JERUSALEM—An operation within al Qaeda has moved out of the shadows to take top place on the security threat list of Western countries.
The Khorasan group, an operation made up of veteran al Qaeda members, was spoken about publicly for the first time last week when James Clapper, director of U.S. national intelligence, referred to it in a talk at an intelligence conference in Washington.
That public reference opened the way to briefings by other intelligence sources about the organization, which is led by a band of hardened jihadis from Afghanistan and Pakistan. The group’s primary focus is said to be attacks on American and other Western aircraft, which has catapulted them to the forefront of Western concern.
Khorasan is part of the al Qaeda franchise in Yemen, which specializes in producing sophisticated devices intended to explode aboard aircraft, including explosive underwear and explosives in printer cartridges. All attempts to activate these devices have thus far failed.
Members of Khorasan have now linked up in Syria with the al Qaeda-affiliated Nusra Front, which is among the militias fighting the army of Syrian President Bashar Assad. However, American officials believe that they were sent by al Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri to Syria not to join in that fight but to attempt to recruit Europeans or Americans in the rebel camp. With their Western passports, such recruits, the militants believe, would find it easier to get by security at airports. While the identity of many of these Westerners is known, some are not known.
Western intelligence has known about Khorasan at least since January but there was no public mention of it for fear its members would go to ground and vanish from the intelligence radar if they were aware of scrutiny. The leader of the group, according to American officials, is Muhsin al-Fadhli, a former close associate of Osama bin Laden. Al-Fadhli, 33, has been known to Western intelligence for about 10 years and was until recently head of the al Qaeda branch in Iran.
The Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL or ISIS) has been touted as the most serious threat to the West among Islamic militant groups. However, officials say that the ISIL does not pose an imminent threat to continental United States while the threat from al Qaeda is more immediate. The organization has not yet been the target of American air strikes.
UPDATE 2:30 p.m.: This story has been updated to reflect correct information.