FBI sharpens scrutiny of Syrians in U.S.

  • Article by: MICHAEL S. SCHMIDT New York Times
  • August 31, 2013 - 6:44 PM

The FBI has increased its surveillance of Syrians inside the United States in response to concerns that a military strike against the government of President Bashar Assad could lead to terrorist attacks here or against U.S. allies and interests abroad, said current and former senior U.S. officials.

The government has also taken the unusual step of warning federal agencies and private companies that U.S. military action in Syria could spur cyberattacks, the officials said. There were no such alerts before previous military operations, like the one against Libya in 2011.

The authorities are particularly concerned because Iran — one of Assad’s closest allies — has said there will be reprisals against Israel if the United States attacks Syria. The Iranians have also shown a willingness to sponsor terrorist attacks on U.S. targets, according to the officials, speaking on the condition of anonymity to discuss a continuing operation.

“They’re not starting from scratch — the field offices know what they have in terms of sources and investigations, but this is a directive for them to redouble their efforts and check their traps,” one senior U.S. official said.

Senior national security officials at FBI headquarters in Washington have told the bureau’s field offices in recent days to follow up with sources who have ties to Syrians in an attempt to find talk or evidence of a retaliatory strike, the officials said. And Syrians implicated in continuing investigations will be put under even closer scrutiny, the officials said.

The Department of Homeland Security and the FBI have also sent out a classified bulletin alerting federal, state and local law enforcement officials of potential threats created by the Syria conflict, the officials said. A senior FBI official declined to comment.

FBI agents are expected to interview hundreds of Syrians in the coming days. During the international campaign against Moammar Gadhafi of Libya two years ago, the agency interviewed nearly 1,000 Libyans, but it was unclear if it would cast as broad a net in this operation.

The FBI director during the Libyan campaign, Robert Mueller, told Congress at the time that there “may be intelligence officers that are operating with the different types of cover in the United States.”

“We want to make certain that we’ve identified these individuals to assure that no harm comes from them, knowing that they may well have been associated with the Gadhafi regime,” he said.

Gadhafi’s government ultimately fell, and there were no reprisal attacks inside the United States. But a little more than a year later, terrorists attacked the U.S. mission in Benghazi, Libya, killing four Americans, including the U.S. ambassador — an indication that reprisals may not occur right away.

During the current crisis, the Syrian Electronic Army, a group of hackers who claim to support Assad, has successfully attacked a number of U.S. companies, including the New York Times. “The new element here is the cyberattack,” one U.S. official said.

James W. McJunkin, a former top FBI counterterrorism official, said that before the Iraq war began in 2003, the bureau sent field agents to question Iraqi-Americans about whether they had noticed any suspicious behavior or had received information from relatives in Iraq that might be valuable to U.S. intelligence agencies. “We didn’t think the return on investment was especially high,” he said.

The authorities’ fears were heightened Tuesday when Iranian lawmakers and commanders said Iran would attack Israel in retaliation for any U.S. strike against Syria. In 2011, authorities accused Iranian officials of plotting to kill Saudi Arabia’s ambassador to the United States as part of a plot that included plans to bomb the embassies in Washington and Argentina. An Iranian-American pleaded guilty to charges that he had tried to carry out the plot and was sentenced to 25 years in prison.

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