Next year's single greatest terrorist threat will come from Syria.
That's the word from National Counterterrorism Center Director Matthew Olsen, who said extremists are taking advantage of the chaos created by the Syrian civil war to create a threat to U.S. security.
A hodgepodge of rebel groups are battling strongman Bashar al-Assad's forces in Syria, including groups linked to al-Qaida. "As the conflict in Syria rages on, we are concerned about the flow of fighters to the country and the likelihood that they will pose a threat when they return from Syria to their home countries," Olsen said.
Dealing with this threat, Olsen said, "will be the primary focus of our counterterrorism efforts in 2014."
Olsen's comments come as Washington grows increasingly concerned that radical, Qaida-linked groups have made territorial gains in the country. Thousands of foreign fighters have traveled to Syria, where some have joined with these groups and received training and weapons, Olsen said, noting that hundreds of these individuals are from Western countries, including some from the United States.
Fragmented groups within Syria present not just a counterterrorism challenge but a diplomatic one: Washington is in an increasingly tough position, as the moderate and secular groups it has supported so far continue to lose ground to religious fighters and Assad's forces.
This week, Secretary of State John Kerry said the Obama administration is willing to meet with Islamist fighters not affiliated with terrorist groups in a bid to reach a diplomatic solution to end the fighting—outreach already scorned by some concerned members on Capitol Hill. The main target of this outreach is the Islamic Front, a new coalition of Islamist militias that excludes the key Qaida-linked groups in the country.
Last week, the U.S. suspended delivery of nonlethal aid to the rebels in northern Syria after the Islamic Front seized rebel-held warehouses and headquarters where supplies were stored. The U.S. envoy to Syria, Robert Ford, has said the group refused to sit down with the administration without giving any explanation.
The United Nations will hold a peace conference starting Jan. 22.