ASPEN, Colo. — The top U.S. counterterrorism official said that the brutal Syrian civil war poses an increasing threat to the American homeland after a recent spike in the number of foreign fighters engaging in the conflict, gaining battlefield experience they could potentially use against the United States and Europe.
Matthew Olsen, the director of the National Counterterrorism Center, told an audience at the Aspen Security Forum that the ranks of foreigners taking part in the war against Syrian strongman Bashar al-Assad now number at least 12,000, up from 7,000 a few months ago, including at least 1,000 Europeans and at least 100 Americans. Olsen said those estimates likely understate the actual numbers.
"The numbers are growing as the conflict there continues," said Olsen, who has run the counterterrorism center for three years and is slated to step down later this year. "It remains a magnet for extremists around the world."
Former FBI Director Robert Mueller, speaking on the same panel, said the intensifying conflict in the Gaza Strip threatened to further "fuel" the ranks of foreign fighters inside Syria. "It may contribute to the number of individuals who feel that they want to become part of the fight, but not necessarily in Gaza," Mueller said.
Neither conflict shows any signs of slowing. Last week included the bloodiest 48-hour period to date in the three-year-old Syrian civil war, with an NGO monitoring the conflict estimating that more than 700 Syrians were killed on Thursday and Friday. More than 170,000 people have died in the conflict since it began in March 2011. Elsewhere in the region, violence flared in the West Bank Friday for the first time since the conflict between Israel and Hamas began in Gaza on July 8. At least five people were killed, pushing the Palestinian death toll to more 800. Israel has lost 35 people, including 33 soldiers.
For the moment, Syria poses the far greater threat to the United States. The Western fighters there on European and American passports could return home to carry out strikes far more easily than other militants could. Olsen said some of those 100 Americans have already come back to the United States, though he emphasized that the FBI is monitoring and tracking many of them.
The counterterrorism chief said that the U.S. intelligence community's persistent difficulty in collecting detailed information about the fighting in Syria made it hard to trace the American and European militants once they made it to the battlefield.
Those challenges continue when the fighters return home. Olsen said it was difficult to identify and track those militants because they included both Syrians living in the United States and fighters from other ethnicities and nationalities. He said the Islamic State, which is leading the fighting in Syria, runs sophisticated English-language websites designed to help radicalize even larger numbers of Westerners and potentially convince them to join the battle.
Olsen said that once there, the militants would find a growing swath of territory inside both Syria and Iraq that is rapidly turning into a safe haven for militants interested in launching attacks both there and elsewhere in the world. He said there were senior al Qaeda leaders in Syria training foreign fighters and taking advantage of their ability to plan attacks elsewhere with little interference.
Syria, Olsen said, was providing safe havens that were starting "to be reminiscent of what we faced before 9/11 in Afghanistan."
Guillaume Briquet/AFP/Getty Images