Pentagon Says It Killed Senior Khorasan Figure — Again

The United States says al Qaeda cell leader Muhsin al-Fadhli died in a "kinetic strike," but questions remain over his importance in the group.

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The Defense Department said Tuesday that the United States killed the leader of an al Qaeda offshoot in Syria earlier this month. But a top terrorism analyst believes there’s an even more powerful commander of the so-called Khorasan Group who must still be reckoned with.

The July 8 “kinetic strike” near Sarmada, close to Syria’s northwest border with Turkey, targeted a vehicle in which Muhsin al-Fadhli was riding, said Pentagon spokesman Capt. Jeff Davis on Tuesday. Fadhli, who has been reported as killed before, was “the leader of a network of veteran al Qaeda operatives” that is plotting attacks against the United States and its allies, Davis said in a statement.

The jihadi was one of only a few al Qaeda operatives who knew in advance of the 9/11 attacks and later was involved in two 2002 plots: a brazen drive-by shooting in Kuwait that killed a U.S. Marine during a training exercise and a deadly explosion on the French oil tanker MV Limburg off Yemen’s coast, Davis said.

Separately, Rep. Adam Schiff, the top Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee, called Fadhli “a veteran al Qaeda leader whose position will not easily be filled.”

But Schiff stopped short of identifying Fadhli as the top leader of the Khorasan Group, which is a wing of the al Qaeda-affiliated al-Nusra Front. The group is but one of several main Sunni extremist factions in Syria and has been battling for primacy against both Islamic State militants and the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.

Daveed Gartenstein-Ross, a terrorism expert at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, said that the Khorasan Group is so secretive that Fadhli’s exact position in the leadership structure remained unclear. “The information I have does not place him as the leader of the Khorasan Group, but rather the leader of their external operations wing,” Gartenstein-Ross told Foreign Policy, adding that Fadhli’s relative youth — he was reportedly 34 — made it unlikely that al Qaeda would place him in overall charge of the group. “It’s unlikely that he’s actually the emir of the organization,” Gartenstein-Ross said. “The actual leader … is Mohammed Islambouli, who’s a more veteran [jihadi].”

Fadhli’s death will probably not be a major long-term blow, Gartenstein-Ross said. “Organizations like the Khorasan Group tend to build in resiliency,” he said, and the group is likely to “have replacements waiting in the wings.” However, there are exceptions to that rule, he noted, citing the effect that the 2011 drone strike in Yemen, which killed American jihadi Anwar al-Awlaki, has had on al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula. While AQAP quickly replaced Awlaki, the Yemeni al Qaeda franchise “hasn’t gotten as inspirational a figure since,” Gartenstein-Ross said.

However, Gartenstein-Ross cautioned that the Khorasan Group’s secretive nature makes it impossible to predict the effect of Fadhli’s death with any certainty. “Within the world of clandestine actors, the Khorasan Group is particularly clandestine,” he said.

Made up largely of al Qaeda operatives who fled Afghanistan in late 2001 as the United States and its allies toppled the Taliban, the group has assiduously avoided publicity, Gartenstein-Ross said. In Syria, its personnel have split up and positioned themselves with other Islamist forces, he said. “It’s a distinct faction, but it’s not one that operates as a distinct armed group, but rather embeds with others.”

The strike that killed Fadhli is not the first time the United States has targeted the Khorasan Group in Syria. A September airstrike aimed at the group was also reported — incorrectly — to have killed Fadhli.

And some analysts have questioned the very existence of the Khorasan Group in the first place — as has the leader of al-Nusra Front, Abu Mohammed al-Jolani, who told Al Jazeera Arabic in May that Khorasan “doesn’t exist.” That raises a whole new level of doubt about whatever influence Fadhli may have had.

Photo credit: U.S. government

Seán D. Naylor is the author of Relentless Strike – The Secret History of Joint Special Operations Command. Twitter: @seandnaylor