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."
"The question is, does Syria become a staging area for launching attacks elsewhere in the region? And the answer is, 'Probably,'" said Mr. Tabler.
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.
"When we don't make a decision, thinking that we're doing some international good or we're tired of being engaged with the world, what you get is a worse problem," he said.
Mr. Mendelsohn, of the Foreign Policy Research Institute, said the U.S. also should pressure Turkey and Iraq to do more to limit flow of foreign fighters into Syria.
However, he added that foreign fighters who are not hard-core jihadists but who went to Syria out of sympathy for their Sunni brethren need to be reintegrated instead of punished when they return to their home countries.
"They might be feeling that they don't have any way back, that the only way now is to commit themselves to the cause. So it will be smart if we can think about a way to integrate people who left for Syria," Mr. Mendelsohn said.
The U.S. also should be striving to stem the flow of funds to rebel groups, particularly from the Persian Gulf nations, said Will McCants, a researcher at the Brookings Institution.
"That's not happening. We're training small numbers of people, which is not going to make a big difference in the war," Mr. McCants said at a Foreign Policy Research Institute symposium. "If you don't cut off this private money, those extremist groups are going to be attractive."
Clinton Watts, an analyst at the Foreign Policy Research Institute in Philadelphia, said the U.S. needs to develop an overall counterterrorism strategy that could be employed in Syria, where it would be impossible to conduct drone strikes and special operations raids without violating Syrian airspace or essentially declaring war.
For example, he said, the U.S. could be waging a social media war to counteract the flow of foreign fighters to Syria by exploiting rifts between the top two al Qaeda groups in Syria — the Nusra Front and the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) — as well as highlighting disappointments of foreign fighters already in Syria.
"What are we doing? Nothing. We have al Nusra and ISIS attacking each other in Syria where we know is the epicenter of jihad right now. We've done nothing," Mr. Watts said. "There is no global terrorism effort. There is no U.S. plan."
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