US gunning for mysterious Khorasan group
Beirut - In recent months, the Americans have launched repeated air strikes against a shadowy organisation they call the Khorasan group, expending large numbers of precision-guided bombs and missiles on targets in Syria’s Idlib province close to the Turkish border.
The shadowy group seemed to emerge from nowhere. No one had heard of such a group until the Americans said they detected it in 2014. The group is believed to consist of several dozen veteran al-Qaeda operatives from the Arab world, Afghanistan, Pakistan and Chechnya who are embedded with al-Qaeda’s Syrian wing, al-Nusra Front, but take no part in battles with the beleaguered Syrian regime or rival rebel groups.
The suggestion this group was formed sometime in 2013 to specifically target the West aroused speculation that it was a US fiction through which Washington sought to justify its controversial drone strikes and expand the war against jihadists. Fighters in Syria said they had never heard of the group.
But US intelligence officials say these hardened jihadists, all experts in recruiting and training operatives, financing, planning and running covert operations, were dispatched to Syria by al-Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri, not to join the struggle against President Bashar Assad’s regime but to “develop external attacks, construct and test improvised explosive devices and recruit Westerners to conduct operations”, as one source put it.
Despite several waves of air strikes, only one Khorasan leader is known to have been killed. Muhsin al-Fadhli, aka Abu Asmaa al-Jazrawi, died in a US drone strike on July 8th while travelling in north-western Syria.
The Kuwaiti-born Fadhli, first targeted in September 2014, was a highly experienced operative and in 2012 US authorities put a $7 million bounty on his head. He was one of the handful of al-Qaeda insiders who knew about the 9/11 attacks in advance, US intelligence sources say.
In the first known attack on the group on September 22, 2014, a pre-dawn broadside of no less than 47 Tomahawk cruise missiles fired from US warships was unleashed against Khorasan facilities west of Aleppo. Fifty fighters were reported killed, but none of any note.
The Americans unleashed more attacks on November 5th around the Nusra-controlled town of Sarmada, where Fadhli would later be killed.
There were further US raids on November 12th and 14th, and again March 8th near Aleppo.
It remains unclear what concrete intelligence the Americans have that led them to unleash copious amounts of high-tech weaponry against this group of jihadist heavyweights.
US Army Lieutenant-General William Mayville, director of operations for the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told a Pentagon briefing on September 2, 2014, that the attacks thwarted, or interrupted, “imminent attacks” on Western targets and “potentially the US heartland”. But at no point have US officials provided any clues about these intended targets.
The Islamic State (ISIS) is not seen as a major threat to the United States at this time since it appears to be concentrating on consolidating its grip on its vast conquests in Syria and Iraq and establishing the Islamic caliphate it proclaimed in June 2014.
ISIS’s conquests have allowed it to eclipse al-Qaeda as the standard-bearer of militant Islam and one way that al-Qaeda Central might make up the ground it has lost would be to pull off a spectacular attack on the United States or Western Europe.
It is not generally recognised that the carnage of 9/11 was the high-water mark of jihadist terrorism, although it may have been intended as the opening shot in a series of a mass-casualty onslaughts against Western civilisation.
Al-Qaeda’s inability to replicate 9/11, mainly because of impressive intelligence-gathering by the United States and its partners and the relentless US air strikes that have decimated its leadership, is seen as one of the reasons it has been overtaken by ISIS.
US officials say they are particularly concerned that the Khorasan group has been collaborating with Ibrahim al-Asiri, the master bomb-maker of al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) based in Yemen.
He’s considered extremely dangerous because he thinks outside the box and has tried three times to blow up US aircraft using clothing laced with undetectable explosives or toner cartridge bombs. Fadhli had long been associated with Yemen’s jihadists.
The Americans fear the jihadists will develop highly sophisticated, non-metallic bombs, hard if not impossible to detect, to be carried aboard aircraft bound for the United States or Europe.
Some Western intelligence sources say that a sophisticated attack on the West, possibly the bombing of several airliners simultaneously as in the ill-fated Bojinka plot to blow up 11 US airliners over the Pacific in 1995, is beyond the capability of ISIS, whose fighters are more insurgents than terrorists trained to operate undercover in Western society. Al-Qaeda is another matter.