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Intelligence Chief Says Syria Drawing in More Foreign Fighters

Wednesday, 11 Feb 2015 12:09 PM

(Bloomberg) -- Foreign fighters, particularly Westerners, are flowing into Syria’s war zone at an unprecedented rate, posing a threat to U.S. security, a top U.S. counter-terrorism official said today.

Nicholas J. Rasmussen, director of the National Counter Terrorism Center, told Congress that the U.S. estimates the number of foreign fighters in Syria at more than 20,000, of which about 3,400 are Westerners. About 150 Americans are suspected of travelling to Syria or attempting to travel to the Middle Eastern nation, Rasmussen said.

That represents a jump of 25 percent in the number of combatants joining the conflict from outside Syria in the last four months, and the number of those coming from western countries has ballooned by 70 percent.

“The rate of foreign fighter travel to Syria is unprecedented. It exceeds the rate of travelers who went to Afghanistan and Pakistan, Iraq, Yemen, or Somalia at any point in the last 20 years,” Rasmussen said in testimony prepared to be delivered before the House Homeland Security Committee.

Civil war has raged in Syria for four years and the country has become a base of operations for Islamic State extremists, who are the target of a U.S.-led bombing campaign. The conflict has drawn outsiders who can gain combat training and may become more radicalized. Of particular concern are those coming from the U.S. and European nations who can more easily cross borders.

Returning Threat

“One of the most pressing concerns for the intelligence community is the ongoing flow of foreign fighters to Syria and the threat they could pose upon return to their home countries,” Rasmussen said. “The battlefields in Iraq and Syria provide foreign fighters with combat experience, weapons and explosives training, and access to terrorist networks that may be planning attacks which target the West.”

The hearing was being held on the same day the President Barack Obama sent lawmakers a draft resolution formally authorizing U.S. military operations against Islamic State, which has captured territory in Syria and Iraq.

Michael Steinbach, a top FBI counter-terrorism official, said U.S. authorities were not just worried about those who visit Syria and gain combat skills. He said that Islamic State was also adept at using social media and the Internet to promote its jihadist message and might incite violence by home-grown extremists, who are also known as “lone wolves.”

Homegrown Extremists

“We are concerned about the possibility of homegrown extremists becoming radicalized by information available on the Internet,” he said in prepared testimony. “The FBI remains concerned the recent calls by ISIL and its supporters on violent extremist web forums, and the recent events in Europe could continue to motivate homegrown extremists to conduct attacks in the homeland.”

“Several incidents have occurred in the United States and Europe over the last few months that indicate this ‘call to arms’ has resonated among ISIL supporters and sympathizers,” he added.

Texas Representative Michael McCaul, the Republican chairman of the committee, said that the U.S.-led air strikes in Syria and neighboring Iraq have failed to reduce the flow of foreign fighters to Syria, which represents “the largest convergence of Islamic terrorists in world history.”

To contact the reporters on this story: Del Quentin Wilber in Washington at dwilber@bloomberg.net; Terry Atlas in Washington at tatlas@bloomberg.net To contact the editors responsible for this story: Joe Sobczyk at jsobczyk@bloomberg.net Michael Shepard

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2015-09-11
Wednesday, 11 Feb 2015 12:09 PM
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