The suicide bomber who blew himself up in an attack this week in Syria’s Idlib province called himself Abu Huraira al-Amriki.
Al-Amriki translates into “the American.” It also translates into a worst fear of U.S. officials: that the Syrian war is spawning a new generation of violent extremists, including Americans who may someday come home bent on terrorism.
“We are concerned about the flow of foreign fighters into and out of Syria,” State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki, told reporters yesterday in Washington. Later, in a statement, she said the bomber was a U.S. citizen believed to be named Moner Mohammad Abu-Salha. Democratic Senator Bill Nelson of Florida told reporters in Miami that al-Amriki was from his state without providing details, according to the Associated Press.
U.S. law enforcement agencies say they are increasing efforts to thwart threats that may be posed for years to come by U.S. and European citizens drawn to train and fight with al-Qaeda-affiliated groups in Syria.
The foreign fighters who leave Syria present both a “homeland security threat” to the U.S. and a “global issue” affecting many nations whose citizens have been drawn to the Syrian conflict, Frank Taylor, the under secretary for intelligence and analysis at the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, said yesterday at a conference in Washington.
About 70 American and 3,000 European citizens are among the estimated 12,000 foreign fighters from 80 countries who have gone to fight in Syria, most joining two al-Qaeda offshoots, the al-Nusra Front and the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, according to U.S. and European officials and analysts.
‘Flood of Militants’
“The flood of militants into the country poses a serious challenge, as these individuals would be trained to plan and carry out attacks around the world,” Mark Giuliano, deputy director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation, said this week at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.
The FBI has expanded the counterterrorism team assigned to “fully track, analyze, and ultimately neutralize the threats emanating from Syria to the United States,” he said.
In the past year, the U.S. has arrested “a few” individuals who either returned after fighting in Syria or attempted to travel there to fight, Giuliano said. While there’s no ban against traveling to Syria, there are laws against joining or supporting a designated terrorist group.
The FBI does an initial investigation when it has information about someone returning from Syria to determine whether he or she may pose a threat, Andrew McCabe, executive assistant director of the FBI’s national security branch, said yesterday at a homeland security conference held by the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
Bin Laden’s Legacy
He warned that as the conflict continues the growing number of travelers with Syria connections may “quickly outstrip our abilities to aggressively investigate” all of them. Turkey is the most common gateway to Syria, and some radicals may take advantage of the ease of movement across Europe.
“Many times, we lose our visibility on those folks and what they’re doing as they travel through Europe,” McCabe said. “It’s a tough situation.”
FBI Director James Comey told reporters May 2 that the U.S. doesn’t want to see a repeat of the pattern from the Afghanistan conflict decades ago, which led to the rise of al-Qaeda under leader Osama bin Laden.
“All of us with a memory of the ’80s and ’90s saw the line drawn from Afghanistan in the ’80s and ’90s to September 11th,” he said. “We are determined not to let lines be drawn from Syria today to a future 9/11. It’s something all parts of U.S. intelligence community is focused on.”
Syria is “an order of magnitude worse” in that more people are going there and travel is easier than it was to Afghanistan, he said. While the number of Americans fighting in Syria has increased in recent months, Comey said, it is “still dozens.”
Syria has drawn about 12,000 fighters from other countries in the past three years, more than twice the number of foreigners who went to fight Soviet forces in Afghanistan over a decade, according to Aaron Zelin, an analyst at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy who studies jihadist groups.
This has implications for many countries, including Arab nations that provide the bulk of these fighters. Citing an example, he said a group of Moroccans have said their goal is to get experience in Syria in order to return home to fight.
“You have many individuals who are going there to gain training to then potentially go back home,” Zelin said yesterday during the conference.
The al-Nusra Front is al-Qaeda’s affiliate in Syria. The Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, which is seeking to establish a regional caliphate, was disavowed by al-Qaeda’s leader Ayman al-Zawahiri this year in a dispute over its strategy and tactics. Both have fought moderate elements of the Syria rebels backed by the U.S. as well as forces loyal to the regime headed by President Bashar al-Assad.
“Al-Nusra and ISIL continue to move the al-Qaeda ideology forward in attacking the West,” said Taylor of the Department of Homeland Security. “Attacking the U.S. is still a very big part of the plans that they want to execute.”
Australia’s United Nations Ambassador Gary Quinlan, the head of the world body’s al-Qaeda sanctions committee, told the Security Council on May 28 that “as thousands of foreign fighters engage in conflict alongside local militants, ties are established” that could lead to new pan-Arab and pan-European networks of extremists.
“Member states in North Africa, the Middle East and Europe are already grappling with the reality of returning fighters with experience of working with al-Qaeda affiliates,” he said.
The outlook for ending the conflict in Syria is “extremely bleak, and that puts us in the perspective this problem might continue to fester or grow for a decade or more,” Paul Salem, vice president for policy and research at the Middle East Institute in Washington, said at yesterday’s conference. “So we’re talking about a big threat that is going to get extremely bigger.”