The Justice Department has asked a top prosecutor in its National Security Division to lead U.S. efforts aimed at stemming the flow of foreign fighters to war-torn Syria, department officials said Thursday.
“The problem of foreign fighters going to Syria is a significant national security threat that we’re facing right now,” said Assistant Attorney General John Carlin, the head of the National Security Division. “It’s at the top of the agenda for the Department of Justice and U.S. government at large, but also for our European partners and others throughout the world.”
In addition to his usual responsibilities, Stephen Ponticello will now be the point-man for prosecutions across the country involving Americans and others who have gone to Syria to train or fight with terrorists there, according to a Justice Department official.
“He in particular, along with others in the division, [is] focused on the foreign fighter threat,” Carlin told reporters and others gathered at the Brookings Institution in Washington on Thursday. “I think it’s important to coordinate the different cases across the country, to provide relevant expertise that you learn about this threat, and also to be available to meet with our partners.”
Ponticello traveled last week with Deputy Attorney James Cole to Europe, where they discussed the threat with their international counterparts. Ponticello’s new role with regard to the Syrian conflict was first reported by Reuters.
At issue are an estimated nearly 9,000 fighters who have gone to Syria from 50 countries around the world, and many of them have now been trained by rebel groups that include al Qaeda veterans with “aspirations for external attack in Europe, if not the [U.S.] homeland itself,” as one U.S. official recently put it.
By January, the FBI already had dozens of former Syria conflict fighters under surveillance in the U.S., several senior officials told ABC News at the time.
“There will come a time when those fighters are going to flow out, they're going to come back to Europe and to the United States -- and those of us who remember history remember the flowing out of Afghanistan in the 1980s by the fathers of al Qaeda. You can draw a line between that and 9/11,” FBI Director James Comey said in an exclusive interview Monday with ABC News’ Pierre Thomas. “We are not going to allow a line to be drawn from this coming Syria diaspora to a future 9/11."
Comey said that the situation in Syria is even worse than the situation in Afghanistan before the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.
“It is easier to get to and there are far more foreign fighters flowing into Syria than went to Afghanistan,” he said. “They're getting similar training, building similar relationships, and then they're coming back. They're coming back to Europe, they're coming back to North America, and it's something that all of us in the counterterrorism business are worried about every day."
The U.S. government is “very active in keeping an eye on people who've been to Syria to fight” and then return to their home countries, Comey said.
In addition to the Justice Department, the State Department has asked a top official to help lead diplomatic efforts tied to foreign fighters in Syria, one U.S. official said.
“We are engaged in a focused outreach effort with key partner governments regarding our shared concern over the flow of fighters to the Syrian conflict,” State Department spokesman Jen Psaki told reporters Wednesday. “This is an issue we’re watching closely, we are concerned about, and we’ll continue to work with our international counterparts on.”