A senior British military commander has warned of Al-Qaeda-linked extremists’ “ambitions” in Syria, saying they could be using the country as a springboard to mount a new wave of international terror attacks.
Lieutenant General Mark Carleton-Smith said Jabhat al-Nusra (Al-Nusra Front) is the strongest remaining Al-Qaeda franchise, identified by some analysts as a more serious long-term threat than Islamic State (IS, formerly ISIS/ISIL), and potentially associated with an element of British foreign fighters in Syria.
He was giving evidence to the Commons Defence Committee on its inquiry into UK military operations in Syria and Iraq.
Carleton-Smith said the group is not currently being targeted in British airstrikes, but the UK is ready to act if a “direct and imminent” threat to national security emerges.
He warned there is a “real danger” the group remains an “abscess in the system” and might “represent a Petri dish that becomes a threat to UK national security.”
Carleton-Smith said the group, which first emerged in 2011, is a mix of fighters concentrating on the civil war in Syria and those with a wider agenda.
“A significant proportion are Syrian-focused that provide a wider wrapping to those much more specifically AQ-aligned [Al-Qaeda-aligned] elements that might harbour the ambition to use Syria as a springboard for an international terrorist attack plan.
“There is potentially an element of British foreign fighters associated with it.”
Meanwhile, Defence Secretary Michael Fallon said there is “real momentum” behind the Iraqi offensive against IS.
“Clearly progress has been made. There is a real sense of momentum now of the Iraqi and Kurdish forces advancing. That needs to be sustained,” he said.
But committee head Julian Lewis questioned Fallon on the numbers of IS opposition fighters, with whom Britain is waging a military campaign in Syria, asking how many of the estimated 70,000 are “moderate” or “hardline” Islamists.
“The question is whether they are moderate or Islamists. The prime minister himself admitted a significant number of the people he had been talking about are relatively hardline Islamists,” Lewis said.
“We have had testimony from several witnesses who make it quite clear that the overwhelming majority of opposition forces, of opposition with people with guns, are Islamists.”
Fallon responded by saying: “The test is of all these groups is are they prepared to live within a plural political settlement that can in the end be democratic and take Syria towards elections.
“We can argue for a very long time about these precise definitions of what is a moderate Muslim, what is an Islamist, what is someone beyond the pale or whatever.
“The political process that is now getting underway does enable us to start to ask these various groups to make their choice – whether they are prepared to work with us for a political settlement and to be part eventually of a democratic process.”
Fallon also acknowledged that IS, which has already established a foothold in Libya, could seek to expand its operations internationally as it came under pressure in Syria and Iraq.
“That is certainly possible that we see attacks increase elsewhere in proportion to the way that they are being diminished in their caliphate. We will have to continue to be extremely vigilant about that,” he said.