Training Ground

Western radicals could be learning terrorism skills in Syrian conflict

Syrian rebels / AP
May 22, 2013

Americans and Europeans have been joining al Qaeda-affiliated groups in Syria in increasing numbers, causing concern that these Western radicals could attempt to carry out terrorist attack on the United States upon returning home, experts told Congress Wednesday.

"Syria is becoming a training ground for foreign fighters," Seth Jones, a former U.S. Special Operations liaison, told lawmakers during a House Homeland Security Committee hearing.

"Syria is attracting a cadre of foreign fighters who could return home with the ability and intention" to commit terrorism in America and Europe, said Jones, currently a counterterrorism expert for RAND, a think-tank that provides analysis to the U.S. Armed Forces.  "An increasing number of [Western] fighters have travelled to Syria … to fight against the Assad regime."

Terror organizations connected to al Qaeda have become a central presence in Syria as its years-long civil war spiral out of control, the experts told lawmakers.

The al Qaeda-backed group Jabhat al-Nusra (JN), for instance, has already become more popular among rebels than the Free Syrian Army, which the United States and other Western nations have attempted to bolster.

Al-Nusra is now turning Syria into a massive jihadi training camp, giving Western radicals the know-how to commit terrorist attacks on the United States and Europe once they return home, according to Jones and other experts who testified.

"The escalating war in Syria presents a growing threat to the U.S." and is led by the al-Nusra group, Jones said.

While it is unclear how many Americans and Europeans have joined the fight to topple Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, "these fighters are gaining valuable training in combat, weapons," explosives, and radical ideology, Jones said.

"Where will these fighters go after" the civil war ends? Jones asked. "Even if some return home ... it is uncertain whether they’ll become involved in plots" to kill Americans.

U.S. intelligence agencies are unable to track foreign fighters who have travelled to Syria.

"Once they leave their home countries they fall off the radar," said Barak Barfi,
a research fellow at the New America Foundation.

Would-be fighters can easily fly into Middle Eastern countries such as Turkey and travel across porous borders into contested states such as Syria.

"All we’re going to find out is a martyrdom notice on a jihadi website," Barfi said. "It’s a big problem. What are they doing there and what’s going to happen when they come back? Are they going to radicalize others, bring back bomb-making know-how?"

Jones said it is America’s obligation to keep tabs on foreign fighters who could become radicalized.

It is believed that Boston marathon bomber Tamerlan Tsarnaev may have been radicalized to the point of violence during a 2012 trip to an area of Russia known to house al Qaeda militants.

"It is contingent on the U.S. to get information from sources on the ground in Syria," Jones said. "Not enough is being done in the country to collect information."

"That is a very big weakness of the U.S., its inability to understand what’s going on in Syria," Jones said.

Al-Nusra fighters in Syria are collecting extensive firepower, including heavy weapons and even aircraft that have been seized from the Assad army’s air bases. It is even possible that they have gotten ahold of Assad’s chemical weapons, experts said.

"In the long run the threat to the U.S. from Syria will only increase and we better deal with it now," Jones said, explaining that foreign fighters are continuing to receive training in Syria.

Another concern is the rise of al-Nusra among the Syrian people, the top rebel force combatting Assad.

"Syrians beamed about [al Nusra’s] contributions to the revolution," Barfi said, recalling meetings he had during his last visit to Syria.

Al Nusra "is the most admired rebel unit in the field," Barfi said, explaining that the group’s ultimate goal is to carve out a terrorist haven in Syria "and take the fight to neighboring Israel."

"What happens in Syria will not stay in Syria," Barfi said, adding that "containing" al Nusra "should be a national interest."

Intelligence and vigilance is the key to preventing radicalized foreign fighters from carrying out terror attacks once they return home from the fight in Syria, experts said.

"America is going to have to deal with the fallout from Syria" whether it decides to intervene or not, said Robin Simcox, a research fellow at the Henry Jackson Society. "We should be absolutely mindful of that."