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 in December, 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.
Two U.S. officials said at least 50 Americans have gone Syria to fight. The officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss intelligence publicly.
The U.S. fighters in Syria are recruited by extremists, indoctrinated and provided terrorist training, according to one of the officials briefed on the threat. More Americans are considering going over, the official said.
Some terrorist 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, and are from a cross-section of backgrounds from across 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 some in 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.”
Johnson also said he is most concerned about “lone wolf” terrorists who haven’t received any specific training from al-Qaida or other terrorist groups but instead have become self-radicalized. He cited those accused in the Boston Marathon bombings as examples of people involved in a particularly worrisome type of terrorism.
“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,” he said.
Homs evacuation starts
Dozens of children and women along with elderly people in wheelchairs were evacuated Friday from besieged neighborhoods of Syria’s battleground city of Homs under a deal between the warring sides that included a three-day cease-fire.
The rare truce in Homs, which will also allow the entrance of aid convoys, may help build some confidence ahead of a second round of peace talks between the opposition and the government of President Bashar Assad, scheduled to begin in Geneva next week.
By nightfall, about 80 civilians were brought out of the city, many of them appearing frail and exhausted. Residents have endured a crushing blockade and severe food shortages for more than a year.
U.N. mediator Lakhdar Brahimi had pushed for aid for the estimated 2,500 civilians trapped in the ancient, rebel-held quarters known as Old Homs as a confidence-building measure during the first face-to-face meetings in Geneva last month.
The talks were adjourned until Feb. 10 with no tangible progress, as the Syrian government accused the opposition of capitalizing on human suffering in Homs to score points with the international community.
There have been few cease-fires during the course of Syria’s nearly 3-year-old conflict. Over the past year, several temporary truces were negotiated to allow for the evacuation of civilians and the delivery of food parcels in and around Damascus.
Homs, one of the first areas to rise up against Assad in 2011, has been particularly hard hit. The government has regained control over much of the city, except for a few neighborhoods in the historic center, where rebels are holed up.
The extent of the evacuation is not clear, and officials have not said how many civilians will leave altogether. Earlier, Syrian TV said 200 were expected to leave Friday and dozens more in the following days. The evacuation excludes men ages 15 to 55, who are seen as likely fighters, Homs Gov. Talal Barrazi told Syrian state TV.
While the operation is indeed a breakthrough, many civilians, sick and wounded remain in the old city of Homs, said U.N. deputy spokesman Farhan Haq.
“We understand that for the most part the operation went smoothly, but there were isolated reports of gunfire heard during the day,” Haq said. “We’ll try to evacuate more civilians and deliver aid in the next few days.”
The evacuees will be allowed to go wherever they want, Homs’ governor said, adding that a shelter has been prepared, capable of taking up to 400 people with nowhere else to go.
“I tell those who left today that soon we will celebrate with them by returning them to their homes,” he said, suggesting that the government plans to recapture areas under rebel control.
Syrian TV showed elderly men, some wrapped in blue blankets, arriving at the front line separating government and opposition-held territory in Homs, assisted by Syrian Red Crescent paramedics in red uniforms.
They were searched, then transported in buses to a nearby shelter where they were given water and food. An elderly man on a stretcher was loaded into an ambulance.
The Russian Foreign Ministry said the evacuation was the result of “difficult discussions over many days” that also led to a three-day cease-fire, which began Thursday.
“The atmosphere is positive” Barrazi said, adding that the first batch of food supplies will be sent to rebel-held areas on Saturday.
State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said Thursday the evacuation “is not a substitute for the safe, regular and unfettered delivery of humanitarian assistance to those in need.”
“Humanitarian access should not be a political bargaining chip,” she said.
In the northern city of Aleppo, Syria’s largest, government forces launched a counteroffensive against rebels who had stormed parts of the city’s central prison earlier in the week and freed hundreds of prisoners. Syrian troops regained much of the area Friday, according to the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.
The group said two days of fighting left 20 government troops and 17 rebels dead.
Rebels have been besieging the Aleppo prison, estimated to have 4,000 inmates, for almost a year. They have rammed suicide car bombs into the front gates twice, lobbed shells into the compound and battled frequently with the hundreds of guards and troops holed up inside.