Skip to main content

U.S. monitoring Americans fighting in Syria amid security fears

By Barbara Starr, CNN Pentagon Correspondent
updated 9:08 AM EDT, Wed July 16, 2014
  • U.S. officials are concerned Americans could return to conduct homeland attacks
  • There are roughly 7,000 foreign fighters in Syria -- many from Europe and the U.S.
  • The U.S. is trying to identify potential suspects even before they travel to Syria
  • Holder says it's "a dangerous time" for the United States

Washington (CNN) -- The U.S. government is stepping up efforts to collect intelligence on Syrian training camps and Americans returning from Syria amid concern that U.S. citizens fighting alongside extremists might later conduct attacks back home.

"The FBI and other members of the intelligence community have made this a top priority and are taking whatever steps they can under the law to monitor and prevent those coming back from doing us harm," Assistant Attorney General John Carlin said.

The increased intelligence-gathering comes during what Attorney General Eric Holder describes as a "dangerous time" for the United States.

In an interview with ABC's "This Week" on Sunday, Holder estimated there are about 7,000 foreign fighters in Syria, coming from places like Europe and the United States.

"In some ways, it's more frightening than anything I think I've seen as attorney general," he said. "This is a situation that we can see developing and the potential that I see coming up, the negative potential I see coming out of the facts in Syria and Iraq now, are quite concerning," he said.

The FBI has dozens of investigations of Americans under way in the United States as the government tries to identify potential suspects even before they travel to Syria so they know if they come back.

U.S. officials tell CNN that not all potential suspects are on the no-fly list -- making it harder for investigators to track them.

Adding to the worries: thousands of fighters in Syria with European passports who are able to enter the United States. Officials say not all European countries are sharing the names of all of their suspect citizens.

Alarms went off when a French Algerian extremist opened fire at the Jewish Museum in Brussels, Belgium, in May. After training in Syria with al Qaeda splinter group ISIS, he traveled through several countries in Europe before he was arrested in France.

U.S. officials said it was a wake-up call that borders can be readily crossed.

"We got to make sure we partner with Europe so that know who's coming back," Rep. Adam Schiff, D-California, a member of the House Intelligence Committee, told CNN's "New Day" on Tuesday. "We need to make sure that they take action against those that are providing material support to terrorism in Syria and elsewhere, because many of the European countries don't even have the laws to allow them to do that."

Meanwhile, the Transportation Security Administration said this month that security screeners at overseas airports may ask U.S.-bound passengers to turn on their cell phones and other electronics to prove they work and aren't explosive devices. The change is part of an update to security measures aimed at combating potential new threats from terrorists in the Middle East and Europe.

A senior U.S. official told CNN that part of what prompted the enhanced security measures was intelligence that militants in Syria had details on how to make undetectable bombs.

CNN's Pamela Brown, Evan Perez and Dana Ford contributed to this report.

Part of complete coverage on
Syrian crisis
updated 8:43 AM EDT, Thu June 26, 2014
Jihadists have kidnapped over 140 Kurdish boys to "brainwash" them. But a few boys made a daring escape.
updated 8:48 AM EDT, Thu June 26, 2014
Reports that Syrian warplanes carried out a cross-border attack on Iraqi towns is further evidence of the blurring of the two countries' borders.
updated 5:33 PM EDT, Tue June 24, 2014
CNN's Atika Shubert speaks to a father whose teenage son joined the Jihad movement in Syria.
updated 7:41 AM EDT, Mon June 23, 2014
At the start of Syria's civil unrest, Omar would rally against the government alongside his schoolmates, later taking to the streets in his hometown of Salqin.
updated 5:17 PM EDT, Mon June 23, 2014
Atika Shubert looks at the rise of European jihadists traveling to Syria and whether they soon could join ISIS in Iraq.
updated 10:53 AM EDT, Mon June 23, 2014
The final stockpile of Syria's chemical weapons has been shipped out of the country, according to the OPCW, the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons.
updated 4:25 PM EDT, Wed June 25, 2014
The US isn't doing airstrikes in Iraq. Is there a vacuum for Syria and Iran to step in? CNN's Fareed Zakaria weighs in.
updated 4:04 AM EDT, Tue June 10, 2014
CNN's Nick Paton Walsh reports on Syrian rebels using underground explosions against the better-equipped regime.
updated 7:51 AM EDT, Mon June 9, 2014
CNN's Nick Paton Walsh returns to the besieged rebel areas of Aleppo, a pale skeleton of a city that has had the life bombed out of it.
updated 7:51 AM EDT, Mon June 2, 2014
Syria may be embroiled in a brutal three-year civil war, but that's not stopping the government from holding presidential elections.
updated 7:23 AM EDT, Tue June 3, 2014
CNN's Nick Paton Walsh meets an ISIS defector in hiding and gets a rare look into the group's recruitment process.
updated 12:10 PM EDT, Thu June 5, 2014
Over a thousand Syrian refugees have turned an abandoned shopping mall in Lebanon into makeshift living quarters.
updated 5:19 PM EDT, Wed May 28, 2014
What caught our experts' ears was as much about what he didn't address as much as what he did.
updated 6:19 AM EDT, Tue May 20, 2014
The three-year war in Syria has claimed 162,402 lives, an opposition group said Monday, as the raging conflict shows no signs of abating.
updated 9:41 PM EDT, Fri May 30, 2014
Official: The U.S. believes a jihadi featured in a suicide bombing video in Syria is Moner Mohammad Abu-Salha who grew up in Florida.
updated 10:37 AM EDT, Tue May 20, 2014
For the first time, Britain has convicted someone of a terrorism offense related to the Syrian civil war.