The notion that Americans who travel to Syria in order to take part in that country’s civil conflict and who return to the United States represent no threat to American security might seem counterintuitive… And it is. That’s it. There’s no “but” here.
Speaking before an audience at an event sponsored by the Council on Foreign Relations in New York City on Monday, Director of National Intelligence James Clapper told attendees that the approximately 40 Americans who have returned from Syria in recent months are harmless.
“We’ve since found they went for humanitarian purposes or some other reasons that don’t relate to plotting,” Clapper said of those Americans who The Hill described as having traveled to Syria to “fight with” the variety of groups engaged in combat in that Middle Eastern nation.
“In fact at this point, we’re not aware of any of these people who have returned who are engaged in plotting” an attack.
“If they come back and they are not involved in plotting — don’t have a nefarious purpose — then that’s their right and privilege as an American citizen to come back,” he added.
Clapper added that about 180 Americans have traveled to that region to join the fight in Syria, but it is not clear how many are fighting alongside Islamist militants or if they have joined other secular or nationalist groups.
Presumably, Clapper has access to better intelligence than do public outlets, but those in the counterterrorism community estimate that the vast majority of Americans who travel to this part of the world are doing so in order to fight alongside ISIS.
“According to ICSR director Peter Neumann, about 80 percent of foreign fighters from Western nations join the Islamic State group in Syria and Iraq,” The Huffington Post revealed last week. “Some Americans have also joined al-Qaeda’s Syrian branch, Jabhat al-Nusra, and others have fought with the moderate Free Syrian Army, CBS News reported last year.”
There are around 20,000 foreign fighters in Syria and Iraq from dozens of nations around the world, according to recent assessments by U.S. intelligence officials and the ICSR. “This makes the conflict in Syria and Iraq the largest mobilization of foreigner fighters in Muslim majority countries since 1945,” the British research group noted in its Jan. 2015 report.
Most of these foreign fighters come from countries in the Middle East. The ICSR estimates up to 11,000 fighters are from the region, while around 4,000 came from Western Europe. Another 3,000 came from former Soviet Union nations, the group says, including 250 from Kazakhstan and 500 from Uzbekistan — the countries to which the three American jihadi hopefuls arrested Wednesday also had citizenship.
Clapper warns that the pressing threat to American national security is that posed by homegrown terrorists who plan to execute low-tech attacks like those performed by two radicalized Canadian men in the fall of last year. Still, it is little comfort for the DNI to be downplaying the risk posed by American extremists who travel to Syria to fight alongside ISIS or al-Qaeda-linked groups but who later return home. It might be their legal right, but it is bizarre to claim that their motives for returning home can be easily discerned by investigators.