A longtime member of al-Qaeda who led the Khorasan Group, a small circle of militants in Syria planning attacks on Western targets, was killed July 8 in an airstrike, the Pentagon said Tuesday.
Muhsin al-Fadhli, 34, was killed while traveling in a vehicle in Sarmada, in northwest Syria, according to the statement released by Navy Capt. Jeff Davis, director of Pentagon press operations. Fadhli was among those few al-Qaeda members who had advance knowledge of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks and he was also involved in operations in October 2002 that targeted U.S. Marines on Failaka Island in Kuwait and a French ship, MV Limburg, off the coast of Yemen, Davis said.
“His death will degrade and disrupt ongoing external operations of al-Qaeda against the United States and our allies and partners,” Davis said.
An al-Qaeda operative reported on Twitter last year that Fadhli was killed in September in a U.S. airstrike, but U.S. officials said then that they had not sure that was the case. This time, though, the Pentagon itself confirmed the death.
U.S. intelligence officials have described the Khorasan Group as a part of Jabhat al-Nusra, al-Qaeda’s affiliate in Syria, and said it was formed to plan attacks against Western targets. The group includes dozens of foreign fighters who have gathered in Syria over the past two years after coming from Iran, Afghanistan, Yemen and elsewhere in the Middle East. The name comes from the term “Khorasani,” a name some rebels in Syria use to describe them, and it also refers to an area of western Afghanistan as well as parts of eastern Iran, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan and Turkmenistan.
U.S. officials first used the Khorasan name in the aftermath of launching its first airstrikes in Syria in September. They were targeted initially west of Aleppo, with the Pentagon describing them as actively plotting attacks against the West.
The State Department had a $7 million award for information leading to Fadhli’s capture or killing. The diminutive militant — he was listed at 5-foot-5 in U.S. intelligence databases — allegedly fought alongside the Taliban and al-Qaeda in Afghanistan. He was also wanted by law enforcement authorities in Kuwait and Saudi Arabia for terrorist activities, according to the State Department.
Fadhli was born in Kuwait, and grew to become one of the senior members of al-Qaeda based in Iran, according to the National Counterterrorism Center. The United Nations Security Council’s al-Qaeda Sanctions Committee cited him for participating in planning, facilitating and financing terrorist attacks, leading to the international freezing of his assets.
The militant leader also was considered a major facilitator for funneling fighters into Iraq to target U.S. and multinational forces. He was considered a close ally of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the Jordanian militant who led al-Qaeda in Iraq and masterminded hundreds of bombings, kidnappings and attacks before his death in June 2006 in an airstrike north of Baghdad.
In the Failaka Island attack referenced by the Pentagon, Marine Lance Cpl. Antonio J. Sledd, 20, was killed and Lance Cpl. George R. Simpson, 21, was wounded after two militants opened fire on them. The militants were killed when they attempted to attack another group of Marines, who returned fire.
In the MV Limburg attack, the oil tanker was rocked by an explosion on Oct. 6, 2002, after a small boat rammed it off the coast of Yemen. It killed one mariner, and had similarities to the Oct. 12, 2000, attack on the USS Cole in Yemen, which killed 17 U.S. sailors.
Greg Miller contributed to this report.