Intelligence officials and lawmakers are concerned that al Qaeda-linked extremists battling Syria’s regime have established safe havens in the eastern part of the country, where they are considering launching attacks throughout the Middle East.
“The only thing we think is stopping it now is the fact that there is this struggle between al Qaeda core leadership saying, ‘Hold off. Don’t do it yet,’” Rep. Mike Rogers, Michigan Republican and chairman of the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence, said at the 2013 Foreign Policy Initiative Forum.
A U.S. counterterrorism official said Syria poses a “two-pronged terrorist threat” to Western nations.
“There is continuing concern that some of the foreigners fighting in Syria with the Nusra Front and other extremist factions could leave the battlefield and mount attacks in their home countries,” the official said on the condition of anonymity to discuss security issues. “At the same time, we are watching for signs that the al Qaeda-affiliated groups present in Syria could shift some of their focus from toppling [President Bashar Assad] to launching external operations against the West.”
Andrew J. Tabler, a researcher at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, said jihadist groups in Syria could shift their focus to targets in Turkey or Jordan — particularly if governments in those nations tighten the flow of weapons and other aid going across their borders to rebels fighting the Assad regime.
“Those groups could carry out terrorist attacks against those countries to pressure them not to be so tight on the border controls,” Mr. Tabler said. “I think that’s a very real possibility.”
The U.S., which has begun supplying weapons to rebels, has yet to devise a way to deal with jihadists and the areas they are securing in Syria in the midst of that country’s 2-year-old civil war, analysts say.
“Significant parts of the country are controlled by jihadi groups, and the U.S. doesn’t have any strategy,” said Barak Mendelsohn, a researcher at the Foreign Policy Research Institute. “It’s weird to me that the U.S. went to take out the safe haven in Afghanistan, went to Iraq for the fear of a safe haven, and now you have a safe haven in Syria.”
According to some estimates, more than 1,000 opposition groups such as the Nusra Front and the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant are fighting alongside — and sometimes with — Syrian rebels in a conflict in which more than 100,000 have been killed since March 2011. Groups affiliated with al Qaeda have provided the most effective fighters because of their superior organization, equipment and funding.
Mr. Rogers said more than 10,000 “committed” al Qaeda members are operating along Syria’s eastern border with Iraq — more than the number of jihadists in Iraq during the U.S.-led occupation or in Afghanistan during the Soviet invasion of the 1980s. Jihadists in Syria are “talking about conducting external operations, which is exactly what happened in Afghanistan, which led to 9/11,” Mr. Rogers said.
Mr. Tabler compared Syria’s al Qaeda-linked extremists to those who fought under the banner of al Qaeda in Iraq during the early years of the U.S. military occupation there a decade ago. Al Qaeda in Iraq focused most of its operations locally, but its leader Abu Musab Zarqawi claimed responsibility for suicide bombings that killed dozens of civilians at three hotels in Amman, Jordan, in November 2005.
The prospect that groups fighting in Syria could begin to pursue regional operations is very real, Mr. Tabler said, adding that Syria is “a much greater magnet for foreign fighters and extremist organizations” than Iraq was during the mid-2000s.
“It’s like catnip for a lot of these Sunni jihadist fighters,” he said. “They can’t resist it.”
Mr. Rogers said the U.S. should continue to engage with regional allies and continue its efforts to covertly train and arm moderate elements within the opposition against the Assad regime.