FEBRUARY 17, 2012U.S. Points to al Qaeda's Role in Unrest By SIOBHAN GORMAN and JULIAN E. BARNES
WASHINGTON—U.S. intelligence officials said they now believe al Qaeda operatives are aiding the Syrian opposition and may have been involved in recent bombings, in the most direct connection yet drawn by U.S. officials between terrorist groups and the Syrian opposition.
James Clapper, the director of national intelligence, said the recent attacks in Damascus and Aleppo, "had all the earmarks of an al Qaeda-like attack," in that they were targeted at security and intelligence buildingsin its choice of targets.
"We believe that al Qaeda in Iraq is extending its reach into Syria," said Mr. Clapper at a Senate hearing on Thursday.
Bashar al-Assad's government has been saying for weeks that al Qaeda is behind dissident violence. But U.S. officials, while seeing evidence of infiltration, said they haven't concluded that outside extremists are controlling or dominating the dissidents.
"The opposition groups in many cases may not be aware that they're there," Mr. Clapper said.
Lt. Gen. Ronald Burgess, director of the Defense Intelligence Agency, said that extremists, including al Qaeda operatives, "may already be in country." But he said there hasn't been a "clarion call" to outside extremists and al Qaeda operatives to join the Syrian opposition. "So basically, the team that's on the ground is playing with what it has," he said.
At the Pentagon, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta said the crisis in Syria has become "that much more serious" to the U.S. as a result of indications that al Qaeda has infiltrated the government's opposition, the Associated Press reported.
"It does raise concerns for us that al Qaeda is trying to assert a presence there," he said. "As to just what their role is and how extensive their role is, I think that still remains to be seen."