Counterterrorism Officials: Fears Escalate Over Potential for Al Qaeda Seizing Syrian WMDs

Since Homeland Security Today first reported Dec. 13 that senior US counterterrorism (CT) officials were becoming increasingly concerned that Al Qaeda in Syria could acquire Syrian WMDs, and that the Pentagon had drawn up military contingencies in the event that they do, these same officials said they’re more alarmed now than they were "just a few weeks ago" because of the significant strides jihadist forces dominating “front line fighting” in Syria have made. "That could put them in position … to overtake important [Syrian] chemical weapons sites, even manufacturing facilities," as one of the officials emphasized.

In a Dec. 16 report, the Washington Post confirmed that “US officials are increasingly worried that Syria’s WMDs could fall into the hands of Islamist extremists, rogue generals or other uncontrollable factions.”

The Post further confirmed that “defense officials … have been updating their contingency plans in recent weeks” for dealing with terrorists acquiring Syrian WMDs.

Meanwhile, Syria’s ambassador to the UN, Bashar Al Jafair, warned in a letter to UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon that rebel forces could indeed get control of chemical weapons.

But at a Dec. 18 press briefing, US State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland called the claims “garbage.” The Syrian government, she said, has “a responsibility not only not to use them, but to keep them safe and secure. As you know, for more than a decade, we’ve been trying to convince Syria to eradicate these weapons, to get rid of them altogether. They have not done that. They bear responsibility for keeping them safe and secure.”

“So any effort to abrogate that responsibility,” Nuland continued, “any effort to shift it onto others is just further to the kind of garbage that we’ve seen from the regime.”

Nuland said the US and other countries have been “extremely vigilant” in keeping an eye on Syrian WMD locations, adding, “I’m obviously not going to get into the details of our discussions with partners, but I think we have said for some weeks here that we are working very closely with a number of allies and partners in the international community to ensure that we are able to do what’s necessary should the regime make the wrong choice, should the regime lose control, et cetera.”

Despite Nuland’s assurances, Russian, Israeli and other officials have continued to express alarm that Al Qaeda or aligned jihadist forces battling the Assad regime could get their hands on WMD weapons or the materials to manufacture them. Al Qaeda-linked insurgents battling Syrian President Bashar Al Assad’s regime have already overrun several sites where chemical — and perhaps other WMDs — are believed to be located.

Earlier this month, the Syrian-Saudi Chemicals Company (SYSACCO) factory near Safira that manufactures chlorine and other toxic chemicals was taken over by the Al Qaeda franchise, Al Nusra Front, that reportedly is responsible for “the heaviest frontline fighting” in Syria.

Al Qaeda-tied rebels overran the Sheik Suleiman military base near Aleppo where research on chemical weapons had been conducted, and opposition Islamist forces have made inroads on a Syrian military base near Aleppo where chemical weapons are believed to have been produced.

According to the Post’s report, “A former Syrian general who once led the army’s chemical weapons training program said that the main storage sites for mustard gas and nerve agents are supposed to be guarded by thousands of Syrian troops, but that they would be easily overrun.”

Retired Syrian Maj. Gen. Adnan Silou, who defected to opposition forcesin June, said “Probably anyone from the Free Syrian Army or any Islamic extremist group could take them over,” the Post reported.

Because of the deteriorating situation on the ground in Syria, “Al Qaeda understands it has a unique opportunity” to take advantage of the chaos to try to get hold of Syrian WMDs,” one of the senior US counterterrorism officials told Homeland Security Today for its Dec. 13 report, ominously adding, “in fact, Al Qaeda may be as close as it’s ever been to getting hold of chemical weapons.”

The Post later reported that “As the Syrian opposition steadily makes territorial gains, US officials and analysts said the odds are increasing that insurgents will seize control of a chemical weapons site or that Syrian troops guarding the installations will simply abandon their posts.”

"It’s almost inevitable — It may have already happened, for what we know,” retired Army officer Michael Eisenstadt told the Post. Eisenstadt served for 26 years as an officer in the US Army Reserve and is a senior fellow and director of The Washington Institute’s Military and Security Studies Program where he is a specialist in Persian Gulf and Arab-Israeli security affairs. He has extensive experience in the Middle East.

Perhaps easier to capture though are some of the more than dozen mobile chemical weapons labs that a Syrian military defector reportedly told US counterterrorism intelligence and WMD officials have been fielded by the Syrian military. The truck-mounted labs allegedly are capable of mixing “binary” chemicals to produce lethal weapons.

The situation in Syria "may be the first time the international community faces the possibility of a civil war in a state with a known stockpile of chemical weapons,” warned a Congressional Research Service (CRS) report delivered to lawmakers earlier this month.

Deputy Russian Foreign Minister Mikhail Bogdanov said “The greatest danger is that parts of Syria continue to fall under the control of the opposition where extremists, terrorists and Al Qaeda have strong positions.” And “That could have very serious consequences,” RIA Novosti reported.

“Everyone is afraid of that, including our American partners,” Bogdanov was quoted as saying, noting that rebel factions have already gained control of some Syrian military arsenals. And that could also happen to chemical weapon stockpiles, Bogdanov said, pointing out that “This has already happened in Aleppo with the seizure of a plant manufacturing chemical components that can be used for terrorist purposes.”

“The opposition’s victory, regrettably, cannot be ruled out,” Bogdanov told a Kremlin advisory body, according to Interfax. “We need to face the truth. A current tendency is that the regime and the government keep losing control over an ever-growing territory.”

"I think the regime in Damascus is approaching collapse. I think now it’s only a question of time," NATO Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen said in Brussels, Belgium, during a news conference with Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte.

On Nov. 14, the day after Homeland Security Today first reported that the Defense Department had hurried contingency plans to deal with terrorists acquiring Syrian WMDs, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta acknowledged that defense officials had developed preparations for responding to Assad’s regime losing control of WMD stockpiles. However, he declined to discuss specifics about the Pentagon’s plans.

President Barak Obama had asserted during an Aug. 20 press conference that "We cannot have a situation where chemical or biological weapons are falling into the hands of the wrong people,” adding it would be "a red line for us, and … there would be enormous consequences if we start seeing movement on the chemical weapons front …”

In recent weeks, the US, Israel and United Kingdom have deployed covert intelligence assets and special operations forcesto monitor Syrian WMD sites in preparation for potential intervention should it appear imminent that a site will be overrun by jihadist or Al Qaeda forces who are on the front lines of the battle against Assad’s military.

Thomas Pierret, Lecturer in Contemporary Islam and an Islamic and Middle Eastern studies specialist at the University of Edinburgh, has said "Radical Islamists are very visible [in Syria], and that “They always fight on the front line because they’re seeking martyrdom. For that reason, other groups often ask them to spearhead attacks.”

Counterterrorism officials said there is ample intelligence to indicate that Al Qaeda and "like-minded" jihadists are indeed at the front lines in Syria.

Consequently, these CT officials told Homeland Security Today, Al Qaeda and aligned Islamist jihadist forces on the front lines of the effort to topple Assad’s regime “are well situated to be the first to overtake [Syrian] WMD sites,” as one said.

On Wednesday, Israeli Air Force chief, Maj. Gen. Amir Eshel, was quoted by Ynetnews.com saying, "We are prepared to deal with” Syria’s WMDs coming under the control of Islamist extremists. “This is an issue for the country’s decision makers. We are providing the relevant capabilities, so that if it is decided to use them, we will know how to.”

Earlier this month, Arutz Sheva reported that Israeli Lt. Col. (Res.) Mordechai Kedar, a 25-year military intelligence veteran, had said the Israeli military is actively taking measures to be able to respond to any threat posed by Syria’s WMDs.

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