Counterrorism Chief Names Top Security Threat for 2014

The chaos created by Syria’s civil war threatens the U.S.

A rebel fighter burns a Syrian flag found in a building that belonged to Syrian government forces in the northern city of Aleppo on November 21, 2013. Fighting for a key military base outside Syria's main northern city of Aleppo killed at least 15 pro-government militiamen, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said.
National Journal
Sara Sorcher
Dec. 19, 2013, 10:14 a.m.

Next year’s single greatest ter­ror­ist threat will come from Syr­ia.

That’s the word from Na­tion­al Coun­terter­ror­ism Cen­ter Dir­ect­or Mat­thew Olsen, who said ex­trem­ists are tak­ing ad­vant­age of the chaos cre­ated by the Syr­i­an civil war to cre­ate a threat to U.S. se­cur­ity.

A hodge­podge of rebel groups are bat­tling strong­man Bashar al-As­sad’s forces in Syr­ia, in­clud­ing groups linked to al-Qaida. “As the con­flict in Syr­ia rages on, we are con­cerned about the flow of fight­ers to the coun­try and the like­li­hood that they will pose a threat when they re­turn from Syr­ia to their home coun­tries,” Olsen said.

Deal­ing with this threat, Olsen said, “will be the primary fo­cus of our coun­terter­ror­ism ef­forts in 2014.”

Olsen’s com­ments come as Wash­ing­ton grows in­creas­ingly con­cerned that rad­ic­al, Qaida-linked groups have made ter­rit­ori­al gains in the coun­try. Thou­sands of for­eign fight­ers have traveled to Syr­ia, where some have joined with these groups and re­ceived train­ing and weapons, Olsen said, not­ing that hun­dreds of these in­di­vidu­als are from West­ern coun­tries, in­clud­ing some from the United States.

Frag­men­ted groups with­in Syr­ia present not just a coun­terter­ror­ism chal­lenge but a dip­lo­mat­ic one: Wash­ing­ton is in an in­creas­ingly tough po­s­i­tion, as the mod­er­ate and sec­u­lar groups it has sup­por­ted so far con­tin­ue to lose ground to re­li­gious fight­ers and As­sad’s forces.

This week, Sec­ret­ary of State John Kerry said the Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion is will­ing to meet with Is­lam­ist fight­ers not af­fil­i­ated with ter­ror­ist groups in a bid to reach a dip­lo­mat­ic solu­tion to end the fight­ing — out­reach already scorned by some con­cerned mem­bers on Cap­it­ol Hill. The main tar­get of this out­reach is the Is­lam­ic Front, a new co­ali­tion of Is­lam­ist mi­li­tias that ex­cludes the key Qaida-linked groups in the coun­try.

Last week, the U.S. sus­pen­ded de­liv­ery of non­leth­al aid to the rebels in north­ern Syr­ia after the Is­lam­ic Front seized rebel-held ware­houses and headquar­ters where sup­plies were stored. The U.S. en­voy to Syr­ia, Robert Ford, has said the group re­fused to sit down with the ad­min­is­tra­tion without giv­ing any ex­plan­a­tion.  

The United Na­tions will hold a peace con­fer­ence start­ing Jan. 22.

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