U.S. airstrikes in Syria targeted not just the Islamic State but a terrorist group called the Khorasan group that was “nearing the execution phase” for an attack in Europe or the U.S., officials said.
The group was described as a network of veteran al Qaida members including a onetime close ally of Osama bin Laden. The group had established a safe haven in Syria to “advance attacks against the West” and was recruiting Westerners to serve as operatives or to infiltrate back into their homelands, Pentagon officials said.
“Intelligence reports indicated that the Khorasan group was in the final stages of plans to attack Western targets,” said Army Lt. Gen. William Mayville, director of operations of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.
Acting on its own without the Arab allies enlisted in the strikes against the Islamic State, the U.S. launched eight strikes against Khorasan targets near the Syrian town of Aleppo including training camps, an explosives and munitions production facility, a communication building and command-and-control facilities, the Pentagon said.
Officials said they were still assessing the effects of the strikes and couldn’t say whether they had killed one of the group’s purported leaders, whether the threat had been addressed or whether more airstrikes would be launched.
“They successfully hit the targets that they were aiming at,” Deputy White House National Security Adviser Ben Rhodes said. “As to what impact that had on Khorasan leadership and operatives, that’s something that we’ll have to run down in the coming days.”
The group reportedly includes Muhslin al Fahdli, 33, a Kuwaiti who was once so close to bin Laden that he was among the small circle of followers told in advance of the Sept. 11, 2001, plot. In 2005, President George W. Bush said that Fahdli was involved in aiding terrorists who bombed a French oil tanker off the coast of Yemen in 2002.
Some experts believe Fahdli was personally dispatched to Syria by Ayman al Zawahiri, bin Laden’s successor as head of al Qaida, with the purpose of recruiting foreign fighters who could return to their homelands to stage attacks. Thousands of Americans and Western Europeans – EU officials said Tuesday 3,000 of its citizens alone – have gone to Syria to fight for Nusra, the Islamic State and other Islamist groups.
Seth Jones, a terrorism expert at the RAND Corp., said he was aware of “notable concerns“ about the group’s plotting and said he believed that one of its targets “involved transportation.”
A senior administration official, who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss operational details, said the group’s recruitment of Westerners to serve as external operatives was one of the reasons the U.S. enacted additional aviation security measures worldwide several months ago.
Al Qaida has “proven to be the most determined and persistent actor, particularly when it comes to aviation plots,” a senior administration official said.
The airstrikes against the Islamic State in Syria provided the U.S. with the opportunity to strike Khorasan, but an administration official said the U.S. had already contemplated direct military action against the group.
“The president has been crystal clear that we will take action against terrorists that pose a threat to the United States, and the Khorasan group fits into that category,” the official said.
The group includes former al Qaida operatives from Afghanistan and Pakistan whom the U.S. considers affiliated with al Qaida, Rhodes said.
The administration had been monitoring the group’s development of plots against the U.S. for “many months,” and a senior administration official, speaking on condition of anonymity as a matter of policy, said Obama believed its plotting was reaching “an advanced stage.”
Rhodes declined to discuss specifics, saying U.S. intelligence found the group had “very clear and concrete ambitions” to attack the United States or Europe.
He said the administration views the threat as an extension of the threat posed by al Qaida and not a new opening.
“This is a part of the ongoing effort against al Qaida in which you’ve seen us take strikes in Yemen; you’ve seen us take strikes in Somalia,” he said. “When there’s an al Qaida target we’re going to take action against it.”
U.S. officials in the past week hinted at the dangers posed by Khorasan, with James Clapper, the director of national intelligence, telling a conference Thursday that “in terms of threat to the homeland, Khorasan may pose as much of a danger as the Islamic State.”
That same day, White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest declined to discuss Khorasan, but he insisted the administration was “vigilant about the threats that continue to emanate from al Qaida and their affiliates all around the globe.”
President Barack Obama mentioned the group for the first time on Tuesday, saying the group included “seasoned” al Qaida operatives in Syria.
“Once again, it must be clear to anyone who would plot against America and try to do Americans harm that we will not tolerate safe havens for terrorists who threaten our people,” Obama said.
The name Khorasan holds prophetic significance for many jihadis. It was the name of a region comprising parts of Iran, Afghanistan and Turkmenistan. Some Hadiths, or sayings attributed to the Prophet Mohammad, foretold of an army carrying the black banners of Islam that would ride out of Khorasan, sweeping all before it, imagery frequently used by both the Islamic State and al Qaida and its affiliates.
The term Khorasan has been used to refer to a network of Nusra Front and al Qaida core extremists, who share a history of training operatives, facilitating fighters, and planning attacks against U.S. and Western targets, said an administration official, speaking on condition of anonymity as a matter of policy.
The group’s members, who lived in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iraq, Iran, Yemen and other areas in the Middle East, have migrated to Syria, exploiting the conflict in Syria to provide them with a safe haven, the official said.