WASHINGTON: Dozens of seasoned militant fighters, including mid-level planners, have travelled to Syria from Pakistan in recent months in what US intelligence and counterterrorism officials fear is an effort to lay the foundation for future strikes against Europe and the United States, reports the New York Times.
“We are concerned about the use of Syrian territory by the al-Qaeda organisation 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,” CIA Director John Brennan told a House panel recently.
The extremists who concern Brennan are part of a group of al-Qaeda operatives in Pakistan that has been severely depleted by a decade of US drone strikes. But the fighters still bring a wide range of skills to the battlefield, such as bomb-building, small-arms tactics, logistics, religious indoctrination and planning, though they are not believed to have experience in launching attacks in the West.
Syria is an appealing base for these operatives because it offers them the relative sanctuary of extremist-held havens — away from drone strikes in Afghanistan and Pakistan — as well as ready access to about 1,200 American and European Muslims who have gone there to fight and could be potential recruits to carry out attacks when they return home.
New classified intelligence assessments based on information from electronic intercepts, informers and social media posts conclude that al Qaeda’s senior leadership in Pakistan, including Ayman al Zawahri, is developing a much more systematic, long-term plan than was previously known to create specific cells in Syria that would identify, recruit and train these Westerners.
Most of the operatives identified by intelligence officials are now focused on attacking Syrian government troops and occasionally rival rebel factions. But the fact that such operatives are showing up in Syria indicates that al Zawahri is also playing a long game — counting on easy access to Iraq and al Qaeda support networks there, as well as on the United States’ reluctance to carry out drone strikes or other military operations against targets in Syria.
The new assessment is not likely to change US policy toward Syria anytime soon, but it puts pressure on the Obama administration and its allies because it raises the possibility that Syria could become the next Afghanistan.
There are perhaps “a few dozen” al-Qaeda veterans of fighting in Afghanistan and Pakistan in Syria, two top counterterrorism officials said.In his first speech as secretary of homeland security in February, Jeh Johnson put it bluntly. “Syria has become a matter of homeland security,” he said.
The al-Qaeda veterans have multiple motivations, counterterrorism officials say. Like thousands of other foreign fighters, many have been drawn to Syria to fight the government of President Bashar Assad.
Others, like Abu Khalid al Suri, a Syrian-born veteran of al-Qaeda, were sent by the terrorist group’s central command in Pakistan first to fight Assad but also to begin laying the groundwork to use enclaves in Syria to launch attacks against the West, the US officials said.
Al Suri, who is believed to have been close to Osama bin Laden and to have fought against US forces in Afghanistan and Iraq, was sent to mediate conflicts between al-Qaeda’s main affiliate in Syria, the Nusra Front, and another extremist faction, the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, which al-Qaeda has disavowed. He was killed in a suicide attack in February by the rival group.