WASHINGTON — Al-Qaida’s senior leadership in Pakistan, including Ayman al-Zawahri, is developing a systematic, long-term plan to create cells in Syria that would identify, recruit and train Westerners on how to attack targets in the West, The New York Times reported Wednesday.
Dozens of seasoned militant fighters, including some midlevel planners, have traveled to Syria from Pakistan in recent months in what American intelligence and counterterrorism officials fear is an effort to lay the foundation for strikes against Europe and the United States, the Times reported, citing new classified intelligence assessments based on electronic intercepts, informers and social media.
Syria appeals to these operatives because it offers the relative sanctuary of extremist-held havens — away from drone strikes in Afghanistan and Pakistan — as well as ready access to about 1,200 American and European Muslims who have gone there to fight and could be potential recruits to carry out attacks when they return home.
Senior counterterrorism officials have voiced fears in recent months that these Western fighters could be radicalized by the country’s civil war, the Times noted.
“We are concerned about the use of Syrian territory by the al-Qaida organization to recruit individuals and develop the capability to be able not just to carry out attacks inside of Syria, but also to use Syria as a launching pad,” John Brennan, the CIA director, told a House panel recently.
The extremists who concern Brennan are part of a group of al-Qaida operatives in Pakistan that has been severely depleted in recent years by a decade of American drone strikes. They bring a wide range of skills to the battlefield, such as bomb-building, small-arms tactics, logistics, religious indoctrination and planning, though they are not believed to have experience in launching attacks in the West, according to the report.
Al-Qaida has blessed the creation of local branches in places such as Yemen. But the effort in Syria would signify the first time that senior al-Qaida leaders had set up a wing of their own outside Pakistan dedicated to conducting attacks against the West, counterterrorism officials said. It also has the potential to rejuvenate Al-Qaida’s central command, which President Barack Obama has described as being greatly diminished.
Some allies disagree, the Times reported. They also see an increase in Pakistan-based veterans of al-Qaida among Syrian rebel groups, but do not see a coordinated plan to attack the West.
“At this stage, it’s a lot less organized than a directed plan,” one Western security official told the Times. “Some fighters are going to Syria, but they’re going on an ad hoc basis, not at an organized level.”