Shadowy group as big a threat as Islamic State, US officials say

Khorasan group of Pakistani and Afghani fighters in Syria, led by a former bin Laden confidant, said to be working with Yemeni bomb-makers to target US aviation

Rebels affiliated with al-Qaeda sit on a truck full of ammunition in northern Syria, January 11, 2013 (photo credit: AP/Edlib News Network ENN)
Rebels affiliated with al-Qaeda sit on a truck full of ammunition in northern Syria, January 11, 2013 (photo credit: AP/Edlib News Network ENN)

Security officials in the United States have identified the leader of a group of al-Qaeda fighters in Syria — who they say pose a potential threat to the US homeland equal to that of Islamic State — as Muhsin al-Fadhli, a former close associate of Osama bin Laden who was one of the few with advance knowledge of the 9/11 terror attacks, it was reported on Saturday.

US director of national intelligence James Clapper said last week that the cell, the Khorasan group, represented “in terms of threat to the homeland… as much of a danger as the Islamic State.” Speaking at an intelligence conference in Washington, Clapper became the first US intelligence official to use the name of the cell.

Until al-Fadhli’s name was revealed over the weekend by a separate US official to The New York Times, members of the Khorasan group known to the US were not disclosed because of concerns they would hide from intelligence-gathering.

The Associated Press reported last week that the group is working from Syria with al-Qaeda’s Yemen affiliate to plot attacks on American aviation. The Khorasan group has been described by US officials as a cell of veteran al-Qaeda fighters from Afghanistan and Pakistan who are trying to recruit Western extremists to attack Europe and the US.

Al-Fadhli, 33, who has a $7 million price on his head, has been known to US intelligence for around 10 years and until recently was the head of the al-Qaeda branch in Iran, where he had fled, along with a handful of others, following the US invasion of Afghanistan after the 9/11 attacks. In 2012, the State Department wrote that Fadhli controlled “the movement of funds and operatives” for al-Qaeda in Iran, and was linked to numerous wealthy donors in the Gulf states.

The Khorasan group now active in Syria consists a cadre of veteran fighters from Afghanistan and Pakistan who traveled to Syria to link up with the al-Qaeda affiliate there, the Nusra Front, and leads a band of hardened jihadis from Afghanistan, Yemen, Syria and Europe, American officials said last week.

The Khorasan members did not go to Syria principally to fight the government of President Bashar Assad, US officials said. Instead, they were sent by al-Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri to recruit Europeans and Americans whose passports allow them to board a US-bound airliner with less scrutiny from security officials.

In addition, according to classified US intelligence assessments, the Khorasan group has been working with bomb-makers from al-Qaeda’s Yemen affiliate to test new ways to slip explosives past airport security. The fear is that Khorasan will provide these sophisticated explosives to their Western recruits who could sneak them onto US-bound flights.

The Obama administration has said that the Islamic State group, the target of more than 150 US airstrikes in recent weeks, does not pose an imminent threat to the continental US. The Khorasan group, which has not been subject to American military action, is considered the more immediate threat.

Because of intelligence about the collaboration among the Khorasan group, al-Qaeda’s Yemeni bomb-makers and Western extremists, US officials said, the Transportation Security Administration in July decided to ban uncharged mobile phones and laptops from flights to the US that originated in Europe and the Middle East.

The Khorasan group’s plotting with al-Qaeda’s Yemen affiliate shows that, despite the damage that years of drone missile strikes has done to the leadership of core al-Qaeda in Pakistan, the movement still can threaten the West. It has been rejuvenated in the past year as al-Qaida offshoots have grown in strength and numbers, bolstered by a flood of Western extremists to a new terrorist safe haven created by Syria’s civil war.

That Yemen affiliate, al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) has been able to place three bombs on US-bound airliners, though none has succeeded in downing the aircraft.

“The group’s repeated efforts to conceal explosive devices to destroy aircraft demonstrate its continued pursuit of high-profile attacks against the West, its increasing awareness of Western security procedures and its efforts to adapt to those procedures that we adopt,” Nicholas Rasmussen, deputy director of the National Counterterrorism Center, recently told a Senate panel.

Clapper, the director of national intelligence, first disclosed during a Senate hearing in January that a group of core al-Qaeda militants from Afghanistan and Pakistan was plotting attacks against the West in Syria.

But the group’s name, Khorasan, or its links to al-Qaida’s Yemen affiliate, which is considered the most dangerous terrorist threat to the US, have not previously been disclosed.

Khorasan refers to a province under the Islamic caliphate, or religious empire, of old that included parts of Afghanistan.

Before Clapper’s statement, the CIA refused to confirm the group’s name or any details, and many US officials would not be quoted by name talking about what they said was highly classified intelligence. Some lawmakers who have been briefed on the Khorasan group threat were willing to discuss it in general terms. One congressman who declined to be identified in order to discuss intelligence matters used the group’s name in conversations with a reporter.

Rep. Adam Schiff, a member of the House Intelligence Committee, declined to name the group. But he described concerns among intelligence officials about “an unholy mix of people in Iraq and Syria right now — some who come from AQAP, some who come from Afghanistan and Pakistan, others from the Maghreb” in North Africa.

“They can combine in ways that could pose a greater threat than their individual pieces. And that’s something we worry about,” said Schiff.

Intelligence officials have been deeply concerned about dozens of Americans and hundreds of Europeans who have gone to fight for various jihadist groups in Syria. Some of those Westerners’ identities are unknown and therefore they are less likely to draw the attention of intelligence officials when they purchase tickets and board a crowded jetliner heading for European and American cities.

AQAP’s master bomb-maker, Ibrahim al-Asiri, is believed to have built the underwear bomb that a Nigerian man, Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, tried to detonate on a passenger jet over Detroit in December 2009.

Al-Asiri is also believed to have built two bombs hidden in printer cartridges placed on US-bound cargo jets in 2010, and a body bomb that was acquired in a 2012 operation involving Saudi, British, and US intelligence agencies.

US intelligence suggests al-Asiri and his confederates are constantly trying to tweak their bomb designs so that the explosives can get past airport security and also detonate successfully.

The TSA ban on uncharged laptops and cellphones stemmed from information that al-Qaeda was working with the Khorasan group to pack those devices with hard-to-detect explosives, a US official said.

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