Al Qaeda affiliates fighting against the Syrian regime are now debating when to launch attacks outside the country’s borders, according to a senior U.S. lawmaker.
“They’re talking about conducting external operations, which is exactly what happened in Afghanistan, which led to 9/11,” said Rep. Mike Rogers, Michigan Republican and chairman of the House Intelligence Committee.
Mr. Rogers said the jihadists are developing a safe haven along the Iraqi border in eastern Syria, where they feel safe enough to turn to targets outside the country.
“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’,” he said at the 2013 Foreign Policy Initiative Forum on Tuesday.
“So in order words, let this cauldron go, try to secure some area in the east, and then we’ll start and begin planning for external operations,” he said.
According to some estimates, more than 1,000 different opposition groups are fighting Syrian dictator Bashir Assad in a civil war that’s lasted two years and killed more than 100,000 people. Groups affiliated with Al Qaeda have attracted the most fighters, due to their superior organization, equipment and funding.
There are now more than 10,000 “committed” al-Qaeda members in the east of Syria, Mr. Rogers said, a number greater than the counts of foreign fighters in Iraq during the U.S. occupation or in Afghanistan resisting the Soviet invasion in the 1980s.
Still, 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 Mr. Assad, Mr. Rogers said.
“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.