It’s a little-known Islamic extremist group with a deadly mission — sneaking explosives onto U.S.-bound flights. Fearing an attack was imminent, the U.S. expanded its airstrikes in Syria to include the Khorasan group, hoping to deliver a decisive blow before the al-Qaida-linked militants can turn their plans into action.
In recent weeks, U.S. officials have been telling journalists that the Khorasan group — a mix of hardened jihadis from Afghanistan, Yemen, Syria and Europe — poses a more direct and imminent threat to the United States than the Islamic State.
The Islamic State wants to establish a new caliphate in Muslim lands. The Khorosan group wants a new 9/11.
The group traveled to Syria to link up with the al-Qaida affiliate there, the Nusra Front, and has been working with Yemeni bomb-makers to target U.S. aviation, American officials say.
Unlike the Islamic State and other jihadi groups in Syria, the Khorasan militants did not go to Syria principally to fight the government of President Bashar Assad. Instead, U.S. officials say they were sent by al-Qaida leader Ayman al-Zawahiri to recruit Europeans and Americans whose passports allow them to board a U.S.-bound airliner with less scrutiny from security officials.
The website Long War Journal reported that the Khorasan group is reportedly led by 33-year-old Muhsin al-Fadhli, an experienced, Kuwaiti-born al-Qaida operative who has been involved in planning international terrorist attacks for years.
The Associated Press reported this month that classified U.S. intelligence assessments indicate Khorasan militants have been working with bomb-makers from al-Qaida’s Yemen affiliate to test new ways to slip explosives past airport security. The fear is that the Khorasan militants will provide these sophisticated explosives to their Western recruits who could sneak them onto U.S.-bound flights.
Because of those intelligence assessments, the AP said the Transportation Security Administration in July decided to ban uncharged mobile phones and laptops from flights to the U.S. that originated in Europe and the Middle East.
The Khorasan group’s plotting with al-Qaida’s Yemen affiliate shows that, despite the damage that years of drone missile strikes has done to the leadership of core al-Qaida in Pakistan, the movement still can threaten the West. It has been rejuvenated in the past year as al-Qaida offshoots have grown in strength and numbers, bolstered by a flood of Western extremists to a new terrorist safe haven created by Syria’s civil war.
That Yemen affiliate, al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula has been able to place three bombs on U.S.-bound airliners, though none has succeeded in downing the aircraft.
“The group’s repeated efforts to conceal explosive devices to destroy aircraft demonstrate its continued pursuit of high-profile attacks against the West, its increasing awareness of Western security procedures and its efforts to adapt to those procedures that we adopt,” Nicholas Rasmussen, deputy director of the National Counterterrorism Center, recently told a Senate panel.
James Clapper, the director of national intelligence, first disclosed during a Senate hearing in January that a group of core al-Qaida militants from Afghanistan and Pakistan was plotting attacks against the West in Syria.
But the group’s name, Khorasan, or its links to al-Qaida’s Yemen affiliate, which is considered the most dangerous terrorist threat to the U.S., had not previously been disclosed until the Syria airstrikes.
Khorasan refers to a province under the Islamic caliphate, or religious empire, of old that included parts of Afghanistan.
U.S. officials have identified some members of the Khorasan group, but would not disclose the individuals’ names because of concerns they would hide from intelligence-gathering.
Intelligence officials have been deeply concerned about dozens of Americans and hundreds of Europeans who have gone to fight for various jihadist groups in Syria. Some of those Westerners’ identities are unknown and therefore they are less likely to draw the attention of intelligence officials when they purchase tickets and board a crowded jetliner heading for European and American cities.
AQAP’s master bomb-maker, Ibrahim al-Asiri, is believed to have built the underwear bomb that Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab tried to detonate on a passenger jet over Detroit in December 2009.
Al-Asiri is also believed to have built two bombs hidden in printer cartridges placed on U.S.-bound cargo jets in 2010, and a body bomb that was acquired in a 2012 operation involving Saudi, British, and U.S. intelligence agencies.
U.S. intelligence suggests al-Asiri and his confederates are constantly trying to tweak their bomb designs so that the explosives can get past airport security and also detonate successfully.
The TSA ban on uncharged laptops and cellphones stemmed from information that al-Qaida was working with the Khorasan group to pack those devices with hard-to-detect explosives, a U.S. official said.