round-the-clock surveillance on some of the American nationals who could pose a threat, according to the officials who spoke to the New York Times.
“We know Al Qaeda is using Syria to identify individuals they can recruit, provide them additional indoctrination so they’re further radicalized, and leverage them into future soldiers, possibly in the U.S.,” one, speaking on condition of anonymity, said.
In Europe, officials share the same concern and are working with the U.S., according to the report.
Analysts say at least 1,200 European Muslims have traveled to Syria since 2011. In a confidential memo dated Nov. 26, Gilles de Kerchove, the European Union’s counterterrorism coordinator, warned that “the first returnees have come back, and there are cases where individuals continue traveling back and forth.”
The American officials said that Islamist groups in Syria have begun begin building the apparatus to conduct attacks outside Syria.
“That Al Qaeda would like to get operatives into the homeland or in Western Europe has been a persistent theme over the past several years,” said one senior law enforcement official to the New York Times.
In fact, both Najibullah Zazi and Faisal Shahzad, who plotted to detonate bombs in New York, received training in Pakistan.
Referring to the Al Qaeda threat in Afghanistan and Pakistan, Comey said “we’ve had great success against core al-Qaeda in the Af-Pak region, but at the same time, in the ungoverned or poorly governed spaces in Africa and around the Middle East, we see a resurgence of Al Qaeda affiliates.”
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