Sanafi al-Nasr, the leader of an al-Qaida offshoot in northwest Syria who was killed in an airstrike, was in charge of the Khorasan Group and was a primary coordinator for moving money and fighters to extremist strongholds in Syria.
WASHINGTON — The military airstrike in northwest Syria that killed Sanafi al-Nasr, the leader of a shadowy al-Qaida cell that U.S. officials say has been plotting attacks against the United States and Europe, was carried out by the U.S.-led coalition, the Pentagon said Sunday.
The 30-year-old Saudi national was the highest-ranking leader of a network of some two dozen veteran al-Qaida operatives called the Khorasan Group, and the fifth senior member of the group to be killed in the past four months. His death was announced in a Pentagon statement describing Thursday’s operation, which U.S. officials said was a drone strike.
The U.S. use of drones, as opposed to piloted aircraft, to carry out such strikes may reduce the stakes of any inadvertent confrontation with Russian planes over Syria.
For nearly three weeks, Russia has carried out strikes in support of the embattled Syrian leader, Bashar Assad, including some that have killed U.S.-trained Syrian rebels. But last week’s successful drone strike is not expected to resolve a continuing policy debate over the long-term success of targeting individual terrorist leaders.
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Al-Nasr, whose full name was Abdul Mohsen Adballah Ibrahim al Charekh, was a primary coordinator for moving money and fighters to extremist strongholds in Syria, the Pentagon said.
He organized routes for new recruits to travel from Pakistan to Syria through Turkey and helped manage the group’s finances by moving funds from donors into Iraq and then to al-Qaida leaders.
Al-Nasr previously worked for al-Qaida’s Iran-based facilitation network and, in 2012 he took charge of the group’s core finances before relocating to Syria in 2013.
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a monitoring group based in London, said al-Nasr was killed near the northern town of Dana, along with another Saudi and a Moroccan member of al-Qaida’s local affiliate, known as the Nusra Front.
“Al-Nasr is important as a financier for al-Qaida with key connections in the Gulf states,” said Bruce Riedel, a former CIA analyst who is now at the Brookings Institution.
Last week’s strike was another significant blow to the Khorasan network, U.S. terrorism officials said. In early July, the group’s founding leader, Muhsin al-Fadhli, was killed while traveling in a vehicle near Sarmada, in northwestern Syria. Al-Fadhli was a senior al-Qaida operative who, according to the State Department, was so close to Osama bin Laden that he was among a small group of people who knew about the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks before they were launched.
Also in July, David Drugeon, a French citizen and an explosives expert for Khorasan, was killed in an allied airstrike near Aleppo, Syria.
Even as the United States has shifted its main counterterrorism focus to the Islamic State group from al-Qaida, intelligence officials say the Khorasan Group has emerged as the cell in Syria that may be the most intent on, and capable of, striking the U.S. or its Western allies with an organized terrorist attack.
Matthew Olsen, the former director of the National Counterterrorism Center, said the succession of strikes against Khorasan had significantly hurt its ability to plot attacks.
“It seems plausible that the deaths of so many of these guys in Syria over the past year has really degraded the Khorasan Group as a whole,” Olsen said. The U.S. effort has also helped prevent al-Qaida from taking advantage of the chaos in Syria to find space in which to operate, he said.
There is little public information about the Khorasan Group, which U.S. officials say is made up of about two dozen seasoned al-Qaida operatives from the Middle East, South Asia and North Africa who were sent to Syria by Ayman al-Zawahri, al-Qaida’s leader in Pakistan.
Embedded within the Nusra Front, the Khorasan operatives were to recruit Europeans and Americans whose passports allow them to travel on U.S.-bound jetliners with less scrutiny from security officials.
Micah Zenko, a scholar at the Council on Foreign Relations, said experts inside and outside the government were divided over the long-term efficacy of a so-called decapitation strategy, in which a terrorist group’s leaders are killed.
“There’s a pretty vigorous debate within the security community about whether this works,” Zenko said. Some officials think that the fear of strikes makes it harder for extremists to meet and communicate and that killing leaders means advancing less competent operatives.
But Zenko said he was among the skeptics. The decapitation approach, he said, really becomes a “recapitation” strategy because the targeted groups learn to anticipate the deaths of leaders and prepare deputies to succeed them. Any disruption tends to be temporary, he said.
He noted that U.S. officials thought the coalition fighting the Islamic State group extremists had killed about 20,000 fighters, but that estimates of the size of the existing fighting force had barely changed. “They’re just replenishing, either with recruits from within Syria and Iraq or with foreign fighters,” he said.
Some U.S. officials think, however, that as a small, specialized force specifically focused on attacks against the West, the Khorasan Group is more susceptible to disruption by strikes than either the Islamic State group or the Nusra Front.
Al-Nasr was born in Shaqra in Riyadh province in Saudi Arabia in 1985. His father fought in Afghanistan in the 1980s against the Soviet Union and later encouraged his seven sons to engage in extremism. Two of them later ended up in the Guantánamo Bay detention facility, according to the Combating Terrorism Center at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, N.Y.
The United Nations Security Council named al-Nasr to its al-Qaida sanctions list last year, calling him a “leading terrorist Internet propagandist since 2006.”