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U.S. Airstrikes Also Targeted Al-Qaida Offshoot


Up until the last few days most Americans had never heard of the militants mentioned in Scott's story, the Khorasan Group. It was created by al-Qaida and based in Syria to take advantage of the crisis there. U.S. security officials say the group is focused not on fighting serious Civil War, but on launching attacks against the U.S. and the West. NPR's counterterrorism correspondent Dina Temple-Raston is here to talk how the group fits into al-Qaida's grand strategy. Dina, welcome.


CORNISH: So how do we go from not ever hearing about them to essentially hearing they pose a real threat to the West?

TEMPLE-RASTON: Well, until last week the very existence of the group was considered classified, and that's because the U.S. didn't want to tip its hand on how closely it'd been tracking it. The group's made of about four dozen, long-serving al-Qaida veterans; and it has or had a very specific job. The leader of al-Qaida, Ayman al-Zawahiri, wanted the group to move to Syria and use it as a safe haven, specifically to launch attacks against the West. And what's interesting about this is that this wasn't a group of green recruits. This was a group of people who have been with al-Qaida nearly from the start; people who fought the Russians in Afghanistan, people who hid out in the frontier regions of Pakistan together. These were true - these are true believers who were supposed to convince foreigners to join al-Qaida, and then use their passports to launch attacks overseas.

CORNISH: Now give us a sense of how the Khorasan is run, who's in charge of it?

TEMPLE-RASTON: Well, the man who's in charge is a man named Muhsin al-Fadhli; he's about 33; he's Kuwaiti. And he's been an al-Qaida insider since he was a teenager. He was an aide to Osama bin Laden. He spent time with Osama bin Laden's son-in-law in Iran after the 9/11 attacks. And he's been helping raise money for al-Qaida from Iran. In fact he's suspected of having raised the money that was needed for an October 2002 attack on a French oil tanker off the coast of Yemen. All this together, you know, shows how influential he is in the organization, and that gives you some idea of how important setting up this base of operations for international attacks in Syria was to the al-Qaida leader. He sent one of his best deputies to do the job.

CORNISH: And you're saying that security officials take this as being a big priority for al-Qaida?

TEMPLE-RASTON: Exactly. I mean, the so-called Islamic State has been grabbing all the headlines, but the Obama administration has been saying over and over again that the number one threat to the U.S. homeland is still al-Qaida. The Khorasan Group, you know, its very existence is one of the reasons why the administration was so worried. Unlike thousands of rebel groups in Syria who are there to fight the regime and the government this one isn't. The Khorasan Group's in Syria because it wants to level attacks against the West.

CORNISH: So help us understand how the Khorasan Group would do that. I mean, obviously we've talked a lot about foreign fighters who have passports that are operating along with ISIS. Is this about getting a hold of them?

TEMPLE-RASTON: Yes. There's such a flow of foreign fighters. Apparently this group has been very successful at recruiting them. And it also appears to have access to bomb technology that would be hard to detect and easy to sneak on an airplane. I mean, the Islamic State just doesn't have that kind of operational sophistication at this point. It might be grabbing all the headlines, but it just isn't as much of a threat to the U.S. homeland as al-Qaida continues to be.

CORNISH: Well, when it come to the intelligence, I mean, just what is known about how close the Khorasan Group would or could be to actually launching an attack?

TEMPLE-RASTON: That's really unclear. I mean, if you parse the language that the Pentagon statement had yesterday in announcing the airstrikes it didn't say an attack was imminent. It said there was evidence of imminent attack planning. So this week's air strikes may have been opportunistic. I mean, the U.S. and the coalition were attacking the Islamic State targets so the U.S. used Tomahawk missiles to take care of the Khorasan Group, too. You know, one of the concerns, according to official I spoke to, was that once the ISIS strikes started members of the Khorasan Group might scatter and they might get lost.

CORNISH: You called the airstrikes opportunistic; we've also heard the word preemptive. We've also heard reports that the Khorasan Group's leader may have been killed in Tuesday's airstrikes.

TEMPLE-RASTON: Yeah. That's really unclear. We're waiting to hear. I mean, these reports are mostly on twitter, and it's unclear if they're true. There's another report that the leader of al-Qaida's arm in Syria, a group called the al-Nusra Front, which was working with the Khorasan Group was killed in the strikes. And there was a statement from their group on twitter announcing his death, but these haven't been confirmed or verified. And the reports of the demise of terrorist leaders are notoriously wrong, so we're waiting for something much more definitive.

CORNISH: Dina, thanks so much.

TEMPLE-RASTON: You're welcome.

CORNISH: That's NPR counterterrorism correspondent Dina Temple-Raston. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Dina Temple-Raston is a correspondent on NPR's Investigations team focusing on breaking news stories and national security, technology and social justice.