JERUSALEM – At least 6,000 jihadist rebels in Syria, many affiliated with al-Qaida, now pose a major security risk to the United States and Europe, according to Obama administration officials and Mideast experts.
Most of the news coverage of the emerging threat fails to mention U.S. and Western support, including weapons transfers, to the Syrian rebels. Al-Qaida-linked groups reportedly are prominent among the rebel ranks.
On Tuesday, Michael Morell, the Central Intelligence Agency’s second-in-command, warned in an interview with the Wall Street Journal that al-Qaida groups in Syria, along with the civil war itself, pose the greatest threat to U.S. national security.
The Wall Street Journal reported Morell said there are now more foreigners flowing into Syria each month to fight with al-Qaida-affiliated groups than there were going to Iraq to fight with al-Qaida at the height of the war there.
Meanwhile, according to UPI, Matthew G. Olsen, director of the National Counterterrorism Center, stated Syria “has become really the predominant jihadist battlefield in the world.”
“The concern going forward from a threat perspective is there are individuals traveling to Syria, becoming further radicalized, becoming trained and then returning as part of really a global jihadist movement to Western Europe and, potentially, to the United States,” said Olsen at a security conference in Aspen, Colo., this month.
Gilles de Kerchove, the European Union’s counterterrorism coordinator, told the same conference, “The scale of this is completely different from what we’ve experienced in the past.”
De Kerchove spoke of jihadists flocking to Syria from Europe. He described the European jihadist travelers as self-radicalized and traveling on their own initiative.
He said the militants now pose a threat to their home countries if they attempt to return home, and he warned that European governments lack the capabilities to monitor all of them.
USA Today further reported on at least 6,000 foreign jihadists from 50 nations, including fighters from Australia, France, Britain and the U.S.
“Australians now make up the largest contingent from any developed nation in the Syrian rebel forces,” the newspaper reported. “There are around 120 French fighters in Syria, about 100 Britons and a handful of Americans.”
There is a history of foreign fighters returning home to carry out terrorist attacks, such as the 1996 bombing of Khobar Towers in Saudi Arabia, in which 19 U.S. servicemen were killed.
Unmentioned by CIA official Morell or the major news media reporting on the Syrian rebel threat is that the U.S. and Western countries have supplied vast sums of weapons to the Syrian rebels and earlier to the rebels in Libya who toppled Moammar Gadhafi’s regime.
WND reported earlier this week that U.S. and other Western arms shipments to jihadist-saturated Libyan and Syrian rebel groups may have contributed to al-Qaida’s growing worldwide threat.
Al-Qaida’s resurgence may now be culminating in the terrorist group’s reported plot to target U.S. and Western interests, prompting a weeklong shutdown of U.S. embassies across the Middle East and North Africa, WND further reported.
Indeed, informed Middle Eastern security sources told WND the current al-Qaida terrorist plot against U.S. and Western targets is a direct result of U.S.-supported efforts currently under way to purge al-Qaida affiliates from the ranks of the Syrian rebels. The sources have specific knowledge of the terrorist threat.
The sources said the U.S. has been working with Saudi Arabia, Qatar, the United Arab Emirates and other Gulf states to support a U.S.-armed Free Syria Army effort to cleanse al-Qaida affiliates from among the rebel ranks, including al-Nusra and other groups.
For months, the U.S. reportedly has been providing lethal support to the Syrian rebels amid widespread fears the Western weapons could fall into the hands of al-Qaida organizations known to work alongside the Free Syria Army.
Now with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad closing in on the insurgency targeting his regime, U.S. allies in the Gulf and throughout the Middle East are deeply concerned the freshly armed al-Qaida groups could turn their efforts from Assad to destabilizing the moderate Arab regimes.
To that affect, according to the Middle Eastern security sources, the U.S. has been heavily aiding the Free Syrian Army in its efforts to disarm or eliminate the al-Qaida groups fighting as Syrian rebels.
The Middle Eastern security sources said the current al-Qaida plot is an attempt to dissuade the U.S. from further supporting the disarming efforts.
With additional research by Joshua Klein.