Clapper: Syria becoming ‘huge magnet’ for foreign terrorists

Director of National Intelligence James Clapper on Wednesday said that Syria has become a “huge magnet for extremists,” including a flood of foreign fighters.

Clapper told the Senate Intelligence Committee that Syria risked becoming a new centralized location for terrorist groups with designs on attacking U.S. soil — comparing it to the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) in Pakistan, where core al Qaeda is based.

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“What's going on there is in maybe some respects a new FATA for us,” Clapper said at the Senate panel’s annual worldwide threats hearing. “And what's going on there and the attraction of these foreign fighters is very, very worrisome. Aspirationally, al-Nusra Front, to name one, does have aspirations for attacks on the homeland.”

Clapper said that of the 75,000-to-110,000 rebel fighters in Syria, the U.S. intelligence community grades 26,000 of them as extremists.

Those numbers includes 7,000 who have come from roughly 50 foreign countries across the Middle East and Europe.

“Our recent engagements with our foreign interlocutors, and particularly in Europe, are of tremendous concern here, for those extremists who are attracted to Syria engage in combat, get training,” Clapper said. “And we're seeing now the appearance of training complexes in Syria to train people to go back to their countries, and, of course, conduct more terrorist acts.”

The nearly three-year civil war in Syria has provided an environment for al Qaeda affiliates to gain ground as the opposition fighting against Syrian President Bashar Assad’s regime has become splintered between Islamist and moderate groups.

Al Qaeda affiliates like Iraq the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) have shown a resurgence, as ISIL recently overtook territory in western Iraq.

Senate Intelligence Chairwoman Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) said the threat from Syria was the most notable development over the past year.

“Because large swathes of the country of Syria are beyond the regime's control or that of the moderate opposition, this leads to the major concern of the establishment of safe haven, and the real prospect that Syria could become a launching point or way station for terrorists seeking to attack the United States or other nations,” Feinstein said.

“The situation has become so dire that even al Qaeda’s central leader, Ayman al-Zawahiri, has announced the activities of one group as being too extreme to countenance,” she said.