In late June, the U.S. military and the U.S. intelligence community had concluded that a shadowy network of al Qaeda veterans in Syria were planning to attack airliners flying to the United States.
Within the American government, the threat was considered serious enough that the U.S. Joint Special Operations Command—the Pentagon’s elite hunter-killers—prepared detailed targeting packages for the group, with the specific locations of the group’s leaders. But those plans never made it to the White House, according to senior U.S. intelligence and Pentagon leaders.
“There was sufficient targeting information on these guys in June,” said one senior U.S. intelligence official. “It was good information on who, what, and where and there was an acknowledgment of this at the highest levels.”
The new disclosure that Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC) had prepared target packages against al Qaeda’s cell comes as some critics on the left and right have questioned whether the White House invented the threat from the so-called “Khorasan Group” in order to justify airstrikes that began in September against al Qaeda and ISIS targets in Syria. Skepticism has also mounted because U.S. officials have walked back claims in the last week that the strikes on the Khorasan Group were an attempt to disrupt an imminent threat.
Jenan Moussa of Al-Aan Television this week reported that the Khorasan Group was actually an elite unit within al Qaeda’s Syrian franchise, which has been focused on its fight inside the country. Other U.S. officials tell The Daily Beast that the group is composed of senior al Qaeda planners focused on attacking the West.
Senior and mid-level U.S. intelligence and defense officials who have tracked the threat tell The Daily Beast that the alarm raised about the Khorasan Group came from within the intelligence community and particularly from the U.S. military’s special operations task forces that monitor al Qaeda and the Levant. “The senior leadership in the military didn’t want to ask the question when they knew the answer would be ‘no,’” said the senior U.S. intelligence official quoted earlier about why the targeting packages were not sent to the White House in June.
It’s true that inside the U.S. government the teams of analysts and operators that track terrorist leaders are often the strongest advocates for going after their targets. But in this case, the broader U.S. intelligence community was frustrated with a White House that had ruled out any kind of Syrian intervention. It’s easy to see why many spies and military officers were left with this impression. In late June and early July, President Obama had not even authorized airstrikes in Iraq even though the Iraqi government had asked him for those strikes. While the White House did approve in early July an attempted rescue mission to save Western journalists captured by ISIS, there was no expectation that the president was even close to authorizing lethal strikes against a terrorist network that no U.S. officials had even spoken about yet in public.
Nonetheless, by late June the threat from the Khorasan Group was considered real. Three U.S. intelligence officials told The Daily Beast that a warning to airlines from the Transportation Safety Administration (TSA) issued on July 2 to improve screening of passengers on direct flights to the United States was a response to the perceived threat from the Khorasan Group. At the time, The New York Times reported the warning was in response to a threat from al Qaeda’s franchise based in Yemen, whose bomb maker Ibrahim Hassan al-Asiri specializes in the hard-to-detect bombs suspected to be an element of the Khorasan Group's attack plan.
The public warnings to airlines, according to these sources, prompted the Khorasan Group to go dark and change their communications. As The Daily Beast reported last week, the plot from the summer was believed to target commercial airliners with non-metallic bombs. One House member reached by The Daily Beast this week said the U.S. intelligence briefers told lawmakers that the plot that prompted the TSA warning in July was the same threat used to justify the airstrikes last week.
The White House declined to comment for this piece on the record. But one senior White House official said it received no target packages on the Khorasan Group in June. “The one time the White House received a recommendation to strike a Khorasan target in Syria, the President authorized that strike,” this official said.
After last week’s airstrike, Jihadist websites reported that two of the group’s leaders, Muhsin al-Fadhli and Abu Yousef al-Turki, were killed. But thus far the U.S. military and the intelligence community have not been able to confirm this.
One problem for the U.S. intelligence community is that it has no American intelligence officers on the ground in Syria to assess the areas where U.S. missiles hit, according to two intelligence officials. Instead, these officials say, the U.S. must rely on Jordanian assets and Kurdish fighters in Syria for on the ground information.
Some U.S. intelligence officials also suspect deception. “This could be false information from these Jihadist web forums,” a senior U.S. defense official said. “We don’t have people on the ground, so it’s hard to know.”
If true, this would not be the first time a suspected target of U.S. airstrikes faked his own death. In 2009, al Qaeda senior military planner Ilyas Kashmiri gave an interview to the Asia Times only a few weeks after the CIA had concluded he was killed in a drone strike in Pakistan. U.S. drones finally caught up to Kashmiri in 2011.