- - Tuesday, July 2, 2013

Thousands of foreign terrorists traveled to Syria over the past several months to wage jihad, or holy war, in what U.S. officials say is fast becoming a new international terror training ground.

Most of the foreign terrorists are fighting for the al Qaeda-linked group the al-Nusra Front and are coming from around the world, mainly from Saudi Arabia, Iraq, Libya, and Tunisia, by crossing the Syrian border with Turkey. The al-Nusra Front is the most well organized and ideologically motivated armed opposition group after the secular Free Syrian Army.

“The Syrian opposition is benefiting from a steady flow of foreign fighters who seem to be joining a variety of Islamist-oriented brigades or, on a smaller scale, starting up nationality-based units,” said one U.S. official familiar with internal reports on the region.

Bruce Riedel, a former CIA official and former staff member of the White House National Security Council, added: “Syria is the new epicenter for the global jihad with would be ‘martyrs’ arriving from across the Islamic world to fight Assad. They are getting experience in the terror arts they will bring home.”

Word of the growing foreign terrorist presence comes as a gruesome videosurfaced over the past weekend showing Syrian rebels beheading three Christians, including a Catholic priest, in a public execution widely circulated on the Internet.

The Obama administration announced last month that it will begin sending arms to secular rebel groups fighting under the Free Syrian Army banner. Critics have warned that the covert U.S. support could end up bolstering al Qaeda forces in the region.

“The balance of power within the Syrian opposition between responsible forces and terrorists is already murky at best,” John Bolton, former U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations, told the Washington Free Beacon.

“If even more al Qaeda supporters are moving in, it raises the risks of supplying weapons even to ‘friendly’ opposition forces even higher,” he said.

The number of “martyrdom announcements” by jihadists in Syria indicates the influx of foreigners is increasing, said officials who spoke on condition of anonymity.

Officials familiar with reports of the foreign fighters said many of the jihadists are Sunni Muslims initially drawn to the conflict to help the Syrian people and oppose Shiites.

However, one official said the fact that most are joining al-Nusra Front and another Chechen terrorist group are troubling signs since it is believed the foreign fighters will become “hardened jihadists” through the experience.

The increase in foreign terrorists began in December and is continuing. U.S. officials estimate many as 6,000 foreign terrorists are now fighting in Syria and the large numbers have increased fears among security officials that the terrorists will use their experience to spread terror to their home countries.

More than 600 Islamist foreigners were reported killed in fighting in Syria since the beginning of the year.

Al-Nusra and the Chechen-led Jaysh Al-Muhajirin wal Ansar rebel group, which collaborates with al-Nusra, are the main jihadist groups that have helped funnel foreign terrorists into the conflict.

According to the officials, Syria is becoming a new terrorist training ground as most of the foreign fighters joining the conflict have little or no jihadist experience.

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