European counterterrorism specialists say their American counterparts never mentioned an imminent plot by al Qaida operatives in Syria to attack Western targets and didn’t brief them on the group that’s supposedly behind the plan, a previously unknown terrorist unit that American officials have dubbed the Khorasan group.
The interviews with the specialists, from two European NATO allies with close intelligence ties to the United States, raise questions about why the United States used its first series of airstrikes on the Islamic State, also known as ISIS or ISIL, in Syria to also attack eight installations belonging to the Nusra Front, an al Qaida affiliate that anti-government rebel groups consider an important ally in their fight to topple the government of Syrian President Bashar Assad.
U.S. officials didn’t use the word Nusra to identify the targets, instead saying the strikes in Idlib province, far from Islamic State-controlled territory, were aimed at the Khorasan group. But activists and other rebels in Syria identified the positions hit as belonging to Nusra and said 50 Nusra fighters were killed.
U.S. officials said the Khorasan group was composed of senior al Qaida operatives who’d been dispatched to Syria to plot attacks against the West. The officials said the strikes were intended to break up a plan for an imminent attack.
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The White House declined Friday to expand on that description or say with whom the intelligence about the group had been shared.
“We, along with our foreign partners, have been watching this group over the past two years since many of its members arrived in Syria from Pakistan and Afghanistan, and we took action when their plotting reached an advanced stage,” said Caitlyn Hayden, the spokeswoman for the National Security Council. “I’m not going to be able to discuss with whom intelligence was shared in this case.”
The European specialists, who meet regularly with U.S. officials on terrorism issues – particularly air travel and potential terrorist operations involving Western passport holders – said they were never specifically warned about such a group or such a plot. Such an omission, the specialists said, seemed unlikely if the plot were truly imminent.
“We obviously have had big concerns about the terror threat linked to the Syrian civil war from both ISIS and the other jihadist groups. We have had many briefings on Daash with other European allies because of the concern that some of our citizens will return from fighting abroad and conduct attacks here,” said one of the specialists, referring to the Islamic State by its Arabic nickname. “But we have not heard of this Khorasan group before.”
The second specialist, who works in military intelligence for a northern European country with very large numbers of its citizens fighting alongside the Islamic State, said he’d been passed some intelligence from “our larger allies” about concerns that al Qaida was planning operations from within Syria and was working to recruit passport holders from Europe and the United States. But he said he, too, had never seen or heard the name Khorasan.
“There are regular warnings about activity, and some of the recent warnings could be related to this sort of thing,” the second official said. “But no, there was not a warning or intelligence shared about a specific plot, and we’re trying to learn more.”
Both men work for the intelligence services of NATO countries that have offered military and humanitarian aid, as well as intelligence support, in the fight against the Islamic State but aren’t participating in airstrikes on the group in Syria or Iraq at this time. They spoke only on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitive nature of the topic.
One former U.S. official, cautioning that he had no direct knowledge about the current situation, said he found it odd that information about such a plot hadn’t been relayed to European allies, especially if the plot had advanced to the stage, as U.S. officials have suggested, of building an explosive device and finding someone to carry it.
“I’d be surprised if the Obama administration did not tell its European partners about a plot it considered imminent and possibly involved European citizens or points of transit,” said former State Department official Will McCants, who’s the director of the Brookings Institution’s Project on U.S. Relations with the Islamic World. “If our NATO partners were not notified, then how imminent could the plot be?”
Faysal Itani, a Syria specialist with the Washington-based Atlantic Council’s Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East, said U.S. officials had told him several months ago that “a bunch of guys had shown up from Af/Pak just to plan attacks,” referring to Afghanistan and Pakistan. But he said there were few details and no name for this contingent at the time.
“I wasn’t aware of anything called Khorasan,” Itani said.
He said U.S. officials might have wanted to shy away from using the Nusra name so as “to preserve a bit of room for maneuvering” with Syrian rebels, who view Nusra members as comrades against Assad, not as a global terrorist threat. In the wake of the attacks, rebel commanders sharply denounced the U.S. raids for including Nusra positions.
One U.S. intelligence official, who asked not to be identified because he doesn’t have permission to speak to reporters, said the decision to hit Khorasan was related in part to concern that recent news stories in the United States about the group might cause the terrorists to go more deeply underground. U.S. officials wanted to act while they had fresh intelligence on where the group’s members could be found, he said.
Tuesday’s strikes are thought to have killed Muhsin al Fadhli, a Kuwaiti national long associated with al Qaida’s core leadership who’s been described as a key member of the Khorasan group.
Both European intelligence specialists said that in spite of the questions surrounding the imminence of the strike, they weren’t concerned about whether the United States had acted appropriately.
“These guys are all al Qaida – they openly say so – so I don’t think the U.S. had to justify deciding to hit al Qaida guys at this stage,” the specialist from the northern European country said. “How far were they in a plot to kill Westerners? I’m not sure I care. Fadhli was a well-known al Qaida figure with a $7 million bounty on his head. I’m not sure I care what he was doing exactly when the bombs hit.”
Anita Kumar in Washington and Hannah Allam and Jonathan S. Landay in New York contributed to this report.