The protracted three-year civil war in Syria has created an international hotbed of terrorism that threatens the United States homeland and is likely to grow even worse in the months and years to come, according to the nation's top intelligence officials.
James Clapper, the director of national intelligence, joined the heads of the FBI and CIA to warn that Syria was effectively becoming the next Afghanistan -- a safe haven where extremists around the world could recruit new fighters and plan new attacks against Europe and the U.S.
Clapper told the Senate Intelligence Committee that there are an estimated 7,000 foreign fighters in Syria from some 50 countries, including many in Europe. Those extremists are of particular concern to Western security services because they could theoretically use their European passports to travel to the continent freely and carry out new strikes. He also noted that the al-Qaeda-linked jihadist group Nusra Front has "aspirations" for an attack on the U.S. homeland.
"This is a huge concern to all of us," he said.
Clapper, citing the intelligence community's new Worldwide Threat Assessment, estimated that 1,600 militant groups were operating inside the war-torn country, including a sizable chunk of extremists. Between the 75,000 to 110,000 fighters inside Syria, "about 26,000 we'd rate as extremists," he said.
"Syria has become a huge magnet for extremists," Clapper told the panel.
Dianne Feinstein, the chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, observed that the threat from Syria had grown from last year's intelligence assessments. "This leads to the major concern of safe haven and the real prospect that Syria will be a launching point or ‘weigh station' for terrorists seeking to attack the United States or other nations," she said.
Clapper's dire briefing about Syria's growing threat to the stability of other countries, including the U.S., highlighted the dilemma facing the Obama administration as it struggles to find a way of gradually winding down a civil war that has already resulted in more than 100,000 deaths.
The sizable presence of extremist actors inside the Syrian opposition poses a particular problem for the United States, which seeks to bolster the strength of more secular anti-government forces without putting weapons in the hands of radical jihadists. At his State of the Union speech on Tuesday, President Barack Obama mentioned this goal, although analysts dispute whether U.S. weapons can easily be tracked in a conflict involving a complex mix of fighters. "In Syria, we'll support the opposition that rejects the agenda of terrorist networks," Obama said Tuesday night.
The officials also offered assessments on other security risks including the upcoming Winter Olympics in Sochi, the spate of leaks from former NSA contractor Edward Snowden and the dispersal of al Qaeda into splintered terrorist cells in the Middle East and North Africa. Clapper condemned Snowden's leaks of classified surveillance programs and requested that he return the stolen information immediately. Meanwhile, FBI Director Jim Comey said he and his Russian FSB counterparts were working together to ensure the safety of athletes and spectators at the Winter Olympics in Sochi. The security of the games has emerged as a major concern because a so-called "Black Widow" -- or female suicide bomber -- may already be loose in Sochi.
The mostly cordial atmosphere shifted sharply after Sens. Mark Udall, Ron Wyden and Martin Heinrich lambasted CIA Director John Brennan for failing to cooperate with the committee's extensive investigation into Bush-era torture practices. The report remains classified due to CIA concerns that it contains inaccuracies and is overly-critical of agency actions in the aftermath of 9/11. Brennan and Clapper promised that they'd work diligently with the panel to resolve the dispute, despite the fact that it's been over a year since the panel approved the report's findings. Brennan and Clapper declined to get into the details of the disagreement during an open hearing.