WASHINGTON — Islamist extremist groups in Syria with ties to Al Qaeda are trying to identify, recruit, and train Americans and other Westerners who have traveled there to get them to carry out attacks when they return home, according to senior US intelligence and counterterrorism officials.
These efforts, which the officials say are in the early stages, mark the latest challenge that the conflict in Syria has created, not just for Europe but also for the United States, as the civil war has become a magnet for Westerners seeking to fight with the rebels against the government of President Bashar Assad. At least 70 Americans have either traveled to Syria, or tried to, since the civil war started three years ago, according to the intelligence and counterterrorism officials.
FBI director James B. Comey said Thursday that tracking Americans who have returned from Syria had become one of the bureau’s highest counterterrorism priorities.
“We are focused on trying to figure out what are people are up to, who should be spoken to, who should be followed, who should be charged,” Comey said in a meeting with reporters, without referring to specific numbers.
Fearing that the handful of Americans who have returned to the United States pose a threat because they may have received extensive training and jihadi indoctrination, the FBI is conducting costly round-the-clock surveillance on a small number of these people, according to the officials.
“We know Al Qaeda is using Syria to identify individuals they can recruit, provide them additional indoctrination so they’re further radicalized, and leverage them into future soldiers, possibly in the US,” said a senior counterterrorism official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because he did not want to be identified discussing delicate national security issues.
In Europe, where larger numbers are leaving for Syria, officials share the same concern and are working closely with US authorities to coordinate measures to stem the flow and track those who return.
Analysts say at least 1,200 European Muslims have gone to fight since the start of the civil war. In a confidential memo in November, Gilles de Kerchove, the European Union’s counterterrorism coordinator, warned that “the first returnees have come back, and there are cases where individuals continue traveling back and forth.”
US officials say their concerns about the recruitment and training of Americans are based on intelligence gleaned from passenger travel records, human sources on the ground in Syria, intercepted electronic communications, social media postings, and surveillance of Americans overseas.
The authorities are also trying to identify Americans traveling there by scouring travel data that the EU has been providing.