As coalition forces launched the first wave of airstrikes against the militant Islamic State in Syria, the United States also launched a barrage of Tomahawk missiles at a small village outside of Aleppo. The goal of the strikes, Pentagon officials said Tuesday, was to cripple an al-Qaeda cell that may have been planning attacks against the United States.
Officials are now investigating reports that the strikes killed Mohsin al-Fadhli, a senior leader of the al-Qaeda cell known as the Khorasan Group.
"We believe he is dead,” one U.S. official who requested anonymity told Reuters.
Katherine Zimmerman, a senior analyst at American Enterprise Institute, told CBS News that al-Fadhli was among the most dangerous of al-Qaeda leaders.
“He is what I consider to be a core al-Qaeda member,” she said. “He was within that inner circle.”
It is believed that under al-Fadhli’s direction, the Khorasan Group was recruiting Western fighters who had traveled to Syria to join the Islamic State. The Washington Post reports that some believe the group was sent to the region by al-Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri because he thought the Western jihadists could escape closer scrutiny at airports. The recruitment was part of a plot to blow up planes abroad and possibly even in the United States, officials think.
Army Lt. Gen. William C. Mayville Jr., director of operations for the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told reporters that the group was in the “final stages of plans to execute major attacks against Western targets and potentially the U.S. homeland.”
“We believe the Khorasan Group was nearing the execution phase of an attack either in Europe” or the United States, Mayville added.
Last week, James R. Clapper Jr., the director of national intelligence, said he believed that “in terms of threat to the homeland, Khorasan may pose as much of a danger” as the Islamic State.
Reports indicate that al-Fadhli rose through the al-Qaeda ranks quickly. So quickly, in fact, that at age 20 he was among only a handful of Osama bin Laden’s associates to know about the plan for the Sept. 11 attacks in 2001. He later became a prime planner and fundraiser for the Khorasan cell.
Twitter accounts linked to known jihadists are claiming al-Fadhli was killed in the Tuesday attacks, but U.S. officials are taking their time before confirming the reports.
“We don't have personnel on the ground to verify, so we're continuing to assess,” Pentagon spokesman Col. Steve Warren said.