The leader of a shadowy al-Qaida cell in Syria that U.S. officials say is plotting attacks against the United States and Europe was killed in a military drone strike July 8.
A military-drone strike has killed the leader of a shadowy al-Qaida cell in Syria that U.S. officials say is plotting attacks against the United States and Europe, Pentagon officials said Tuesday.
The leader, Muhsin al-Fadhli, was killed in a July 8 strike while traveling in a vehicle near Sarmada, in northwestern Syria, Capt. Jeff Davis, a Defense Department spokesman, said in a statement. 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.
Even as the United States has shifted its main counterterrorism focus to the Islamic State group from al-Qaida in the past year, intelligence officials say the group that al-Fadhli led, known as Khorasan, has emerged as the cell in Syria that may be the most intent on and capable of striking the United States or its Western allies with an organized terrorist attack.
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 top leader in Pakistan.
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Embedded within the Nusra Front, al-Qaida’s affiliate in Syria, 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.
“This is a significant blow to al-Qaida’s top terror team,” said Bruce Riedel, a former CIA analyst who is now at the Brookings Institution. “Ayman Zawahri created the Khorasan group to bring together the best operatives from across al-Qaida to Syria to target the West, and now their leader is apparently dead.”
Unlike the Islamic State and other jihadi groups that have come to prominence in recent years, the cell that al-Fadhli, 34, came to lead has avoided the spotlight. It puts out no slick Internet magazines and does not boast of its plans on Twitter.
According to classified U.S. intelligence assessments, the Khorasan extremists have been working with bomb makers from al-Qaida’s Yemen affiliate to test new ways to slip nonmetallic explosives past airport security. Officials fear that the Khorasan insurgents could provide these sophisticated explosives to their Western recruits, who could sneak them onto U.S.-bound flights.
Last July, the Transportation Security Administration decided to ban uncharged mobile phones and laptops from flights to the United States that originated in Europe and the Middle East after picking up intelligence about the collaboration between the al-Qaida operatives in Syria and Yemen.
The first time President Obama publicly mentioned the Khorasan group was last September, when he announced that he had ordered an airstrike against it to disrupt what U.S. officials said was a terrorist plot aimed at the West. U.S. officials later acknowledged that the plotting by Khorasan was “aspirational” and said that no concrete plan seemed to be in the works.
Still, U.S. counterterrorism officials insist that Khorasan remains a major threat. Its existence demonstrates that al-Qaida’s main leadership in Pakistan’s tribal areas can still threaten the West, despite the damage done to the organization by years of drone strikes.
“While the threat they pose will persist, the loss of Muhsin’s leadership and experience is a real setback for the group,” said Matthew Olsen, a former director of the National Counterterrorism Center.
The U.S. military has periodically targeted Khorasan as part of its air campaign in Syria, beginning with eight strikes last September.
Some opponents of the Syrian government, however, have expressed skepticism about the existence of the Khorasan group, saying that the United States had created it to justify strikes on Islamist rebels.
The paucity of public information about the group makes it hard to draw firm conclusions about its ultimate goals. Intelligence officials and terrorism experts believe that the group, although based in Syria, answers ultimately to al-Zawahri and al-Qaida’s core leadership in Pakistan.
Its size has seemed to fluctuate, they say, but it has consisted of about two dozen operatives, most of whom went to Syria from Pakistan and Afghanistan beginning in 2012.
Once they arrived in Syria, members of the group established contacts with fighters from the Nusra Front, one of several groups that formed in recent years to fight the government of President Bashar Assad. While the Nusra Front remains primarily committed to fighting government troops for territory in Syria’s vicious civil war, analysts said, the Khorasan group’s focus is on external attacks.
Al-Fadhli had been tracked by U.S. intelligence agencies for at least a decade. According to the State Department, before al-Fadhli arrived in Syria, he had been living in Iran as part of a small group of al-Qaida operatives who had fled to the country from Afghanistan after the Sept. 11 attacks. Iran’s government said the group was living under house arrest, but the exact situation of the al-Qaida operatives was disputed for years, and many members of the group ultimately left Iran for Pakistan, Syria and other countries.
In 2012, the State Department identified al-Fadhli as al-Qaida’s leader in Iran, directing “the movement of funds and operatives” through the country. A $7 million reward was offered for information leading to his capture. The same State Department release said he was working with wealthy “jihadist donors” in Kuwait, his native country, to raise money for al-Qaida-allied rebels in Syria.
In a speech in Brussels in 2005, President George W. Bush referred to al-Fadhli as he thanked European countries for their counterterrorism assistance, noting that al-Fadhli had aided terrorists who bombed a French oil tanker in 2002 off the coast of Yemen. That attack killed one person and spilled 50,000 barrels of oil that stretched across 45 miles of coastline.