The Obama administration’s war on the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL or ISIS) included the first direct attack on traditional al Qaeda terrorists in Syria during airstrikes Monday. Officials said the strikes were aimed at heading off an imminent terror attack against the United States or Europe.
Senior Obama administration officials who briefed reporters on the Syrian airstrikes said an al Qaeda group known as Khorasan was attacked after intelligence reports indicated that it posed an imminent threat of attack.
The U.S. Central Command said eight bombing attacks were carried out against the group west of the northwestern Syrian city of Aleppo. They included attacks on training camps, an explosives and munitions production facility, a communications building and command and control facilities.
The missile strikes against Khorasan came along with strikes against some 14 targets related to the Islamic State—an ultra-violent offshoot of al Qaeda—in Syria. The strikes were conducted using fighter-bombers from bases in the region and from aircraft carriers, as well as cruise missiles launched from ships, and were mainly carried out by U.S. forces, with some participation by regional states.
The attack on the Khorasan group, made up of al Qaeda terrorists who migrated to Syria from Pakistan and Afghanistan and the local al Qaeda affiliate al-Nusra Front, highlights the role played by Syria as a new center for international terrorism.
"We have been monitoring over the course of many months the development of plotting against the United States and Western targets emanating from Syria," White House official Ben Rhodes said.
"So for some time now we've been tracking plots to conduct attacks in the United States or Europe," he said. "We believe that that attack plotting was imminent in that they had plans to conduct attacks external to Syria."
Because Syria’s government was not capable of taking action against the group, "in addition to the strikes against ISIL, we took action against the Khorasan group to disrupt that plotting against the United States and Western targets," Rhodes said.
Intelligence reports had indicated that al Qaeda was planning a major attack on the West as a way to direct attention back to its group following the June military incursion into Iraq by ISIL that gave new momentum to that Islamist terror group.
U.S. officials have said al Qaeda’s core group in Pakistan and Afghanistan have been moving steadily to Syria because that war-torn country had until Monday been off limits to U.S. airstrikes, and especially because Syria had been free of deadly unmanned aerial vehicle missile attacks on terrorist leaders.
The attack on Khorasan was taken after months of intelligence reports on the group. The administration used the strikes on ISIL as an opportunity to attack Khorasan and to disrupt its attack planning, officials said.
The Pentagon said the initial strikes in what is expected to be a lengthy military campaign did not seek to target individual leaders.
However, one official said the leader of Khorasan, Muhsin al-Fadhli, who was close to al Qaeda leader Osama bin Ladin, was targeted in Monday’s bombing raids.
Asked if Fadhli was killed in the raids, one official said "we don’t have confirmation on that leadership target."
A senior defense official said targets during the bombing raid included command and control facilities, infrastructure, and training and barracks facilities as well as ISIL resupply capabilities inside Syria.
"And frankly, the same could be said for some of the Khorasan targets as well," the official said of the targeting.
"We are still assessing [but] all the indications we have at this point are that these strikes have been very effective," the officials said.
Central Command said in a statement that the attacks included a mixture of fighters, bombers, remotely piloted aircraft, and Tomahawk cruise missiles used against the 14 ISIL targets in Ar Raqqah, Dayr az Zawr, al Hasakah, and Abu Kamal.
A total of 47 Tomahawks were fired from ships in the Red Sea and Persian Gulf. Bahrain, Jordan, Saudi Arabia and United Arab Emirates also took part in the airstrikes.