On Tuesday the Pentagon announced that overnight airstrikes in Syria had targeted not just the Islamic State but also a less familiar terror outfit known among US intelligence authorities as the Khorasan Group.
Discussion of Khorasan, which is tied to al Qaeda's central command and its Syrian affiliate Jabhat al-Nusra, recently surfaced in the media after American intelligence officials said that it might pose a more direct threat to the United States than the Islamic State (also known as ISIS). Those remarks now appear to have strategically presented the rationale for strikes aimed at destroying the Khorasan cell's capacity to carry out terror attacks in the US and Europe.
Though Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Jordan, Bahrain, and the United Arab Emirates joined the US in launching Syrian airstrikes, a total of eight bombings targeting alleged Khorasan sites to the west of Aleppo were carried out solely by American aircraft.
The targets included "training camps, an explosives and munitions production facility, a communication building and command and control facilities," US Central Command said in a statement.
"We believe the Khorasan group was nearing the execution phase of an attack either in Europe or the homeland," Lt. Gen. William Mayville, director of operations for the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told reporters late Monday evening. "We know that the Khorasan group has attempted to recruit Westerners to serve as operatives or to infiltrate back into their homelands."
Recent coverage has invariable referred to the group as "shadowy" or "clandestine," but its leader, a Kuwaiti al Qaeda operative named Muhsin al-Fadhli, was already well known in intelligence circles. A one-time confidant of Osama bin laden, he is alleged to be one of only a handful of al Qaeda members based in Afghanistan to have known in advance of the September 11 terror attacks. Fadhli was only 19 years old at the time.
In 2002, Fadhli was linked to the financing of an attack on a French boat in waters off the coast of Yemen. He was later imprisoned in Kuwait for terror funding, but was released and reportedly took up residence in Iran, where he directed a local al Qaeda cell. In 2012, the State Department announced a $7 million reward for information on Fadhli's whereabouts. In an accompanying release, it said that he had "assisted al-Qaeda in moving multiple operatives from Pakistan via Iraq and Turkey to destinations in Europe, North Africa and Syria."
At some point in the last few years, al Qaeda's top commanders — including its leader, Ayman al-Zawahiri — reportedly ordered Fahdli to set up shop in rebel-controlled areas of Syria.
Thomas H. Henriksen, senior fellow at the Hoover Institution at Stanford University and an expert on US terrorism policy, told VICE News that the choice of location didn't have to do with the fight against Assad's regime or the conflict among the Syria's rebel groups, but rather with its convenience amid a power vacuum.
Mayville echoed this characterization, describing Khorasan as "clearly not focused on either the Assad regime or the Syrian people. They are establishing roots in Syria in order to advance attacks against the West and the homeland."
"They are opportunistic, they blend in," Henriksen said. "They have access to weapons and a total lack of central authority."
Henriksen added that intelligence officials understand that several members of the cell have either been trained or made contact with Ibrahim al-Asiri, a Saudi national based in Yemen who is believed to have constructed explosives used in several high profile plots hatched by al Qaeda in recent years. Asiri is alleged to have built the infamous "underwear bomb" that failed to properly explode on a Detroit-bound Christmas flight in 2009, and constructed the plastic explosives placed in another failed plot to blow up two cargo planes the following year.
In 2009, Asiri planted an explosive in the rectum or underwear (depending on whom you ask) of his brother, who blew himself up in an attempt to assassinate Saudi counter-terror chief Prince Mohammed bin Nayef, who escaped with minor injuries.
US officials believe that Khorasan is currently coordinating similar plots in Syria, which they expect are aimed at bringing down airliners. If the group is as dangerous as they have been described, it suggests that threats on the US mainland have not changed significantly since 9/11, despite the rise of territorial-minded groups like the Islamic State.
Mike Breen, executive director of the Truman National Security Project, told VICE News Khorasan's emergence "is serving as an example of why it is myopic to focus on ISIS alone. You still have these smaller groups that have the capacity to carry out transnational attacks, groups that can use the freedom of action in Syria to plot such an attack."
In contrast to the Islamic State's mania for self-promotion, Breen noted that drumming up a huge social media storm isn't really part of Khorasan's strategy.
"ISIS has gained a lot of attention — they are declaring a caliphate and acting a lot like a political organization," he added. "Khorasan is a newer name in the mix of constantly shifting groups tracing back to al Qaeda, focused on attacking the West. Their tactics may have evolved, but they are still primarily interested in terrorism, not territorial conquest."
American officials have yet to release details about the effect of the overnight attacks, but rumors circulating on social media, some of which cite Jabhat al-Nusrah sources, claim that Fahdlih might have been killed. VICE News could not independently verify any of these accounts.
John Horgan, director of the Center for Terrorism and Security Studies at the University of Massachusetts Lowell, told VICE News the recent media catch-up on Khorasan shows how varying and haphazard public perceptions of al Qaeda remain, notwithstanding the fact that the threat they pose has been perhaps the only foreign policy constant in the past decade.
"We seem to have lost any ability to critically assess the threat posed by the al Qaeda movement," Horgan said. "One minute, we ridicule them for fantastical aspirations in India and for apparently launching foolishly executed raids on hard targets, while the next minute we worry about a secret core within a core within an affiliate that now, we're told, is poised to strike."
In September, members of Al-Qaeda's newly announced Indian affiliate attempted to storm a Pakistani naval vessel docked in Karachi, mistaking it for an American ship. The botched attack, which led to the deaths of three militants and the arrest of the remaining seven, was widely mocked in the media.
"Our inability to critically and reliably assess these groups is, I think, a sign of just how simplistic and jingoistic our understanding of them really is," Horgan added. "It might also be a more simple reflection of our tendency to offer commentary based on next to no information."
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