DHS Secretary: Syria Now a Homeland Security Problem
As thousands of foreign fighters from around the globe head to Syria to fight in the nation's bloody civil war, the United States needs to be watchful of any returning terrorists, said Secretary of the Department of Homeland Security Jeh Johnson.
"We are very focused on foreign fighters heading to Syria. Based on our work and the work of our international partners, we know individuals from the United States, Canada and Europe are traveling to Syria to fight in the conflict," Johnson said Feb. 7 at the Woodrow Wilson Center in Washington, D.C.
Extremists are actively attempting to recruit Westerners to join their ranks, Johnson said during his first major address since his appointment as secretary in December. Once fighters are indoctrinated, there is a possibility they could lead terrorist attacks in their home nations, he said.
"Our government, working with others, must continually deny these [al-Qaida] affiliates a safe haven, a place to hide, train and from which to launch terrorist attacks," said Johnson.
Johnson recently returned to the United States from Poland, where he met with leaders from the United Kingdom, France, Germany, Spain and Italy to discuss the evolving situation in Syria.
The nearly three-year-old Syrian civil war has ravaged the country as rebels clash with President Bashar al-Assad's army. Thousands of civilians have been killed or displaced as a result.
Foreign fighters who travel to Syria can be trained in combat and could be exposed to radical ideas by members of al-Qaida or its affiliates, he 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," said Johnson.
A U.S. intelligence officer recently told the Los Angeles Times that out of the 7,500 foreign fighters in Syria, at least 50 of them are Americans.
Threats from al-Qaida affiliates have been on the rise since 2009, Johnson said. Al-Shabab, a Somalia-based al-Qaida affiliate, took credit for a multi-day terrorist attack in a mall in Nairobi, Kenya, in September. Dozens of shoppers were killed when terrorists stormed the shopping center.
Johnson is also worried about lone-wolf attacks coordinated by extremists who are inspired by al-Qaida's message, but not directly affiliated with the terrorist organization, he said.
"In many respects, this is the terrorist threat to the homeland — illustrated last year by the Boston Marathon bombing — that I worry about the most. 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.
"We have to be more concerned about homegrown threats, the lone-wolf person who self radicalizes or the small group or conspiracy people who self radicalize," he said.
DHS and the federal government must develop relationships with state and local law enforcement to counter these attacks, he said. The federal government cannot be everywhere all the time, Johnson said.
The public, law enforcement and all levels of government must remain vigilant for these types of homegrown threats. Johnson encouraged citizens to step up when they notice something suspicious, but urged them not to become paranoid.
"We risk going too far, we risk breeding suspicion [and] fear among people about those that are different than them," said Johnson. "If you are charged with thinking about homeland security — whether you are me or the state homeland security advisor to the governor or police commissioner — you can build walls, you can build something that is so secure that you make everybody paranoid and you deprive people of the basic privacy and freedoms that this country is all about, and we can't do that."