MICHAEL S SCHMIDT & ERIC SCHMITT
Islamic extremist groups in Syria with ties to al-Qaeda are trying to identify, recruit and train Americans and other Westerners who have travelled there to get them to carry out attacks when they return home, according to senior American intelligence and counter-terrorism officials.
These efforts, which the officials say are in the early stages, are the latest challenge that the conflict in Syria has created, not just for Europe but for the US, as the civil war has become a magnet for Westerners seeking to fight with the rebels against the government of President Bashar al-Assad. At least 70 Americans have either travelled to Syria, or tried to, since the civil war started three years ago, according to the intelligence and counter-terrorism officials — a figure that has not previously been disclosed.
FBI director James B Comey Thursday said tracking Americans who have returned from Syria had become one of the bureau’s highest counter-terrorism priorities.
“We are focused on trying to figure out what our people are up to, who should be spoken to, who should be followed, who should be charged,” Comey said to reporters.
Fearing the handful of Americans who have returned to US pose a threat as they may have received extensive training and jihadist indoctrination, the FBI is conducting costly round-the-clock surveillance on a small number of these individuals, according to the officials.
“We know al-Qaeda is using Syria to identify individuals they can recruit, provide additional indoctrination so they’re further radicalized, and leverage them into future soldiers, possibly in the US,” said a senior counter-terrorism official.
In Europe, where larger numbers are leaving for Syria, officials share the same concern and are working closely with US authorities to coordinate measures to stem the flow and track those who return.
Analysts say at least 1,200 European Muslims have gone to fight since the start of the civil war. In a confidential memo on Nov. 26, Gilles de Kerchove, the European Union’s counter-terrorism co-ordinator, warned that “the first returnees have come back, and there are cases where individuals continue travelling back and forth.”