WASHINGTON (AP) — The flow of foreign fighters into Syria has grown in just the last few months, with dozens of Americans joining the country's conflict along with thousands of Europeans, FBI Director James Comey said Friday.
U.S. law enforcement and intelligence officials have expressed concern about the influence of hard-line jihadists — many of them linked to al-Qaida — among the rebels seeking to overthrow President Bashar Assad. Officials say fighters from the U.S. or Europe looking to join the cause could become radicalized and import those influences and terrorist skills when they return home.
Speaking to reporters at FBI headquarters, Comey said the number of Americans who have either traveled to Syria or sought to do so was continuing to grow. He would not give a specific figure, but he said the number had grown by a few dozen since the start of the year. He said in a similar interview several months ago that dozens of Americans were trying to make their way to Syria.
The FBI also believes that there are Americans in Syria actively trying to bring other Americans over to the country, Comey said.
Comey compared the situation in Syria to that of Afghanistan, several decades ago, when thousands of Muslims worldwide who traveled to the country during the 10-year Soviet occupation returned home with the fervor of jihad and in some cases sought to overthrow their own governments.
"All of us with a memory of the '80s and '90s saw the line drawn from Afghanistan in the '80s and '90s to Sept. 11," he said. "We see Syria as that, but an order of magnitude worse," because more foreign fighters are going there and the country is easier to travel to and back from.
He said it was inevitable that there would be a similar diaspora out of Syria and added: "We are determined not to let lines be drawn from Syria today to a future 9/11."