WASHINGTON—President Barack Obama’s decision to order airstrikes against an al-Qaeda cell in Syria known as the Khorasan Group was based on intelligence suggesting that the group was close to carrying out a terror plot against the U.S. or Europe, administration officials said Tuesday.
On the same night that U.S. and Arab allies carried out more than 200 airstrikes against the Islamic State group, the U.S. alone launched strikes against eight Khorasan Group targets near Aleppo in northwestern Syria, Pentagon officials say.
Briefing reporters at the Pentagon, Lt. Gen. William Mayville, who directs operations for the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said the Khorasan Group was nearing “the execution phase of an attack either in Europe or the homeland.”
Last week, James Clapper, the director of national intelligence, said the Khorasan Group posed a “potential threat.” But senior Obama administration officials, briefing reporters Tuesday under ground rules that they not be identified, said the intelligence was both more precise and more dire than Clapper suggested.
“We were monitoring active plotting that posed an imminent threat to the United States and potentially our allies,” one official said. “That was the united view of our intelligence community.”
The Khorasan Group, which consists of al-Qaeda veterans who fought in Afghanistan and Pakistan, is focused on attacking the West, not the government of Syrian President Bashar Assad, Mayville said.
“We know that the Khorasan Group has attempted to recruit Westerners to serve as operatives or to infiltrate back into their homelands,” he said. “The Khorasan Group is clearly not focused on either the Assad regime or the Syrian people. They are establishing roots in Syria in order to advance attacks against the West and the homeland.”
Mayville added that it was too early to describe the effects of the strikes against Khorasan Group targets, or say who may have been killed.
A senior administration official said the plan to strike the Khorasan Group “is something that has been on our radar for several months and it is an action that we were contemplating separate and apart from” the airstrikes against Islamic State group positions in Syria.
While the Islamic State group has broken from al-Qaeda, the Khorasan Group consists of veteran operatives known to U.S. intelligence officials.
The Associated Press first reported September 13 that U.S. intelligence officials had identified the Khorasan Group as a top threat, in part because the group had been working with bomb makers from al-Qaeda’s Yemen affiliate to test new explosive devices that could go undetected by Western airport security measures.
A senior Obama administration official confirmed that the group had been testing bombs at its Syrian camps. The official said the Transportation Security Administration’s decision to ban uncharged laptops and cellphones from certain flights, and other enhanced security measures, was prompted by the Khorasan threat.
A U.S. official briefed on intelligence confirmed reports that the group is led by Muhsin al-Fadhli, a Kuwaiti who spent time in Iran and has long been identified as a significant al-Qaeda player. U.S. officials said they did not know whether he was killed in the American airstrikes.