By Mark Hosenball and Susan Heavey
The United States said it conducted air strikes on Wednesday night against the so-called Khorasan group, an al Qaeda-linked militant faction based in Syria, and said the group was plotting to attack Europe or the United States.
Separately, one US official said a target of the strike was David Drugeon, a French-born militant and convert to Islam who some US officials say is a bomb maker for the group. US officials have not confirmed whether Drugeon was killed.
Officials also said they believed a leader of the Khorasan group, Muhsin al-Fadhli, who had been targeted in US strikes in Syria in September, was still alive. It was unclear whether al-Fadhli was a target of the latest US raid.
In a statement on Thursday, US Central Command said the latest strikes were carried out by the US military against five Khorasan targets near Sarmada in Idlib province, close to the Turkish border and west of the Syrian city of Aleppo.
“We are still assessing the outcome of the attack, but have initial indications that it resulted in the intended effects by striking terrorists destroying or severely damaging” several of the group’s vehicles and buildings as well as bomb making and training facilities, it said.
“We took decisive action to protect our interests and remove their capability to act,” it said, adding that al Qaeda militants “are taking advantage of the Syrian conflict to advance attacks against Western interests.”
“SKILLED AL QAEDA VETERANS”
US officials have described Khorasan as a grouping of skilled al Qaeda veterans who moved to Syria from the Afghanistan-Pakistan border and set up operations under the protection of Nusra Front, the main Syrian al Qaeda affiliate.
From strongholds in northwestern Syria, Nusra Front has fought militants in the Islamic State, another spin-off of al Qaeda which holds territory in Syria and Iraq and is considered a major threat in the area by Washington.
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a monitoring group, said a series of U.S. air strikes targeted Nusra Front in Idlib province, where last week the group pushed back Western-backed Syrian rebels. The Observatory said at least six Nusra militants had been killed.
There was no independent confirmation that this was an account of the same attack described by CENTCOM.
The Pentagon spokesman made clear Wednesday’s attacks were specifically aimed at Khorasan and not more broadly at Nusra Front.
“They were targeting the Khorasan group, and if a terrorist happened to be a member of both groups, so be it. But these targets were specifically against Khorasan group,” the spokesman said.
US officials have described Khorasan as a particularly menacing faction of militants who have been using their sanctuary in Syria to try to organize plots to attack U.S. and other Western targets, possibly including airliners.