Spy Chief: Syria Could Be New Pakistan in al-Qaida Threats to U.S.

Syrian warzone is a the new permanent home for most direct homeland threats.

Syrian soldiers lift up their machine gun next to the Syrian flag, in the southern city of Sweida on Jan. 23, 2013.

Syria is the new permanent home for most direct homeland threats, U.S. officials say . 

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There are as many as 26,000 extremists currently operating within Syria with such impunity that permanent training camps now exist there, America’s top spy chiefs told Congress Wednesday.

The Office of the Director of National Intelligence released its annual Worldwide Threat Assessment Wednesday morning, documenting the harshest realities of what U.S. troops, spies and diplomats face abroad. Chief among these concerns is the worsening situation in Syria, in which as many as 110,000 fighters from 1,600 separate groups operate.

[READ: Secret Arming of Syrian Rebels Unknown to Some Members of Congress]

These insurgents originate from roughly 50 countries in Europe and the Middle East, says DNI James Clapper, and are receiving advanced training which they could ultimately turn against the U.S.

“We should be very concerned about this. Syria has become a huge magnet for extremists,” Clapper told the Senate Intelligence Committee, testifying alongside CIA Director John Brennan, FBI Director James Comey and Army Lt. Gen. Michael Flynn, the director of the Defense Intelligence Agency.

“We’re seeing now the appearance of training complexes in Syria to train people and go back to their countries and conduct more terrorist acts,” he said. “This is a huge concern for us.”

Comey said this produces the potential for Syria to be able to attack the West.

Senators probed the intelligence experts to classify further the current state of al-Qaida. In his State of the Union address Tuesday night, President Barack Obama said al-Qaida’s core leadership was on the path to defeat, though the threat has evolved as affiliates spring up throughout the Middle East, and Africa.

Clapper said the “ideological center” of the terrorist group remains in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas, or FATA, in the rural northern reaches of Pakistan along the Afghan border. The operational wings of al-Qaida, however, have become much more dispersed into franchises throughout Yemen, Somalia, North Africa and Syria.

Core al-Qaida in the FATA, under the command of elusive leader Ayman Al-Zawahri, is too preoccupied with U.S. drone strikes to be able to plan an attack against the U.S., Clapper said. But Syria may be the new FATA for the U.S., he said, as foreign fighters are increasingly drawn there.

[WORLD REPORT: Syria Highlights the Enduring Problem of Failed States]

This spread, particularly to al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula, “poses the most immediate threat for attack on the homeland,” he said.

“The terrorists...have generally gotten smarter about how we go about our business and how we use tradecraft to detect and thwart them,” Clapper said, adding that this was partially due to the Edward Snowden leaks.

Both Clapper and Brennan slammed the recent leaks as going well beyond the intended purpose of dismantling supposed illegal wiretapping at home. Both spymasters said terrorists are “going to school” on the contents of the documents Snowden has released from refuge overseas.

The DNI website posted a copy of the full Worldwide Threat Assessment on Wednesday.

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