In addition to a broader campaign of airstrikes against Islamic State targets across Syria on Monday night, the United States also pounded a little-known, but well-resourced al-Qaeda cell that some American officials fear could pose a direct threat to the United States.
The Pentagon said in a statement early Tuesday morning that U.S. warplanes conducted eight strikes west of Aleppo against the cell, called the Khorasan Group, targeting its “training camps, an explosives and munitions production facility, a communications building and command and control facilities.”
The attacks bring broader attention to the group of clandestine al-Qaeda operatives, which U.S. officials first warned of last week. The group “has established a safe haven in Syria to develop external attacks, construct and test improvised explosive devices and recruit Westerners to conduct operations,” the Pentagon said.
The mission of the Khorasan, led by longtime al-Qaeda leader Muhsin al-Fadhli, appears to be different than other militant groups operating in Syria.
Its objective in Syria isn’t to overthrow Bashar al-Assad, or accumulate land and resources like Islamic State. Rather, its members have come from Pakistan, Yemen and Afghanistan to exploit the flood of Western jihadists who now have skin in the fight — and possess very valuable passports. According to the Associated Press, al-Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri dispatched the group to recruit those Western fighters, who have a better chance of escaping scrutiny at airports and could place bombs on planes.
James R. Clapper Jr., the director of national intelligence, said late last week that “in terms of threat to the homeland, Khorasan may pose as much of a danger” as the Islamic State. The New York Times then reported that the group posed a “more direct threat” to the United States and Europe than the Islamic State.
“The group’s repeated efforts to conceal explosive devices to destroy aircraft demonstrate its continued pursuits of high-profile attacks against the West, its increasing awareness of Western security procedures and its efforts to adapt to those procedures that we adopt,” Nicholas Rasmussen, deputy director of the National Counterterrorism Center, recently said, referring to al-Qaeda’s bombmaking branch in Yemen.
But beyond such intent, little is known of Khorasan. Even now, it’s unclear how many members Khorasan has, how long it’s been in existence, or what its core message is. Its low profile provides a sharp contrast to the flamboyance of the Islamic State, which operates with an almost pathological desire for attention, publishing graphic-heavy magazines and flooding social media with images of carnage.
What is known of Khorasan barely extends beyond its leader, a notorious al-Qaeda operative whom President George W. Bush mentioned in a 2005 speech. U.S. officials have tracked Fadhli for at least a decade, and he is cited by both the United Nations and the State Department as having participated in al-Qaeda plots. The State Department, calling Fadhli a “senior facilitator and financier,” put out a $7 million reward for information about his location in 2012.
“He has assisted al-Qaeda in moving multiple operatives from Pakistan via Iraq and Turkey to destinations in Europe, North Africa and Syria,” a State Department release said, “and [he] is believed likely to continue moving experienced al-Qaeda operatives to reinforce and gain influence in those areas.”