CIA chief: Syria is Al Qaida’s new regional base of operations

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WASHINGTON — The U.S. intelligence community has determined that Syria became the new regional base for Al Qaida.

Officials said the 16-member intelligence community concluded that Al Qaida was preparing to use Syria as a base of operations throughout the Levant.

CIA Director John Brennan, right, accompanied by Director of National Intelligence James Clapper.  /AP/Susan Walsh
CIA Director John Brennan, right, with Director of National Intelligence James Clapper. /AP/Susan Walsh

Over the past year, they said, Al Qaida merged its assets in Syria with those in neighboring Iraq.

“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,” CIA director John Brennan said.

In testimony to the House Intelligence Committee on Feb. 4, Brennan said Al Qaida has seized large portions of Iraq and Syria. The CIA director said Al Qaida, through such franchises as Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant as well as the Nusra Front for the Defense of the Levant, established training camps in both countries.

“They are used by Al Qaida to develop capabilities that are applicable
both in the theater as well as beyond,” Brennan said.

Brennan did not specify Al Qaida’s strength in either Iraq or Syria. But
officials said the intelligence community assessed that Al Qaida and its
allies could mobilize at least 50,000 fighters, many of them with experience
in fighting throughout the Levant.

National Intelligence director James Clapper echoed Brennan’s testimony.
Clapper told the House committee that Al Qaida militias have become
independent of the central leadership in Afghanistan and could decide on
major operations against the West or its Middle East allies.

“Syria has become a significant location for independent or Al
Qaida-aligned groups to recruit, train, and equip a growing number of
extremists, some of whom might conduct external attacks,” Clapper said.
“Hostilities between Sunni and Shia are also intensifying in Syria and
spilling into neighboring countries, which is increasing the likelihood of a
protracted conflict.”

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