WASHINGTON (AP) — Al-Qaeda has advanced beyond isolated pockets of activity in Syria and now is building a network of well-organized cells, according to U.S. intelligence officials, who fear the terrorists could be on the verge of establishing an Iraq-like foothold that would be hard to defeat if rebels eventually oust President Bashar Assad.
At least a couple of hundred al-Qaeda-linked terrorists are already operating in Syria, and their ranks are growing as foreign fighters stream into the Arab country daily, current and former U.S. intelligence officials say. The units are spreading from city to city, with veterans of the Iraq insurgency employing their expertise in bomb-building to carry out more than two dozen attacks so far. Others are using their experience in coordinating small units of fighters in Afghanistan to win new followers.
“There is a larger group of foreign fighters … who are either in or headed to Syria,” the State Department’s counterterrorism coordinator, Daniel Benjamin, told reporters recently. He said Syrian opposition groups “assured us that they are being vigilant and want nothing to do with al-Qaida or with violent extremists.”
Still, the administration clearly has reservations. Speaking earlier this week, Clinton stressed a need for Syrians to avoid sectarian warfare when the Assad government falls, as the U.S. insists will happen.
“Those who are attempting to exploit the misery of the Syrian people, either by sending in proxies or sending in terrorist fighters, must recognize that that will not be tolerated, first and foremost by the Syrian people,” she said.
But the Brookings Institute’s Bruce Riedel said such U.S. pronouncements are having limited effect.
“Clinton is going to tell them ‘clean up your act or we can’t help you,'” said Riedel, a former adviser to the Obama White House. “The rebels are saying, ‘You aren’t helping us anyway.'”
The administration says it is providing $25 million in nonlethal aid, primarily communications, to the Syrian opposition. The rebels have gotten their weapons through army defectors, looted government depots, the black market and the assistance of Sunni governments such as Saudi Arabia and Qatar. The U.S. fears weapons ending up in extremists’ hands.
But Syrian rebel commanders complain that their fighters are attracted to join up with better-armed extremists.
The extremists “come with weapons and money,” said Murhaf Jouejati, a professor at the National Defense University and a member of the opposition Syrian National Council. Their weapons include mortars, anti-tank weapons and rocket propelled grenades, many left over from old Iraqi army stockpiles, he said. They have cash thanks to donations from hardline sympathizers throughout the region who see Assad’s crackdown as an attack on Syria’s Sunni majority.
The extremist influence in Syria is debated, however, within the U.S. government. Some deem it minimal or ad hoc, and one official insisted there is no sign al-Qaida is “influencing command-level decisions” by rebel forces.
Rand analyst Seth Jones said the presence of extremists was small but growing. He said the U.S. should consider using its forces or getting the rebels or a regional proxy to attack the al-Qaida units.
“There has been talk that some operatives in Pakistan are saying, ‘Why don’t we see if we can make it to Syria,'” he said. “That’s where the fight is.”
If they win local loyalty by fighting alongside Syrian rebels, they will be hard to eliminate no matter how Syria’s future pans out, said former CIA analyst Riedel.
“Look at Iraq, where we decimated them time and again,” Riedel said. “They’re still there.”
Copyright 2012 The Associated Press.