Officials Fear Al Qaeda Loyal Jihadists Could Overrun Syrian WMD Sites; Military Strike Contingencies Planned

Senior US counterterrorism (CT) officials tasked with preventing terrorists from getting their hands on Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMDs) told Homeland Security Today they are increasingly concerned that Al Qaeda jihadists in Syria known to have infiltrated the ranks of rebel groups battling to topple the regime of Syrian President Bashar Al Assad have drawn up strategies to acquire WMDs should any of the anti-Assad insurgencies they’ve penetrated overrun Syrian military positions or units in possession of the weapons.

Intelligence officials said they’ve known for some time that Al Qaeda has worked hard to establish a clandestine network in the region for the purpose of recruiting and training jihadists to be sent to Syria with specific orders to secure WMDs. Disturbingly, on Monday, 29 of Syria’s anti-Assad insurgent groups announced they’ve pledged their allegience to the Al Qaeda-linked Al Nusra Front, which the Obama administration on Tuesday formally designated an Al Qaeda-tied terrorist organization. Meanwhile, the White House announced the US would formally recognize a coalition of Syrian opposition groups as the nation’s legitimate representative.

The State Department said “The consequences of adding Al Nusrah Front as a new alias for AQI [Al Qaeda in Iraq] include a prohibition against knowingly providing, or attempting or conspiring to provide, material support or resources to, or engaging in transactions with, Al Nusrah Front, and the freezing of all property and interests in property of the organization that are in the United States, or come within the United States or the control of US persons.”

Since November 2011, the State Department said the “Al Nusrah Front has claimed nearly 600 attacks —  ranging from more than 40 suicide attacks to small arms and improvised explosive device operations — in major city centers including Damascus, Aleppo, Hamah, Dara, Homs, Idlib and Dayr Al Zawr. During these attacks, numerous innocent Syrians have been killed.”

Continuing, the State Department said “Through these attacks, Al Nusrah has sought to portray itself as part of the legitimate Syrian opposition while it is, in fact, an attempt by AQI to hijack the struggles of the Syrian people for its own malign purposes,” and that “AQI emir Abu Du’a is in control of both AQI and Al Nusrah.”

Abu Du’a was designated by the State Department under EO 13224 on October 3, 2011, and by the United Nations under UN Security Council Resolution 1267 on October 5, 2011. Abu Du’a also issues strategic guidance to Al Nusrah’s emir, Abu Muhammad Al Jawlani, and tasked him to begin operations in Syria.

Dr. Jacques Beres, co-founder of the medical charity organization, Medecins Sans Frontieres, said Friday upon returning from Syria that about 60 percent of the people he had treated were members of rebel forces and that he estimated half are non-Syrian.

And "They are directly saying that they aren’t interested in Bashar Al Assad’s fall, but are thinking about how to take power afterwards and set up an Islamic state with sharia law to become part of the world Emirate," Beres told Reuters.

Because of the widespread presence of jihadists fighting in Syria, “There is speculation that [Syria’s] chemical arsenal will fall into the hostile and irresponsible hands of the likes of Al Qaeda or other terrorist groups,” Israeli vice prime minister, Moshe Yaalon, told the Israeli news website, Walla.

It’s no secret that Al Qaeda for more than a decade has sought to either acquire or develop the capability to produce WMDs. But 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 officials said, ominously adding, “in fact, Al Qaeda may be as close as it’s ever been to getting hold of chemical weapons.”

Officials’ fears are increasingly justified. 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 Nusra Front, which reportedly is responsible for “the heaviest frontline fighting” in Syria.

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 last week.

And “Due to the urgency of preventing access to these weapons by unauthorized groups, including terrorists, the United States government has been preparing to secure the weapons in the event of the Assad regime’s loss of control,” the report said.

Counterterrorism officials who spoke to Homeland Security Today on condition of strict anonymity because they are not authorized to discuss classified matters regarding Syria, said the Pentagon has hurriedly developed military contingencies to strike Syrian military positions holding WMD stockpiles in the event intelligence determines terrorists are in position to overrun any of these sites. US officials last week openly acknowledged that intelligence revealed the Syrian military had mixed the precursor chemicals necessary to create deadly Sarin gas, and had injected it into aerial munitions.

US Defense Secretary Leon Panetta said Tuesday, however, that intelligence now indicates the Assad regime appears to have slowed preparations to deploy chemical weapons against rebel targets. But that’s not what has CT officials so alarmed – they’re more concerned about Al Qaeda getting into a position where they can get their hands on Syrian WMD stockpiles.

Without providing details, Obama administration officials have acknowledged that they have been working with regional allies to focus intelligence assets to detect the movement of chemical weapons inside Syria and to develop military interdiction scenarios should Al Qaeda or other aligned jihadist forces succeed in getting close to obtaining Syrian WMDs.

Coinciding with US and allied military interdiction planning, the Nov. 5 CRS report suggested lawmakers “may wish to assess the administration’s plans to respond to possible scenarios involving the use, change of hands or loss of control of Syrian chemical weapons.”

Written by nonproliferation and military ground forces experts at CRS, the report said “While the United States and other governments have said they believe the Assad regime has secured chemical weapons, policymakers are concerned about what could happen to these weapons in the course of the civil war, such as diversion to terrorist groups or loss of control during a regime collapse. The Syrian government has said it would keep the weapons secure.”

In addition, the report said, “There is also concern that Syria could transfer its chemical weapons to Hezbollah in Lebanon.” This scenario also has set off alarms, as Hezbollah is an Iranian proxy and Iran has a close alliance with the Assad regime.

Officials told Homeland Security Today intelligence has indicated Al Qaeda and allied jihadists are not as interested in getting their hands on completed Sarin “nerve bombs,” as one official referred to them, as they are on the precursor chemicals because the nerve bombs have a shelf life of roughly two months once the chemicals have been mixed to make the Sarin poison. Also known as GB, Sarin is easily one of the most lethal, quickest-acting man-made chemical weapons ever developed.

US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton openly acknowledged last week that the Obama administration is alarmed that Syria’s chemical WMD stockpiles could indeed be acquired by Syrian rebels who’ve consistently made significant territorial inroads throughout the besieged nation and have already succeeded in taking control of numerous Syrian military facilities, capturing supplies of conventional weapons.

Although US officials have said they believe Syria’s WMD sites are secure, other officials and authorities familiar with the situation on the ground have expressed serious misgivings about whether Syrian military forces could fend off Al Qaeda-infiltrated rebel attacks on facilities where the chemicals required to manufacture Sarin — and perhaps other deadly chemical and biological weapons — are stored.

Israel Defense Forces Deputy Chief of Staff, Major-General Ya’ir Nave, described Syria’s chemical weapons arsenal as “the largest in the world” during a June 2012 interview.

In addition to Sarin, “Damascus reportedly possesses [the] mustard blister agent … and possibly VX nerve agent,” the CRS report noted, cautioning that “The size of the stockpile is unknown from open sources.” Furthermore, “The country’s chemical weapons and related facilities appear to be distributed throughout the country. US Defense Department Press Secretary George Little told reporters on July 24, 2012, that Syria has ‘a really distributed network of [chemical weapons] stockpiles.’ Similarly, Director of National Intelligence James Clapper told the Senate Armed Services Committee on February 16, 2012, that Damascus has ‘an extensive network’ of chemical weapons installations.”

The implication inherent in Clapper’s statement, intelligence sources said, is Al Qaeda has many WMD stockpiles to target attacks on.

“Our concerns are that [the] Assad regime might … lose control of them to one of the many groups that are now operating within Syria,” Clinton told reporters during a NATO ministerial meetings in Brussels.

“Officials from the Obama administration and other governments have expressed concern regarding the security of Syria’s chemical weapons, but US officials have unanimously stated that the weapons stockpiles are secure,” the CRS report provided to Congress last week said. “For example, White House spokesperson Tommy Vietor stated July 21, 2012, that the Obama administration is ‘very concerned’ about Syria’s chemical weapons, but also noted that ‘[w]e believe Syria’s chemical weapons stockpile remains under Syrian government control,’ and “The United States is monitoring Syrian chemical weapons stockpiles.”

Panetta stated during a September 28 press briefing that Damascus has moved some chemicals in order to secure them better, adding that the country’s "main sites … still remain secure."

"But what about military locations where Sarin bombs have since been deployed?" an intelligence official questioned.

Despite the administration’s assurances, counterterrorism officials told Homeland Security Today there’s “every reason” to be concerned that some sites where Syrian WMDs are known to be held are not as secure as officials have publicly claimed, and that intelligence shows Al Qaeda not only is aware of these locations, but is targeting them.

Although an unscientific poll, 90 percent of the respondents to Homeland Security Today’s poll of the week asking readers whether they believe Al Qaeda or other jihadists’ could get their hands on Syrian WMDs said "yes," they believe they could.

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