DNI: Al-Qaida's Syrian Rebels Have 'Aspirations' to Attack U.S.

Terence P. Jeffrey | February 5, 2014 | 4:47am EST
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In this Sunday, Feb. 5, 2012 photo, Syrian rebels gather in an alley in Idlib, Syria. (AP Photo)

Deputy National Security Adviser Ben Rhodes announced last June that President Barack Obama had decided to aid the Supreme Military Council of the Syrian rebellion.

"The president has made a decision about providing more support to the opposition," said Rhodes. "That will involve providing direct support to the SMC. That includes military support."

Last week, at the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence's annual threat-assessment hearing, Director of National Intelligence James Clapper testified that one of the leading groups in the Syrian rebellion — the al-Qaida-affiliated al Nusra Front — would like to attack the U.S. homeland.

"How would you characterize the probability of an al-Qaida-sponsored or inspired attack against U.S. homeland today, as compared to 2001?" Committee Vice Chairman Saxby Chambliss, R-Ga., asked Clapper.

Clapper indicated that parts of Syria might now be like the Federally Administered Tribal Areas, which sit along Pakistan's border with Afghanistan, and have been a sanctuary for al-Qaida.

"The ideological center of al Qaida movement I think still remains in the FATA," said Clapper. But "the operational locus and the locus for operational planning has dispersed. There are some five different franchises at least, and in 12 countries, that this movement has morphed into. And we see sort of chapters of it, of course, in Yemen, Somalia, in North Africa, in Syria."

It is not the Shiite-allied Alawite regime of Bashar al Assad that is turning Syria into a base of operations for al-Qaida. It is Sunni extremist Syrian rebels.

"What we spoke about before in Syria, what's going on there, is in maybe some respects a new FATA for us," said Clapper. "And what's going on there, and the attraction of these foreign fighters is very, very worrisome.

"Aspirationally," said Clapper, "al-Nusra Front, to name one, does have aspirations for attacks on the homeland."

On Dec. 11, 2012, six months before the White House announced Obama would provide military support to the Supreme Military Council of the Syrian rebels, the State Department listed al Nusra Front as an al-Qaida-affiliated terrorist group.

At the beginning of last week's hearing, with Clapper sitting in front of her, Senate Intelligence Chairman Dianne Feinstein, a Democrat from San Francisco, summed up the Syrian situation this way: "Because large swathes of the country ... of Syria, are beyond the regime's control, or that of the moderate opposition, this leads to the major concern of the establishment of safe haven, and the real prospect that Syria could become a launching point or way station for terrorists seeking to attack the United States or other nations."

Matthew Olsen, the director of the National Counterterrorism Center, who testified beside Clapper, agreed with both Clapper's and Feinstein's assessments.

"I fully agree with Director Clapper's assessment of the situation in Syria," he told Feinstein. "And as you laid out in your opening statement, the combination of a permissive environment, extremist groups like Al Nusra, and the number of foreign fighters, combine to make Syria a place that we are very concerned about, in particular the potential for terrorist attacks emanating from Syria to the West."

This week, at the threat-assessment hearing in the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence, CIA Director John Brennan said that al-Qaida is now using camps in both Syria and Iraq to "develop capabilities" that could threaten the United States.

"We are concerned about the use of Syrian territory by the al Qaeda organization to recruit individuals and develop the capability to be able not just to carry out attacks inside of Syria but also to use Syria as a launching pad," said Brennan.

"Do you believe there are training camps that have been established on either side of the Iraqi or Syrian border for the purposes of training al Qaeda operatives?" House Intelligence Chairman Mike Rogers, R-Mich., asked Brennan.

"There are camps inside both Iraq and Syria that are used by al-Qaida to develop capabilities that are applicable both in the theater as well as beyond," said Brennan.

"Do you believe that ungoverned space presents a real threat to the United States of America via al Qaeda operations, or the West?" asked Rogers.

"I do," said Brennan.

President Barack Obama and al-Qaida leader Ayman al Zawahiri both supported the Syrian revolution seeking to overthrow Bashar Assad.

No doubt Obama believed that supporting revolution in Syria served his understanding of U.S. interests. The terrorist Zawahiri saw the Syrian revolution as a step toward recapitulating Salah ad-Din's conquest of Jerusalem in 1187.

Obama's support for the Syrian revolution is another example of his imprudent approach to foreign policy backfiring on the United States.
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