Syria Militants Said to Recruit Visiting Americans to Attack U.S.by Michael S. Schmidt and Eric Schmitt for the New York Times
via Jihad Watch — 1/9/2014
WASHINGTON — Islamic 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 American intelligence and counterterrorism officials.
These efforts, which the officials say are in the early stages, are the latest challenge that the conflict in Syria has created, not just for Europe but 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 al-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 — a figure that has not previously been disclosed.
The director of the F.B.I., 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 our people are up to, who should be spoken to, who should be followed, who should be charged,” Mr. Comey said in a meeting with reporters, without referring to specific numbers. “I mean, it’s hard for me to characterize beyond that. It’s something we are intensely focused on.”
Fearing that the handful of Americans who have returned to the United States pose a threat because they may have received extensive training and jihadist indoctrination, the F.B.I. is conducting costly round-the-clock surveillance on a small number of these individuals, 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 U.S.,” said a senior counterterrorism official, who, like half a dozen other top intelligence, law enforcement and diplomatic officials interviewed for this article, 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 American 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 on Nov. 26, 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.”
Most of the Americans who have traveled to Syria are still there, the officials said, though a few have died on the battlefield. Nicole Lynn Mansfield, 33, of Flint, Mich., a convert to Islam, was killed last May while with Syrian rebels in Idlib Province.
Another American, Eric G. Harroun, a former Army soldier from Phoenix, was indicted in Virginia by a federal grand jury last year on charges related to allegations that he fought alongside the Nusra Front, one of the Syrian opposition groups linked to Al Qaeda. In September, he pleaded guilty to a lesser charge involving conspiracy to transfer defense articles and services, and was released from custody.
Mr. Harroun’s involvement was hardly a secret. Last February, he bragged about his role, posting a photo on his Facebook page saying, “Downed a Syrian Helicopter then Looted all Intel and Weapons!”
American 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 who have expressed interest in traveling to Syria. The authorities are also trying to identify Americans traveling there by scouring travel data that the European Union has been providing to the Department of Homeland Security as part of a 2011 agreement....