The US decision to strike the Khorasan Group to stop a possible terror attack represents a significant expansion of the largely secret war against core Al Qaeda, a group President Barack Obama has proclaimed was "a shadow of its former self."
Administration officials said Tuesday they have been watching the Khorasan Group, an Al Qaeda cell in Syria, for years. But Obama had resisted taking military action in Syria to avoid inadvertently helping President Bashar Assad, a leader the US would like to see gone. That changed, officials said, because intelligence showed that the Khorasan Group was in the final stages of plotting attacks against the US and Europe, most likely an attempt to blow up an airplane in flight.
On the same night that US and Arab allies carried out more than 200 airstrikes against the Islamic State group in Syria and Iraq, the US on its own launched more than 20 Tomahawk cruise missiles and other ordinance against eight Khorasan Group targets near Aleppo in northwestern Syria, Pentagon officials said.
It's not clear yet whether the group's leader, identified by US officials as Muhsin al-Fadhli, was killed in the strikes. He is a Kuwaiti who spent time in Iran and has long been identified as a significant figure in Al Qaeda.
But regardless of the impact, the need for such an operation against the Khorasan Group dealt a blow to the notion, oft-repeated by Obama administration officials, that core Al Qaeda has been significantly diminished as a threat to the United States.
The Khorasan Group, after all, is made up of core Al Qaeda veterans.
"There are remnants of core Al Qaeda still left that are still a very potent threat," said Rep. Adam Schiff (D) of California, a member of the House Intelligence Committee.
"What this shows is that Al Qaeda has not been decimated," said Seth Jones, a counterterrorism analyst at the Rand Corp. "This is a network that spans multiple countries."
The attacks add Syria to a long list of nations in which the Obama administration has taken lethal action against Al Qaeda militants, including Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iraq, Yemen and Somalia.
The Islamic State has broken with Al Qaeda, and, for all its brutality, is not believed to be plotting attacks against the West.
In contrast, the Khorasan Group is a cell of Al Qaeda veterans of wars in Afghanistan and Pakistan who traveled to Syria to link up with the Nusra Front, the Al Qaeda affiliate there. US intelligence officials say the group has been working with bomb makers from Al Qaeda's Yemen affiliate to perfect explosives that can fool Western airport security measures, including, one official said, a bomb in a toothpaste tube.
The FBI and Homeland Security Department issued a security bulletin Tuesday that said there was no indication of advanced Al Qaeda or Islamic State group terror plotting inside the US, but the airstrikes in Syria may have temporarily disrupted attack planning against US or Western targets.
And in an interview with Yahoo News, Attorney General Eric Holder said, "We hit them last night out of a concern that they were getting close to an execution date of some of the plans that we have seen. And the hitting that we did last night, I think, will probably continue until we are at a stage where we think we have degraded their ability to get at our allies or to the homeland."
Because of intelligence about the collaboration among the Khorasan Group, Al Qaeda's Yemeni bomb-makers and Western extremists, US officials say, the Transportation Security Administration in July decided to ban uncharged mobile phones and laptops from flights to the US that originated in Europe and the Middle East.
Holder said those enhanced security measures were "based on concerns we had about what the Khorasan Group was planning to do."
Obama presided over a dramatic expansion of secret CIA drone strikes in Pakistan that dealt significant blows to Al Qaeda's leadership, and he ordered the raid that killed Osama bin Laden. He expanded the drone campaign to Yemen and Somalia, all under a veil of secrecy.
For a time, the drone campaign seemed to have shattered Al Qaeda. While Obama has been vocal about the threat from Al Qaeda's affiliates, he said in his 2013 State of the Union address that "the organization that attacked us on 9/11 is a shadow of its former self."
But the shadow was growing. Even as Obama spoke, some veteran Al Qaeda operatives had traveled from Pakistan to Syria, where officials say they linked up with the Nusra Front and began recruiting people from the West for attacks against the US and Europe. In early 2013, the CIA began developing "targeting packages" on militants in Syria — intelligence dossiers that could be used to target them for drone strikes.
In the end Obama opted to use the military, not the CIA, to attack the Khorasan Group, in keeping with his desire to move the CIA away from lethal drone strikes.
A senior administration official said the plan to strike the Khorasan Group "is something that has been on our radar for several months, and it is an action that we were contemplating separate and apart from" the airstrikes against Islamic State group positions in Syria.
Briefing reporters at the Pentagon on Tuesday, Lt. Gen. William Mayville, who directs operations for the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said the Khorasan Group was nearing "the execution phase of an attack either in Europe or the (US) homeland."
However, two S officials, speaking on condition of anonymity to discuss classified assessments, said there was no particular location or target that had come to the attention of US intelligence agencies.
In a memo released in February 2013, the Justice Department disclosed that in the view of government lawyers, "an 'imminent' threat of violent attack against the United States does not require ... clear evidence that a specific attack on US persons and interests will take place in the immediate future."
Another senior intelligence official said the group's "plotting had reached a more advanced stage."
The Associated Press first reported on Sept. 13 that US intelligence officials had identified the Khorasan Group as a top threat, in part because the group had been working with bomb makers from Al Qaeda's Yemen affiliate to test new explosive devices that could go undetected by Western airport security measures.
Briefing reporters on a conference call Tuesday, a senior Obama administration official confirmed that the group had been testing bombs at its Syrian camps.
"We were monitoring active plotting that posed an imminent threat to the United States and potentially our allies," one official said. "That was the united view of our intelligence community."