Tuesday’s American airstrikes in Syria targeted not just the Islamic State militants but also a terrorist group called the Khorasan group that was “nearing the execution phase” for an attack in Europe or the U.S., officials said.
The group was described as a network of veteran al-Qaida members including a onetime close ally of Osama bin Laden. The group had established a safe haven in Syria to “advance attacks against the West” and was recruiting Westerners to serve as operatives or to infiltrate back into their homelands, Pentagon officials said.
“Intelligence reports indicated that the Khorasan group was in the final stages of plans to attack Western targets,” said Army Lt. Gen. William Mayville, director of operations of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.
Officials said the planned attack most likely would be an attempt to blow up an airplane in flight.
The U.S.-led airstrikes in Syria are likely to last “for years,” a senior Pentagon official said Tuesday, as the United States began to assess the impact of three waves of aerial assaults launched in the early morning hours that targeted both Islamic State installations in eastern Syria and facilities housing the shadowy Khorasan group farther west.
Acting on its own without the Arab allies enlisted in the strikes against Islamic State, the U.S. launched eight strikes against Khorasan targets near the Syrian town of Aleppo including training camps, an explosives and munitions production facility, a communication building and command-and-control facilities, the Pentagon said.
“They successfully hit the targets that they were aiming at,” Deputy White House National Security Adviser Ben Rhodes said.
The group reportedly includes Muhslin al Fahdli, a Kuwaiti who was once so close to bin Laden that he was among the small circle of followers told in advance of the Sept. 11, 2001, plot. In 2005, President George W. Bush said that Fahdli was involved in aiding terrorists who bombed a French oil tanker off the coast of Yemen in 2002.
Some experts believe Fahdli was personally dispatched to Syria by Ayman al-Zawahiri, bin Laden’s successor as head of al-Qaida, with the purpose of recruiting foreign fighters who could return to their homelands to stage attacks. Thousands of Americans and Western Europeans have gone to Syria to fight for Nusra, Islamic State and other Islamist groups.
A senior administration official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said the group’s recruitment of Westerners to serve as external operatives was one of the reasons the U.S. enacted additional aviation security measures worldwide several months ago.
The airstrikes against the Islamic State group in Syria provided the U.S. with the opportunity to strike Khorasan, but an administration official said the U.S. had already contemplated direct military action against the group.
“The president has been crystal clear that we will take action against terrorists that pose a threat to the United States, and the Khorasan group fits into that category,” the official said.
The group includes former al-Qaida operatives from Afghanistan and Pakistan whom the U.S. considers affiliated with al-Qaida, Rhodes said.
Rhodes declined to discuss specifics beyond saying U.S. intelligence found the group had “very clear and concrete ambitions” to attack the United States or Europe.
“This is a part of the ongoing effort against al-Qaida in which you’ve seen us take strikes in Yemen; you’ve seen us take strikes in Somalia,” he said. “When there’s an al-Qaida target we’re going to take action against it.”
U.S. officials in the past week hinted at the dangers posed by Khorasan, with James Clapper, the director of national intelligence, telling a conference Thursday that “in terms of threat to the homeland, Khorasan may pose as much of a danger as the Islamic State.”
That same day, White House press secretary Josh Earnest declined to discuss Khorasan, but he insisted the administration was “vigilant about the threats that continue to emanate from al-Qaida and their affiliates all around the globe.”
President Barack Obama mentioned the group for the first time on Tuesday, saying the group included “seasoned” al-Qaida operatives in Syria.
“Once again, 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,” Obama said.
The name Khorasan holds prophetic significance for many jihadis. It was the name of a region comprising parts of Iran, Afghanistan and Turkmenistan. Some Hadiths, or sayings attributed to the Prophet Muhammad, foretold of an army carrying the black banners of Islam that would ride out of Khorasan, sweeping all before it, imagery frequently used by both the Islamic State and al-Qaida and its affiliates.
In other develoments:
▪ Outside observers said Tuesday’s attacks, which Pentagon officials said struck 22 targets overall, killed at least 120 jihadi fighters. At least 70 were associated with Islamic State and another 50 belonged to the al-Qaida-affiliated Nusra Front who were apparently killed in U.S. missile attacks aimed at Nusra’s Khorasan unit.
Activists inside Syria said there had been civilian casualties, but Pentagon officials said they had no information to confirm the claim.
Instead, Pentagon officials displayed photographs of buildings that they said showed the pinpoint nature of the attacks. In one set, a slide showed what officials said was a communications array atop what they identified as Islamic State’s financial center in Raqqa, the organization’s de facto capital. A second image showed the array destroyed by Tomahawk missiles but with little apparent damage to the building itself.
A resident of Raqqa, reached via Skype, said that damage in the city appeared to be confined largely to Islamic State facilities, and that there was no extensive damage to the city itself
▪ The first group of attacks targeted 14 specific locations in Syria, U.S. officials said, and was the work of a coalition of countries that included the United States and five Arab nations: Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Jordan, the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain.
Only American assets were used in the second set of attacks, which targeted eight locations associated with Khorasan.
The third wave of strikes targeted Islamic State command, control and communications facilities, barracks, training grounds and vehicles. The “preponderance” of the Arab aircraft participated in the third wave.
▪ In all, 47 Tomahawk cruise missiles were launched from two ships, the destroyer USS Arleigh Burke and the guided missile cruiser USS Philippine Sea, which were in the Red Sea and the North Arabian Gulf. Aircraft came from the Air Force, the Navy and the Marine Corps.
▪ The U.S. informed the Syrian government in advance of Washington’s plans to bomb suspected Islamic State sites, Syrian state media reported Tuesday. In Washington, a State Department spokeswoman acknowledged that warning was given, but Jen Psaki said: “We warned Syria not to engage U.S. aircraft. We did not request the regime’s permission. We did not coordinate our actions with the Syrian government. We did not provide advance notification to the Syrians at a military level.”
▪ Israel shot down a Syrian fighter jet after it flew over the Golan Heights, the Israeli army said Tuesday, the first such incident in almost 30 years. The Sukhoi fighter was downed by a U.S.-made Patriot missile fired by Israeli military personnel, and the crew ejected over Syrian territory across the Golan frontier, the Israeli army said.
An Israeli military source said the Syrian plane probably intended to strike rebel strongholds in southern Syria, but it crossed 800 yards into Israeli airspace before turning back toward Syria. The jet could have flown anywhere over Israel within five minutes given its speed and the country’s small dimensions, Israel said.
An expert dismissed any connection between the interception and the U.S. strike against Islamic State targets in Syria overnight.
▪ U.S. security officials on Tuesday warned federal and local police to watch for “homegrown violent extremists” who may be motivated to attack by airstrikes in Syria.
“Plotting by these groups (the Khorasan group and Islamic State) may accelerate,” according to the joint bulletin issued by the Department of Homeland Security and the FBI.
The Associated Press, Bloomberg and the Los Angeles Times contributed to this report.