Al Qaeda Movement Into Syria Has U.S. Intelligence Worried

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U.S. counterterrorism officials are eying Al Qaeda movements with concern, as a number of midlevel planners were observed moving into Syria from Pakistan, where some believe they may be looking to build a base with tactical options against Europe and the United States. The region would offer a shelter from the drone strikes and attacks that the extremist organization is seeing in Pakistan and Afghanistan; it also contains around 1,200 potential recruits in the form of European and American Muslims in the region, who could then be put to use for attacks once they return to their native country, The New York Times reports.

“We are concerned about the use of Syrian territory by the Al Qaeda organization to recruit individuals and develop the capability to be able not just to carry out attacks inside of Syria, but also to use Syria as a launching pad,” John O. Brennan, the director of the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency, told a House panel, according to The New York Times.

Intelligence efforts there believe that Ayman al-Zawahri, a senior leader in Pakistan, is working to create a system for future recruitment and training cells that would target Westerners. Not all are on the same page with this suspicion though, and some insist that while veterans of the Pakistani Al Qaeda are being seen more in Syrian rebel groups, this is not necessarily with the goal of targeting Europe and the U.S.. “At this stage, it’s a lot less organized than a directed plan,” a Western security official told The New York Times. “Some fighters are going to Syria, but they’re going on an ad hoc basis, not at an organized level.”

Either way, another counterterrorism official told the Times, this could be a temporary role that could shift. “A key question, however, is how using Syria as a launching pad to strike the West fits into Zawahri’s overall strategy, and if he’s soft-pedaling now, hoping to consolidate Al Qaeda’s position for the future,” the official said to the publication. “Clearly, there is going to be push and pull between local operatives and Al Qaeda central on attack planning. How fast the pendulum will swing toward trying something isn’t clear right now.”

Secretary of Homeland Security Jeh Johnson addressed the same concern in his speech at the Woodrow Wilson Center in Washington, D.C.: “We are very focused on foreign fighters heading to Syria. Based on our work and the work of our international partners, we know from the U.S., Canada and Europe are traveling to Syria to fight in the conflict. At the same time, extremeists are actively trying to recruit Westerners, indoctrinate them, and see them return to their home countries with an extremist mission.”

He spoke about a meeting with his counterparts from the U.K., France, Germany, Spain, Italy, and Poland, saying that “Syria has become a matter of homeland security.” He did note that extremist activity outside of these cells, such as was the case with the Boston Marathon bombing, was even more concerning, as it is the most difficult for American intelligence to detect.

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