The Pentagon announced late on Monday that the U.S. had started launching airstrikes in Syria targeting the Islamic State group, the brutal terrorist organization that has conquered swathes of Iraq and Syria in recent months. Yet the strikes also included another target: A mysterious small al-Qaeda offshoot called the Khorasan group that may pose more of a direct threat to the U.S. than the Islamic State currently does.
American jets conducted eight strikes against the group on Monday near the Syrian city of Aleppo, targeting training camps, an explosives and munitions production facility, a communications building, and command-and-control facilities. U.S. authorities said on Tuesday that they believe the Khorasan group was in the final stages of planning an attack on European or U.S. soil.
The first reports about the threats allegedly posed by the Khorasan group emerged last week, when the U.S. directer of National Intelligence James Clapper told an intelligence conference in Washington that the group was operating in Syria and posed "as much of a danger as the Islamic State."
Yet little information about the group has been released. While some U.S. officials say it's unclear whether Khorasan is an organized group, other officials told the Associated Press last week that the cell consists of experienced al-Qaeda militants from Afghanistan, Yemen, Syria and Europe. The veteran fighters reportedly traveled to Syria in 2013 to work with Jabhat al-Nusra, al-Qaeda's affiliate there.
The fighters were also tasked by al-Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahri with a specific mission, according to U.S. officials: Recruit some of the hundreds of foreign fighters in Syria, including Europeans and Americans, for attacks against their home countries. The militants are now reportedly working with expert bomb makers from al-Qaeda's branch in Yemen. A security source told CNN that the group's new focus was revealed by an al-Qaeda leader's bodyguard who was recently arrested by forces aligned with Syrian President Bashar Assad.
ABC reports that the Khorasan group is believed to be led by Mushin al-Fadhli, a 33-year-old Kuwaiti who has been on intelligence agencies’ radars for years.
The U.S. designated al-Fadhli a terrorist in 2005 and the State Department announced in 2012 that it was offering $7 million in exchange for information on his location. According to the U.S. State Department, al-Fadhli used to be one of al-Qaeda’s key operatives in Iran. He is wanted by Saudi and Kuwaiti authorities in connection with terrorist activities and was reportedly one of the few al-Qaeda leaders who had advance notice of the 9/11 attacks.
"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," President Obama said in a speech Tuesday, referring to the Khorasan group. "We're going to do what's necessary to take the fight to this terrorist group for the security of this country, and this region, and the entire world."