In airstrikes, US targets terror cell said to be plotting an attack
WASHINGTON: US forces took advantage of the airstrikes against the Islamic State extremist group in Syria to try to simultaneously wipe out the leadership of an unrelated cell of veterans of al-Qaida that White House officials said Tuesday was plotting an “imminent” attack against the United States or Europe.
The barrage of bombs and missiles launched into Syria early Tuesday was aimed primarily at crippling the Islamic State, the formidable Sunni organization that has seized a large piece of territory to form its own radical enclave. But the blitz also targeted a little-known network called Khorasan, in hopes of paralyzing it before it could carry out what US officials feared would be a terrorist attack in the West.
US military and intelligence analysts were still studying damage reports from the initial air assault, but senior Obama administration officials expressed hope that they had killed Muhsin al-Fadhli, the leader of Khorasan and a onetime confidant of Osama bin Laden.
The officials said they had been contemplating military action against Khorasan in recent months, but President Barack Obama’s decision to hit the Islamic State’s forces inside Syria provided a chance to neutralize the other perceived threat.
Several officials said Khorasan had an advanced plan for an attack involving a bomb that could pass undetected through airport security systems, perhaps by lacing nonmetallic objects like toothpaste tubes and clothes with explosive material, although officials offered no details in public and did not provide specifics on how soon an attack might be carried out. Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. said the concerns about Khorasan were behind a decision last summer to ban uncharged laptop computers and cellphones from some U.S.-bound commercial airliners.
The air campaign against Khorasan and the Islamic State got underway even as Obama flew to New York to meet with world leaders gathering for the opening session of the U.N. General Assembly. Obama did not seek U.N. permission for the military campaign, but he presented the strikes as the collaboration of a multinational coalition that included five Arab nations: Saudi Arabia, Jordan, the United Arab Emirates, Qatar and Bahrain.
“Because of the almost unprecedented effort of this coalition, I think we now have an opportunity to send a very clear message that the world is united,” Obama said during a hastily arranged photo opportunity in New York with Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi of Iraq, King Abdullah II of Jordan and representatives of the other Arab allies.
Still, the bulk of the military efforts were conducted by U.S. forces, and reaction in the Middle East was mixed. President Hassan Rouhani of Iran, which is allied with the government of President Bashar Assad of Syria, said the airstrikes were illegal because they were not conducted with the approval of Syria’s government, a point later echoed by President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia, another ally of Syria’s.
The Syrian government itself seemed more accepting, probably because it was glad to see military power brought to bear against forces that have been fighting Assad and recently killed many of his soldiers. The Syrian Foreign Ministry said the government “backs any international effort that contributes to the fight against terrorists,” whether it is the Islamic State, the Nusra Front “or anyone else.”
Samantha Power, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, informed her Syrian counterpart about the strikes ahead of time, but did not seek permission or disclose the timing or targets. “In fact, we warned them to not pose a threat to our aircraft,” said Benjamin J. Rhodes, the president’s deputy national security adviser.
Rhodes said Obama issued the order for the strikes on Thursday, a day after visiting the U.S. Central Command headquarters in Tampa, Florida, that would carry out the operation.
In his public appearances on Tuesday, Obama cautioned again that the campaign against the Islamic State, also known as ISIL, would take time. He also cited the strike on Khorasan, the first time he has mentioned the group in public.
“Once again, it must be clear to anyone who would plot against America and try to do Americans harm that we will not tolerate safe havens for terrorists who threaten our people,” he said at the White House before his departure for New York.
Most officials speaking publicly on Tuesday characterized the Khorasan threat as imminent. Lt. Gen. William C. Mayville Jr., who is in charge of operations for the Pentagon’s Joint Staff, said the terrorist group was nearing “the execution phase of an attack either in Europe or the homeland.”
But one senior counterterrorism official, who insisted on anonymity to discuss intelligence matters, said the group might not have chosen the target, method or even the timing for a strike. An intelligence official said separately that the group was “reaching a stage where they might be able to do something.”
Khorasan is closely allied with the Nusra Front, which is al-Qaida’s designated affiliate in Syria, according to U.S. intelligence officials. The group, they said, is made up of al-Qaida operatives from places like Pakistan, Afghanistan, North Africa and Chechnya who have traveled to Syria on the orders of Ayman al-Zawahri, the Qaida leader.
Holder told Katie Couric of Yahoo News that the U.S. has followed the group for two years. “I can say that the enhanced security measures that we took” banning uncharged electronic devices on some flights were “based on concerns we had about what the Khorasan group was planning to do,” he said.
The strikes on Tuesday were aimed at the group’s leaders, including al-Fadhli, a Kuwaiti associate of bin Laden’s who moved to Syria last year. Officials said they were not certain if he had been killed, but Twitter accounts associated with jihadi groups said that he and another Khorasan leader, Abu Yusef al-Turki, had died in the airstrikes.
One Twitter user said that by killing al-Fadhli, the U.S. had “presented him a great wish and a most honorable gift” of martyrdom, according to the SITE Intelligence Group, which monitors militant groups’ social media postings.
Lawmakers and terrorism experts said that even if al-Fadhli had been killed, it would not necessarily derail the group’s ambitions.
“Fadhli is certainly one of the most capable of the al-Qaida core members,” said Rep. Adam B. Schiff, D-Calif., who is on the House Intelligence Committee. “His loss would be significant, but as we’ve seen before, any decapitation is only a short-term gain. The hydra will grow another head.”
Congressional leaders largely rallied behind the strikes, including Republicans who oppose the president on most other issues, although some of them still faulted his strategy and many disagreed on whether he needed approval by lawmakers. The administration contends he does not need new action by Congress because of the authorization it passed targeting al-Qaida and affiliates after the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.
“ISIL is a direct threat to the safety and security of the United States and our allies,” the House speaker, John A. Boehner, R-Ohio, said in a statement. “I support the airstrikes launched by the president, understanding that this is just one step in what must be a larger effort to destroy and defeat this terrorist organization.”
The participation of the five Arab countries may bolster Obama’s argument that the campaign does not pit the U.S. against the Sunni Muslim world, but is, rather, a broad alliance of Sunni Muslim countries against a radical group. Some of the Arab participants, especially Qatar and Saudi Arabia, have been heavily involved in Syria’s civil war, so joining the coalition was merely a more direct form of intervention.