New Homeland Security Secretary: Syria civil war a threat to U.S. due to foreign fighters

By Alicia A. Caldwell

Associated Press

Published: Friday, Feb. 7 2014 1:29 p.m. MST

Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson gives his first major address, Friday, Feb. 7, 2014, at the Wilson Center in Washington. The civil war in Syria has become a matter of U.S. homeland security over concerns about a small number of Americans who have gone to fight with Syrian rebels and returned home, new Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson said Friday.

Susan Walsh, Associated Press

WASHINGTON — The civil war in Syria has become a matter of U.S. homeland security over concerns about a small number of Americans who have gone to fight with Syrian rebels and returned home, new Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson said Friday.

Johnson said he and other law enforcement and security officials around the world were focused on foreign fighters heading to the bloody war, including those from the United States, Canada and Europe.

In his first major speech since taking office last year, Johnson did not discuss how many U.S. fighters may be in Syria.

"We need to do our best to pay close attention to an evolving situation," Johnson said.

Dozens of Americans have left to go to Syria, where they are recruited by extremists, indoctrinated and provided terror training, according to an intelligence official briefed on the threat. More Americans are considering going over, said the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because the official was not authorized to discuss the intelligence publicly.

Some terror training camps in Syria are filled with westerners, the official said. Some of the Americans who have gone over there to train are already back in the U.S., the official said, citing ongoing investigations around the country. The Americans going to Syria are not all of Syrian decent, the official said. They are from a cross-section of backgrounds from all over the U.S.

The State Department has no estimates of how many Americans have gone to fight with Syrian rebels, but British defense consultant IHS Jane's puts it at a few dozen. An estimated 1,200 to 1,700 Europeans are among rebel forces in Syria, according to government estimates.

Director of National Intelligence James Clapper told the Senate Intelligence Committee last month that al-Qaida groups in Syria have started training camps "to train people to go back to their countries" — one of the newest threats emerging in the past year to U.S. security.

Clapper told senators that as many as 7,000 foreigners from some 50 countries, including Europe, were fighting with rebels and extremists in Syria.

To Johnson, it's not just people joining the fight in Syria that are a concern.

"At the same time, extremists are actively trying to recruit Westerners, indoctrinate them and see them return to their home countries with an extremist mission," Johnson said. "Syria has become a matter of homeland security. DHS, the FBI and the intelligence community will continue to work closely to identify those foreign fighters that represent a threat to the homeland."

Much like his predecessor at Homeland Security, Johnson also said he is most concerned about "lone wolf" terrorists who haven't received any specific training from al-Qaida or other terror groups but instead have become self-radicalized.

"In many respects, this is the terrorist threat to the homeland - illustrated last year by the Boston Marathon bombing - that I worry about most," Johnson said. "It may be the hardest to detect, involves independent actors living within our midst, with easy access to things that, in the wrong hands, become tools for mass violence."

Johnson said while it's critical that the country play close attention to communities and report suspicious activity, the government needs to strike a balance on domestic security.

"We have to be sensitive ... with our actions, not breeding those who want to do harm against Americans faster than we can take them out with our actions, not breeding those who want to do harm against Americans faster than we can take them out," Johnson said.

Johnson also touched on immigration his in his remarks, repeating earlier statements that immigration reform also is a matter of homeland security. He added that he is confident that immigration reform will be passed, but it's up to Congress as to when that happens.

Associated Press reporters Eileen Sullivan and Kimberly Dozier contributed to this report.

Follow Alicia A. Caldwell on Twitter at www.twitter.com/acaldwellap

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