“It’s getting more difficult because we see the al-Qaeda as we knew it before is metastasizing to something different, more affiliates than we’ve ever had before, meaning more groups that operated independently of al-Qaeda have now joined al -Qaeda around the world, all of them have at least some aspiration to commit an act of violence in the United States or against western targets all around the world,” he told the CNN.
In parallel, Rogers mentioned: “So you see what’s happening in a place like Syria where you have a pooling of al-Qaeda members and affiliates of al-Qaeda in a way we’ve never seen before at the level of numbers that we have never seen before, and here’s the scary part of this, some thousands of people showing up to participate in that in their mind “jihadist” effort are westerners, meaning they have western passports.”
“A percentage of them have already gone home, including the United States, by the way, is included in that western number. We are very, very concerned that these folks who have western paper have gone there, participated in combat events, are trained, are further radicalized, now have the ability to go back in western countries.”
Moreover, he stated: “This is all starting to spread. Iraq is having its problems now. It’s spreading into Lebanon, Jordan has issues, Turkey along the border has issues. This is very, very, very concerning.
Similarly, US security officials warned of the threat coming from American citizens fighting alongside Syria extremists- and might return to the US radicalized, experienced and ready to attack.
The latest estimates by the British defense consultant, IHS Jane’s, and cited by AP put the number of US fighters who have traveled to Syria to support the rebels at a couple of dozen. US security officials are far from underestimating the potential risks they represent.
“We know that American citizens as well as Canadian and European nationals have taken up arms in Syria, Yemen and in Somalia. The threat that these individuals could return home to carry out attacks is real and troubling,” said Senator Thomas Carper at a Senate homeland security committee hearing in November.
The concern was shared by Matthew G. Olsen, who heads the National Counterterrorism Center.
“Many homegrown violent extremists (HVEs) lack advanced operational training, which forces them to seek assistance online from like-minded extremists or pursue travel to overseas extremist battlegrounds to receive hands-on experience”, said Olsen. “Recent political unrest in many parts of North Africa and the Levant, including in Syria, affords HVEs opportunities to join militant groups overseas. Foreign terrorist groups could leverage HVEs to recruit others or conduct operations inside the US or overseas.”
The issue was first brought up in August by the then FBI Director Robert Mueller and appears to be still high on the agenda.
The current FBI Director, James Comey, said in November that he was worried about Syria becoming a repeat of Afghanistan in the 1980s, after the Soviet invasion, with foreign fighters attracted there to train.
Figures by IHS Jane’s suggest the situation now in Syria is actually much worse than it was 30 years ago in Afghanistan.
“Only the Afghan insurgency against the Soviet Union in 1979-89 compares with Syria in terms of the number of foreign fighters. An in-depth study by Norwegian scholar, Thomas Hegghammer, in the journal International Security in late 2011 estimated that 5,000 to 20,000 foreign fighters had travelled to Afghanistan between 1980 and 1992. As such, the arrival of 5,000 to 10,000 foreign fighters in Syria in only 18 months appears highly significant,” according to IHS Jane’s September report.
This year, at least three Americans have been charged with planning to fight beside al-Qaeda linked extremist groups.
A Pakistani-born North Carolina resident, Basit Sheikh, 29, was arrested at Raleigh-Durham International Airport in early November on charges he was on his way to Lebanon with the purpose of joining al-Nusra Front, a terrorist group associated with al-Qaeda, operating in Syria.
In a similar way and for the same reasons, Abdella Ahmad Tounisi, 18, was detained in April at Chicago’s O’Hare International Airport before allegedly boarding a plane bound for Turkey.
In March, a US Army veteran, Eric Harroun, of Phoenix, 31, was charged with conspiring with an al-Qaeda group to wage war against the Syrian government. However, in September he was released after a secret plea deal.