November 30, 2013
Federal officials say Americans are joining the bloody civil war in Syria, raising the chances they could become radicalized by al-Qaida-linked militant groups and return to the U.S. as battle-hardened security risks.
The State Department says it has no estimates of how many Americans have taken up weapons to fight military units loyal to Syrian President Bashar Assad in the conflict that has killed more than 100,000 people over 2 ½ years. Other estimates — from an arm of the British defense consultant IHS Jane’s and from experts at a nonprofit think tank in London — put the number of Americans at a couple dozen. The IHS group says al-Qaida-linked fighters number about 15,000, with total anti-Assad force at 100,000 or more.
This year, at least three Americans have been charged with planning to fight beside Jabhat al-Nusrah — a radical Islamic organization that the U.S. considers a foreign terrorist group — against Assad. The most recent case involves a Pakistan-born North Carolina man arrested on his way to Lebanon.
At a Senate homeland security committee hearing this month, Sen. Thomas Carper, D-Del., said: “We know that American citizens as well as Canadian and European nationals have taken up arms in Syria, in Yemen and in Somalia. The threat that these individuals could return home to carry out attacks is real and troubling.”
Current FBI Director James Comey said this month that he worried about Syria becoming a repeat of Afghanistan in the 1980s, after the Soviet invasion, with foreign fighters attracted there to train. The FBI refused to say whether it’s directed agents to increase efforts to stop Americans bound for Syria.