U.S. missile strikes against an obscure al-Qaeda cell in Syria killed at least one of the group’s leaders, delivering what U.S. officials described as a significant but not decisive blow to a terrorist group accused of plotting attacks against Europe and the United States.
U.S. officials said late Wednesday that American intelligence agencies had not confirmed reports that the leader of al-Qaeda’s Khorasan group, Mushin al-Fadhli, was the senior operative killed in the barrage of strikes west of Aleppo. But that prospect was a focus of ongoing U.S. efforts to assess the impact of the operation, carried out simultaneously with a broader offensive against the Islamic State.
The growing certainty that senior operatives were killed came as U.S. officials provided new details on the origins of the murky terrorist entity and the status of its alleged attempt to mount an attack against Western targets.
Although Obama administration officials described the group as “nearing the execution phase” of a potentially major terrorist plot, other U.S. officials on Wednesday said there was no indication that it had selected targets, deployed operatives or otherwise set a specific plan in motion.
The airstrikes this week in Kafr Deryan, a village in northwest Syria’s Idlib province, killed about 50 fighters at a base belonging to Jabhat al-Nusra, an al-Qaeda-linked rebel group in which they were embedded, rebel fighters in the area said. Khorasan operatives have also joined Ahrar al-Sham, another hard-line rebel group, said Hisham al-Hashemi, an Iraqi analyst specializing in jihadist organizations.
“The Khorasan group” is the name U.S. intelligence uses to refer to dozens of al-Qaeda-
affiliated foreign fighters who have moved into Syria over the past two years from Iran, Afghanistan, Yemen and elsewhere in the region.
Among the rebels, the foreigners are referred to as “Khorasani,” a reference from early Islamic texts to a geographic area primarily in western Afghanistan but also including parts of eastern Iran, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan and Turkmenistan. The online magazine of al-Qaeda in Afghanistan is called “Vanguards of Khorasan.”
The administration’s use over the past week of the previously unknown “Khorasan group” label has puzzled some experts. “Jihadis themselves haven’t used it,” said Aaron Zelin of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.
Brian Fishman, a counterterrorism expert at the New America Foundation said he believes that “these are elements of the logistics network stood up” by al-
Qaeda leaders some years ago “to move information back and forth between Iran and Afghanistan.”
“Publicly,” Fishman said, “there hasn’t been a declaration or any indication that this is a separate organization” in Syria.
Fadhli, born in Kuwait in 1981, is one of a number of al-Qaeda figures who lived in Iran during the past decade. He helped raise money and orchestrate the movement of extremist fighters through Iran, first into Iraq and later into Syria. A trusted lieutenant to Osama bin Laden and his successor, Ayman al-Zawahiri, he is on U.S. and U.N. terrorist designation lists.
He and other foreign fighters are believed to have been sent by Zawahiri to Syria as part of an effort by al-Qaeda’s beleaguered core leadership, which had been largely sidelined by political tumult in the Middle East, to stake some claim to a meaningful role in Syria’s civil war.
Initially, U.S officials said, the al-Qaeda veterans arrived mainly to serve as advisers to Jabhat al-Nusra, al-Qaeda’s affiliate in Syria, and as a channel of communications with Zawahiri.
It is not clear whether they arrived with orders to establish an “external operations cell,” U.S. officials said. Even now, U.S. intelligence does not see the Khorasan group as a distinct al-Qaeda unit but as a somewhat amorphous collection of foreign fighters “nested” with Jabhat al-Nusra and the broader spectrum of militant groups.
Ali Bakran, the commander of a more moderate, U.S.-backed Free Syrian Army-linked brigade based in Idlib, said he first heard of the Khorasani five months ago, in reference to foreign fighters from Afghanistan who had arrived to join Jabhat al-Nusra. There was confusion about their intentions, he said.
“We heard that there was a new unit inside Nusra and they were sleeping cells preparing to assassinate FSA,” Bakran said, referring to members of the Free Syrian Army. When a rebel commander with the 101st Division, a mainstream opposition group, was shot dead in his vehicle this year, some thought Khorasani were responsible, he said. There were also rumors they were plotting foreign attacks.
Although the embedded fighters have stirred controversy within the rebel ranks, the U.S. air attacks may cause a backlash on the ground, where Jabhat al-
Nusra garners popular support and has a higher proportion of local recruits than the Islamic State, said some activists in western Syria.
“If they hit Daesh and the regime, it’s okay,” said Bakran, referring to the Arabic acronym for the Islamic State, and to the forces of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. “But why are they striking Nusra? Nusra are from the people — they are the people.”
Rebels said the airstrikes in Kafr Deryan also killed 10 civilians. Pentagon officials said they do not believe any civilians were killed.
Jabhat al-Nusra and Ahrar al-Sham were withdrawing from their bases in Idlib on Wednesday in anticipation of more U.S. attacks, rebels said. “They’ve evacuated all their positions and left to the mountains,” said Mohnanad al-Alarian, a rebel fighter.
As U.S. officials provided further details on what they called the “imminent threat” the Khorasan group posed to the West, they said the group appeared to be nearing a set of thresholds that might have enabled it to launch an attack on short notice.
Among U.S. spy agencies, which had been tracking the arrival in Syria of al-Qaeda veterans such as Fadhli with long records of pursuing plots against Western targets, the most worrisome sign was indications that the Khorasan group had been joined by operatives from al-Qaeda’s affiliate in Yemen, an organization known for its bombmaking expertise.
U.S. intelligence agencies also picked up indications that the group was seeking to enlist fighters arriving in Syria with Western passports and considering a range of possible ways to get an explosive undetected on an aircraft.
“The fear was they were reaching a stage on various fronts where things were lining up,” said a U.S. official familiar with the intelligence on the group. “There was a possibility that in the short term a window of opportunity would open for them. Once that window opened, they could attempt to execute their plan at a time of their choosing. It could have been as soon as a few days, it could have been longer.”
That concern prompted heightened security measures this summer, including requirements that passengers power on their cellphones or laptops at some airports. It also intensified when the intelligence “chatter” that had raised anxieties leading into the summer months — including signals from the al-Qaeda group in Yemen — suddenly dropped off.
Daniel Benjamin, who served as the senior counterterrorism official at the State Department until 2012, said the Khorasan group represents the convergence of terrorist elements.
“The notion that technology developed in Yemen to get bombs past metal detectors would be deployed to Syria, where it could much more easily be moved into Europe, has been at the top of the list of concerns of Western governments,” Benjamin said.
Morris reported from Baghdad.