The U.S.-led coalition airstrikes in Syria put a spotlight on the shady terrorist group known as Khorasan, a small but potent Al Qaeda offshoot whose sole objective is pulling off another 9/11 terror attack.
The 50 or so fighters hardened from battle in Afghanistan and Pakistan were dispatched to Syria by Al Qaeda leader Ayman Al-Zawahiri not to topple Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad or help the Islamic State establish a caliphate, but to recruit foreign fighters and send them home to kill. With thousands of fighters from Europe and the U.S. drawn to Syria’s bloody civil war, Khorasan’s recruiters have a surplus of passport-ready jihadists to choose from.
“Their focus is recruiting those that hold Western passports so they can attack Western airliners,” said Ryan Mauro, national security analyst and adjunct professor of homeland security at the Clarion Project. “Since Al Qaeda is looking like a bunch of has-beens, an attack on Western airliners would be a way of restoring their credibility.
“It's the jihadist equivalent of an old rock band launching a comeback tour,” he added.
The group takes its name from a Middle Eastern region that jihadists believe will be host to a final war that brings about the appearance of the Mahdi, the messianic “End Times” figure of Islam,” according to Mauro.
In Syria, Khorasan is believed to have set up training camps where recruits practiced with explosives and were instructed on plots to commit terrorist attacks in the West. Intelligence experts have long warned that the greatest danger posed to the West are its own radicalized jihadists, returning home from battle in the Middle East.
On Tuesday, coalition bombers attacked around Idlib and Aleppo after intelligence showed Khorasan’s plots were ripening. Officials expressed confidence that the bombings damaged the group, but could not say the threat was eliminated.
Aligned with the jihadist group Al Nusra, also an offshoot of Al Qaeda, Khorasan has clashed with Islamic State. While they may be fighting for the allegiance of Western jihadists, their fight is mainly part of the larger rift between Islamic State and Al Qaeda. While experts say the two groups are vying for dominance in international terrorism, the organizations paint the split as spiritual.
"Al Qaeda, including Jabhat al-Nusra and Khorasan, deviated from the rightful course," Islamic State spokesman Mohammed al-Adnani recently declared. "It is not a dispute about who to kill or who to give your allegiance. It is a question of religious practices being distorted and an approach veering off the right path."
Khorasan’s leader is Muhsin al-Fadhli, a Kuwaiti well-versed in launching attacks on the Western world. Previous reports have emphasized Al Fadhli’s expertise and obsession with executing terror attacks in Western countries, targeting trains and airplanes in particular.
Reports that Al Fadhli was killed in the bombing raid could not be confirmed, but sources said his death would be a crippling blow to Khorasan. At just 33, he has long been seen as a top commander in Al Qaeda. As a 19-year-old jihadist, he is believed to have been one of the few to know in advance of the 9/11 plot. According to the UN, he went on to fight against Russian forces in Chechnya, where he trained in the use of firearms, anti-aircraft guns and explosives.
Al Fadhli is known to have headed up an Iranian Al Qaeda cell, and to have established a terrorist network in his native Kuwait, where he served jail time for helping to finance a terrorist organization.
In recent years, Al Fadhli and Khorasan have worked with the Yemeni bomb maker Ibrahim al-Asiri, a member of Al Qaeda in the Arab Peninsula and the explosives expert who made the underwear bomb used by Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab in a failed airliner attack in 2009. He also designed ink cartridge bombs that were used in another failed plot to blow up UPS planes.
It’s these repeated attempts to attack the West by this shadowy group that has most alarmed U.S. officials.
“The group’s repeated efforts to conceal explosive devices to destroy aircraft demonstrate its continued pursuits of high-profile attacks against the West,” said Nicholas Rasmussen, deputy director of the National Counterterrorism Center, adding that Khorasan’s “increasing awareness of Western security procedures and its efforts to adapt to those procedures” make it particularly dangerous.
Just last week, U.S. Director of National Intelligence James Clapper said the group is a threat to people and facilities on U.S. soil.
“In terms of threat to the homeland, Khorasan may pose as much of a danger as the Islamic State,” Clapper said.