WASHINGTON -- U.S. intelligence officials are increasingly concerned that al-Qaida and other radical Islamist groups could carve out a haven in Syria that will offer the kind of sanctuary they once enjoyed in northwestern Pakistan, current and former U.S. officials say.
Officials say a clandestine CIA program that provides rudimentary training and weapons to U.S.-backed politically moderate insurgents is unlikely to curb the growing strength of extremists among the opposition militias seeking to overthrow Syrian President Bashar Assad.
Though the fighting remains limited to Syria, U.S. intelligence officials already are looking at worst-case scenarios if the country breaks into distinct government- and rebel-controlled enclaves. The alarm grew recently when militants from the Nusra Front, an al-Qaida affiliate considered the most capable and best-armed rebel force, and its allies seized a border crossing between Syria and Jordan near the Syrian city of Dara.
"I think Syria is heading toward becoming the next FATA," said a U.S. official regularly briefed on intelligence, referring to the Federally Administered Tribal Areas of Pakistan, where al-Qaida and its allies plotted attacks against the West until U.S. drone strikes and other counterterrorism efforts decimated their forces.
The official, who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss intelligence, said he worries that the growing presence of Islamic militants could pose unique dangers to the West because of Syria's "close proximity to strategic U.S. interests, ease of travel to Europe, and the availability of advanced conventional and nonconventional weapons."
The rising threat of extremist groups in Syria is helping to drive the international effort, led by Russia and the United States, to swiftly disable or destroy Assad's supplies of chemical warfare agents. U.S. officials say all the poison gas munitions and production facilities are in areas held by Assad's forces, but long-term control is uncertain in a chaotic civil war.
The CIA expects to step up pressure on Syrian extremists should they turn from fighting Assad to targeting the West, officials said.
"There's a concern that some of the insurgents, especially foreigners affiliated with Nusra and the other extremist factions, could pose a terrorist threat either from Syria or upon returning to their home countries," said a second U.S. official who was not authorized to be identified discussing intelligence. "There's little doubt that many of them share al-Qaida's global jihadist ambitions."
U.S. officials say 100 to 500 foreign fighters arrive in Syria each month to join the radical Islamist factions of the insurgency. They have come from all over the world, including the U.S., Canada, Australia, France, Britain and the Netherlands, as well as countries in the Middle East, North Africa and Central Asia.
U.S. officials say Syria has become the global focal point for militants who want to wage holy war, eclipsing Afghanistan, Pakistan and Yemen.
The Nusra Front has only a few thousand guerrillas, but a second coalition of Islamist units, Ahrar al-Sham, has fielded a brigade of about 10,000 that "strongly sympathizes with al-Qaida's world view," the second U.S. official said. Analysts say that group's founders were Syrian Islamist political prisoners who had been detained for years but were released by Assad's government as part of an amnesty in 2011.
The most violent group, the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, is small and unpopular, U.S. officials say.
The Nusra Front sometimes cooperates with secular forces, but it also has fought against secular Kurdish rebels along the Turkish border. The Kurds have captured several Nusra leaders, and Nusra has taken dozens of Kurdish civilians prisoner in response, Salih Muslim Muhammad, a Kurdish leader, said in a telephone interview.
All told, al-Qaida and its ideological allies make up as much as 35 percent of the Syrian rebel movement, a U.S. intelligence official said. The opposition is believed to include about 100,000 fighters in all.
The U.S. government has long been concerned about extremists in the ranks of the opposition movement, a concern that factored into the decision not to provide more direct assistance to the rebels. Advocates for a more robust intervention say the U.S. decision to hold back has weakened moderates and strengthened radicals.
The CIA has recently expanded its efforts to train moderate fighters and issue them light arms from secret bases in neighboring Jordan. But the weapons deliveries were delayed for months, and only a few hundred fighters reportedly are trained each month. Their impact so far has been limited at best.
First Published October 12, 2013 8:00 PM