Syrian terror group a threat to US, says intelligence chief
James Clapper says Syrian regime now may have the ability to produce biological weapons on a limited scale.
Syria’s civil war serves as a “huge magnet” for terror groups while sub-Saharan Africa has become a “hothouse” for extremists, US intelligence chief James Clapper warned on Wednesday.
Presenting an annual intelligence assessment of global threats, Clapper described a mounting danger from militants aligned or inspired by Al Qaeda, even as the terror group’s core leadership has been steadily weakened in Pakistan.
The raging conflict between President Bashar Al Assad’s regime and rebel forces has lured Al Qaeda-linked militants to Syria, where they could possibly prepare to mount attacks on the West, Clapper said.
“Syria has become a huge magnet for extremists” who can now recruit, train and equip a growing number of militants there, he told the Senate Intelligence Committee.
America’s intelligence agencies estimated that there were about 26,000 “extremists” operating in Syria out of a total opposition force of 75,000 to 110,000, Clapper said.
The conflict had attracted roughly 7,000 foreign fighters from some 50 countries, mostly in the Middle East and Europe, he said.
The presence of the hardline militants was of “tremendous concern” among US allies, particularly among European governments, who fear foreign fighters will return home to carry out attacks, he said.
“We’re seeing now the appearance of training complexes in Syria to train people to go back to their countries, and, of course, conduct more terrorist acts,” he said.
Clapper said Syria resembled the semi-autonomous tribal belt in northwest Pakistan, which has served as a sanctuary for the Taleban and members of Al Qaeda.
Echoing Clapper’s comments, Mathew Olson, head of the National Counter-terrorism Center, said “a permissive environment, extremist groups like Al Nusra and the number of foreign fighters combine to make Syria a place that we are very concerned about, in particular the potential for terrorist attacks emanating from Syria to the West.”
Clapper also offered a warning on advances in Syria’s biological weapons programme.
Although Syria has agreed to eliminate its large arsenal of chemical weapons, the regime now may have the ability to produce biological weapons on a limited scale, he said.
“We judge that some elements of Syria’s biological warfare programme might have advanced beyond the research and development stage and might be capable of limited agent production, based on the duration of its longstanding programme,” he said.
Clapper offered no further details, but it was the first time officials had stated publicly that spy agencies believed Syria had made significant strides in its biological programme.
Neither Assad nor the rebel groups appeared able to achieve a decisive victory on the battlefield in the next six months, said Clapper, adding that the war would further foment Sunni-Shia sectarian tensions across the region.
Clapper also said America’s 16 intelligence agencies believed sub-Saharan Africa would “almost certainly” experience more security turmoil in 2014, as the region had turned into an incubator for extremists.
“The continent has become a hothouse for the emergence of extremist and rebel groups, which increasingly launch deadly asymmetric attacks, and which government forces often cannot effectively counter due to a lack of capability and sometimes will,” Clapper said in written testimony to senators.
He said countries in the Sahel region, including Chad, Niger, Mali and Mauritania, faced the threat of terror attacks due to their backing of a French military intervention in Mali launched a year ago.
The region also faced pressures from swelling youth populations and “marginalised” ethnic communities that are frustrated over a lack of government services and jobs, according to Clapper.
The annual report from the intelligence community addressed Ukraine’s dramatic political stand-off, describing President Viktor Yanukovych as “firmly intent” to hold on to power.
The Ukrainian leader appeared prepared to resort to force or other illegal means to prevail against popular protests, according to Clapper.
A Russian aid package to Ukraine signed in December will prevent a financial crisis in the “short term” but will increase Kiev’s dependence on Moscow and leave it vulnerable to Russian pressure, he wrote.
Clapper denounced an avalanche of leaks from former intelligence contractor Edward Snowden, saying the disclosures of National Security Agency eavesdropping had put diplomats, spies and soldiers at risk and damaged foreign partnerships.
He called on Snowden and his “accomplices” to return the documents he had “stolen.”
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