Unidentified al-Qaeda militants stand behind bars at the state security court of appeals in Sanaa, Yemen, on Jan. 28. / Yahya Arhab, European Pressphoto Agency
WASHINGTON - U.S. intelligence chiefs told a Senate committee Wednesday that cyberattacks and terrorism pose the greatest threat to the U.S. homeland, especially from Syria where a three-year civil war has turned the country into a center for terrorist training and recruitment.
The civil war in Syria "is becoming a center of radical extremism and a potential threat to the homeland," said James Clapper, director of National Intelligence.
Al-Qaeda groups fighting there are attracting foreign fighters who train in Syria, Clapper told the Senate Intelligence Committee.
Other threats include the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction; a dangerous and unpredictable North Korea; emerging demands for energy, water and food; and an insidious blot of synthetic and addictive drugs, he said.
Among the most damaging events to the U.S. intelligence community, he said, have been the disclosures of classified information by former National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden.
Although there have been no terrorist acts on the homeland since the last threat assessment, "terrorism is at an all-time high" with 15,400 deaths worldwide since 2012, said committee Chairwoman Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif.
Terrorists have been active in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Yemen, Somalia, Mali, Libya and especially in Syria, where even al-Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahri has criticized the actions of one al-Qaeda faction "as too extreme to countenance," Feinstein said.
Because large swaths of Syria are not under the control of the Syrian regime or the moderate opposition, U.S. officials worry about "the establishment of a safe haven and the real prospect that Syria could become a launching point or way station for terrorists seeking to attack the United States or other nations," she said. "Not only are fighters being drawn to Syria, but so are technologies and techniques that pose particular problems to our defenses."
The probability of an al-Qaeda attack in the U.S. is difficult to predict, Clapper said, "because of the diffusion of the threat." However, he noted, "there's no doubt they have an aspiration of an attack on the homeland."
Al-Qaeda's dispersion and decentralization from its "core" in Afghanistan and Pakistan to multiple locations across the Muslim world create "a different threat and a harder one to watch and predict," he said.
"It's clear our collection capabilities are not as robust perhaps as they were because they (al-Qaeda members) have generally gotten smarter about (avoiding) how we go about our business and detect them."
The conflict in Syria is especially worrying, Clapper said, because so many fighters from around the globe have been drawn to that fight.
Of the 75,000 to 110,000 fighters taking part, about 26,000 are considered extremists, and 7,000 are foreigners from 50 countries in Europe and the Middle East, Clapper said.
Foreign intelligence officials, especially in Europe, worry that extremists attracted to Syria and participating in combat will return and pose a threat to their home countries.
"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," Clapper said. "So this is a huge concern to all of us."
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