Lori Hickey

American intelligence officials are reporting that Syrian militants with ties to al Qaeda are attempting to identify, recruit and train U.S. citizens and other Westerners who traveled there to return home and carry out attacks. This has been a major concern for Western governments throughout the duration of the Syrian conflict, where rebels are fighting against President Bashar al-Assad’s regime. Newly released information highlights that over 70 Americans have traveled to Syria to join the fighting since the civil war started three years ago. The latest intelligence, published in The New York Times, suggests these recruitment efforts are in the early stages. A senior counterterrorism official stated al Qaeda is using Syria for recruitment purposes to further radicalize individuals and provide them with training to conduct attacks abroad, potentially within the U.S. Tracking Americans who have returned home from Syria has become a top counterterrorism priority for the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI). According to reports, the FBI is attempting to identify and track those who have returned home, with a small number of individuals already under surveillance.

Key Points
      • U.S. officials are obtaining intelligence from travel records, sources on the ground in Syria, social media postings, intercepted communications and surveillance of Americans who have voiced interest in traveling to Syria.
      • Most of the at least 70 Americans that have traveled to Syria to join the fighting are reportedly still there. Few have been killed, including 33-year-old Muslim convert Nicole Mansfield who died in Syria last May. Former U.S. Army soldier, Eric Harroun, was indicted in September on charges that he fought alongside the Nusra Front, a Syrian opposition group. He pled guilty to a lesser charge of conspiracy, but he has since been released.
      • The largest number of foreign citizens traveling to Syria are from Europe. Within the past three years, at least 1,200 European Muslims have traveled there. The latest reports state that in some cases, the first to return home are traveling back and forth between Europe and Syria. European officials are working closely with American authorities to coordinate measures to track those who return home.

The MSA Research and Intelligence Analysis (RIA) Group has been monitoring this situation, and has identified the following key points:

      • The Nusra Front and the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, both with ties to al Qaeda, are primarily focused on toppling al-Assad’s government, but American officials warn that these groups have gained significant ground in Syria to coordinate operations outside the country. 
      • The reports highlight how al Qaeda-linked groups continue to attempt to follow through on their goal of attacking the American homeland. 
      • The U.S. has had success against al Qaeda core in Afghanistan and Pakistan, but conflicts in the Middle East and North Africa offer the opportunity for Western sympathizers to fight alongside rebel forces and become radicalized, trained and capable of returning home to wage attacks. 
      • A radicalized American attacking within the homeland has become a more realistic attack scenario in recent years, and one that al Qaeda-aligned groups are seeking to exploit. 

MSA Security's Research and Intelligence Analysis Group provides real-time intelligence on events and worldwide threats as they evolve.

Sign Up to Receive the Latest MSA Intel


Subscribe to Blog