Westerners have joined al Qaeda-linked groups in Syria in unprecedented numbers, increasing the risk that they will strike their home countries, including the U.S., a key Republican lawmaker said Thursday.
Rep. Mike Rogers, chairman of the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence, said al Qaeda’s core group, based on the border between Pakistan and Afghanistan, sees such Westerners as a means to conduct “external operations.”
“Al Qaeda core … is saying, ‘We have so many Westerners who have showed up, who we’re training, who we are putting through their paces … we’re giving combat experience to that we are ready to do external operations,’” the Michigan Republican said. “I don’t know about the rest of you; that’s going to cost me about a week’s nights sleep.”
Those Westerners have passports from their home countries to which they eventually will return, Mr. Rogers said at a conference in Washington hosted by the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies and Al-Monitor, a media site focused on the Middle East.
“We have never seen this number before in the history. That’s a problem, a huge problem,” he added.
In Syria, Westerners have joined al Qaeda-affiliated groups such as the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant and the Nusrah Front. The militants have asserted control over the northern parts of the country that were seized by rebel forces fighting since 2011 to topple President Bashar Assad.
Thousands of fighters from around the world have poured into Syria since early 2012, a U.S. intelligence official said on the condition of anonymity.
“Foreign fighters in Syria probably will be able to acquire combat skills and experience necessary to conduct attacks in their home countries,” said the U.S. intelligence official. “There are only a handful of Americans who have joined the fighting in Syria.”
A Michigan woman, Nicole Mansfield, died in May fighting alongside an Islamist group in Syria, and Eric Harroun, an Arizona native and Army veteran who traveled to Syria in January, was arrested by the FBI in March for fighting alongside the Nusrah Front.
Meanwhile, European governments estimate that at least 700 Europeans have traveled to Syria to join the fight against the Assad regime.
Syria’s civil war has created an atmosphere conducive to the resurgence of al Qaeda in the region.
“I have never seen a pooling of the numbers of al Qaeda. We didn’t even see this in Iraq at the height of the Iraq War from foreign fighters — from regional attraction into the eastern provinces of Syria and the western border area in Iraq,” Mr. Rogers said.
“So you think about why I’m nervous. We have our allies looking for other partners in the region now. We have this pooling of al Qaeda. We don’t have a good operation to vet rebels on the ground in the way I think we need to. This is a recipe for disaster,” he said.
Mr. Rogers cited the September attack by al-Shabab, a Somalia-based al Qaeda affiliate, on the Westgate Mall in Kenya’s capital, Nairobi, as proof that terrorist groups are setting their sights on international targets.
“All of these affiliates are feeling empowered in a way they haven’t felt empowered before and are trying to engage in this notion of external attacks,” he said. “Now, it might not be in the United States right away. They all have that aspiration. But what we’re seeing is they’re getting better at what they’re doing.”