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When U.S. fighter jets pounded ISIS targets in Syria overnight, they also carried out a separate mission targeting what the Pentagon said were “seasoned al Qaeda veterans” allegedly plotting an attack on American interests.
Little is known about those militants — dubbed the “Khorasan group.” But in the week since their name hit the international stage, they’ve been billed as potentially an even bigger threat to the U.S. than ISIS. Here’s a look at what we know about the group whose existence was not publicly acknowledged until last week.
Where did they come from?
Intelligence analysts say Khorasan refers to battle-hardened al Qaeda fighters who have travelled from Afghanistan, Pakistan and elsewhere to Syria. Beyond that, accounts differ.
U.S. Central Command said the group was using civil war-ravaged Syria as a haven from which to plot attacks, build and test roadside bombs and recruit Westerners to carry out operations.
While Khorasan has been in operating in Syria for over a year, their attention has been focused beyond that country’s borders.
“They’re in Syria but they’re not really fighting in Syria,” said Michael Leiter, the former director of the National Counterterrorism Center and now an NBC News analyst. “They’re using it as a place to find Western recruits.”
The core group is believed to be small - probably no more than 100, according to Leiter. They have one main mission: To attack Western targets.
But isn’t there already an al Qaeda affiliate in Syria?
Al Qaeda’s recognized affiliate in Syria is Jabhat al-Nusra – but that doesn’t mean there’s not room for Khorasan. Khorasan’s motivations are “very much in line” with traditional al Qaeda and it maintains close relations with Nusra, according to Leiter.
Intelligence analysts acknowledge disagreement over how separate or linked Nusra is to Khorasan. Still, the relationship appears to be symbiotic — Nusra focuses on internal operations within Syria, while Khorasan plans for external operations.
Why is the U.S. worried?
Director of National Intelligence James Klapper last week said that Khorasan poses a threat to the U.S. equal to that of ISIS, according to The Associated Press.
“Khorasan is less of a threat to the region and more of a threat to the U.S. homeland than ISIS,” Leiter said. "Unlike ISIS, the Khorasan group’s focus is not on overthrowing the Assad regime. These are core al Qaeda operatives who ... are taking advantage of the Syrian conflict to advance attacks against Western interests.”
How could that happen?
Khorasan has been actively recruiting Westerners for plots against American and European interests, according to intelligence officials.
"They want to get Western recruits, with Western passports, to attack the West,” Leiter explained.
Fears are high that the group could exploit and capitalize on ties to al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) – and that affiliate’s sophisticated bomb makers.
Khorasan militants have been working with bomb makers from al Qaeda's Yemen affiliate to test new ways to slip explosives past airport security, The Associated Press recently reported, citing classified U.S. intelligence assessments.
The AP said that the recent Transportation Security Administration ban on uncharged cellphones arose because of information that al Qaeda was working with Khorasan.
Who is leading the charge?
A number of al Qaeda all-stars are believed to have migrated to Syria and put down Khorasan’s roots – but one name stands out: Muhsin al-Fadhli, a designated terrorist and apparent 9/11 insider.
The U.S. has a $7 million bounty on Al-Fadhli’s head – just shy of the $10 million offered for the capture of ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghadi.
Al-Fadhli “was among the few trusted al Qaeda leaders who received advance notification that terrorists would strike the United States on September 11, 2001,” according to the State Department. It describes al-Fadhli as a veteran al Qaeda operative “who has been active for years.” Al-Fadhli is a wanted man in Kuwait and also on Saudi Arabia’s most-wanted list in connection with a series of terror attacks, according to the State Department.
Born in Kuwait, al-Fadhli was first designated a terrorist by the U.S. Treasury Department in 2005 - deemed an al Qaeda leader in the Gulf and accused of supporting Iraq-based fighters in attacks against U.S. forces there. The State Department has later called al-Fadhli as “facilitator and financier” for al Qaeda who moved fighters and funds through Iran on behalf of the terrorist organization. Specifically, the State Department said he works to move fighters and funds through Turkey to back al Qaeda-linked groups in Syria – plus leverages his “extensive network of Kuwaiti jihadist donors” to send money to Syria.
Al-Fadhli also allegedly has helped moved fighters to North Africa and Europe, according to the State Department — underscoring the concern of European nations that foreign fighters will mount attacks on their home soil.
- Cassandra Vinograd
The Associated Press contributed to this report.