The U.S. took strikes Monday night against al-Qaida operatives in Syria, known as the Khorasan Group to disrupt a plot against the United States or Europe.
WASHINGTON – U.S. intelligence and military officials watched al-Qaida for more than two years as it put together a special operations unit, but on Monday they could not afford to just watch any longer.
In addition to U.S.-led coalition air strikes against ISIL, “Last night, we also took strikes to disrupt plotting against the United States and our allies by seasoned al-Qaida operatives in Syria who are known as the Khorasan Group,” said President Barack Obama during a late morning news conference at the White House.
That strike, which U.S. military assets conducted unilaterally, took on added urgency in recent days.
Without specifying where or when, deputy White House spokesman Shawn Turner told WTOP, “There was intelligence that indicated that senior operatives in this group were nearing the execution phase for an attack in Europe or potentially here in the United States.”
A U.S. government official also told WTOP, “Over the last three months, we’ve received multiple reports that that the plots were maturing to include the fact that they had moved to training operatives.”
The official said, “We were concerned they were developing advanced explosives that might prove challenging to some of our overseas partners abilities to detect.”
U.S. intelligence officials were particularly worried about the skill and cohesive nature of the specially chosen operatives in the Khorasan group.
In some cases, the operatives have terrorist experience dating back to the beginning of the U.S wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and have distinguished themselves in attacks.
“They’re very dangerous individuals, who made their way to the region after fighting and living together in countries including Chechnya, Iraq, Yemen and other places across North Africa,” said Turner.
The principle anxiety for U.S. officials was the merging of hard-core, “seasoned” al-Qaida fighters with the technologically savvy bomb-makers from its affiliate al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula.
Al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula is notorious for developing powerful, concealed, cutting-edge bombs and U. S. homeland security officials have been worried some of these devices could be secreted into the international aviation stream.
While U.S. intelligence officials have steered away from divulging what Khorasan’s principle targets were, there have been numerous hints so far in 2014 that the aviation sector was a target.
In March, National Counterterrorism Center Director Matthew Olsen, in his oral statement before the Senate Foreign Relations, alluded to a group of senior level terrorists from the Afghanistan/Pakistan region were a serious threat.
WTOP reported in late June that Department of Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson warned U.S. airline passengers that they might experience, “enhanced security measures in the coming days at certain overseas airports with direct flights to the United States,” and “officers may also ask that owners power up some devices, including cell phones. Powerless devices will not be permitted onboard the aircraft.”
It became clear, on Tuesday, that concern about Khorasan was the genesis of that warning.
“We watched them plotting this attack in a very specific way and one of the things that concerned us is they actively recruited westerners,” said Turner. Those individuals, according to Turner, “were going to be used along with some of their newly developed tactics and other techniques to launch the attacks.”
U.S. officials declined to confirm whether the air strikes against Khorasan killed any of the group’s leadership. They also say they are not sure if the strikes disrupted the plot to attack the U.S. and Europe.