US now talks about rising terror threat from Syria
WASHINGTON - 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 Wednesday.
Presenting an annual intelligence assessment, Clapper described a mounting danger from "globally dispersed" violent extremists from the Middle East to Africa 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 fighters deemed to be "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 volunteers from some 50 countries, mostly in the Middle East and Europe.
The presence of the hardline militants was of "tremendous concern" among US allies, particularly European governments, which fear foreign fighters will return home to carry out attacks, the US spy chief added.
"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 compared Syria to the semi-autonomous tribal belt in northwest Pakistan, which has served as a sanctuary for the Taliban and members of Al-Qaeda.
He also offered a warning on advances in Syria's biological weapons program.
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.
"We judge that some elements of Syria's biological warfare program might have advanced beyond the research and development stage and might be capable of limited agent production, based on the duration of its longstanding program," Clapper said in written testimony.
Clapper offered no further details, but it was the first time officials had stated publicly that spy agencies believed Syria had made strides in its biological program.
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-Shiite sectarian tensions across the region.
With the civil war having a spillover effect on Lebanon and Iraq, Baghdad faces a growing challenge from Al-Qaeda militants who seized ground in western Anbar province.
Iraq's course will hinge on how the Shiite-led government confronts Al-Qaeda's local affiliate and how it handles strained relations with the country's "disenfranchised Sunni population," Clapper said.
He said America's 16 intelligence agencies suspected sub-Saharan Africa would "almost certainly" experience more security turmoil this year, as the region has become 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 told senators in writing.
Countries in the Sahel region, including Chad, Niger, Mali and Mauritania, face terror threats due to their backing of a French military intervention in Mali launched a year ago.
A power vacuum in Libya, where the government is struggling to counter well-armed militias, is fueling extremist groups inside the country and across the Sahel, posing an "acute" terror threat, Clapper said.
"Regional terrorist organizations exploit Libya's porous borders and massive amounts of loose conventional weapons, further destabilizing the country and the Maghreb and Sahel region," he said in a written statement.
The annual report from the intelligence community addressed Ukraine's dramatic political standoff, 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.