Extremists are taking advantage of the chaos created by the Syrian civil war — and might leave the war-torn country to carry out attacks in the West.
That's a big worry for the Intelligence leaders testifying before the Senate Intelligence Committee on Wednesday.
"Syria has become a huge magnet for extremists," Director of National Intelligence James Clapper said.
The hodgepodge of some 1,600 rebel factions operating in Syria includes groups with extremist ties, including Qaida affiliate Jabhat al-Nusra, which Clapper said does aspire to carry out attacks on the U.S. homeland. More than 7,000 foreign fighters have traveled to Syria for the battle against embattled President Bashar al-Assad. They're coming from some 50 countries, many of them in Europe and the Middle East.
Extremists, Clapper said, are also getting training and weapons as they join with these groups in Syria. "We're seeing now the appearance of training complexes in Syria to train people to go back to their countries and conduct more terrorist attacks," Clapper said. "This is a huge concern to all of us."
With this "permissive environment" for extremists, National Counterterrorism Center Director Matthew Olsen said, the U.S. is particularly concerned about the "potential for terrorist attacks emanating from Syria to the West." Olsen told National Journal previously that dealing with Syria would be the primary counterterrorism focus of 2014.
The committee's top Republican, Saxby Chambliss, wanted to know if the terrorist threat against U.S. interests overseas has increased or diminished — but the answer he got was not simple. While the ideological center of the Qaida movement remains in the FATA, or federally administered tribal areas along the porous Pakistan-Afghanistan border, Clapper said, its "locus for operational planning" is dispersed throughout a dozen countries, including Yemen, Somalia, and now Syria.
In Syria, Clapper said, there's a possibility the unrest could turn the war-torn country into a "new FATA" — which he said is "very, very worrisome."