Jihadi social media: Khorasan Group leader Muhsin al-Fadhli killed in U.S. airstrikes in Syria

A brief but important follow-up to Ed’s item this morning. You probably don’t recognize the name in the headline; until recently, I didn’t either. In fact, the name of the Khorasan Group itself wasn’t leaked to the media until last week, although James Clapper had alluded months ago to unnamed AQ operatives inside Syria wanting to hit the U.S. from afar.

Turns out al-Fadhli has been on U.S. intel’s radar for a loooong time, though. And now he’s dead — maybe.

Among the Al Nusrah Front positions targeted in the bombings are locations where members of the so-called “Khorasan group” are thought to be located. Ayman al Zawahiri, the emir of al Qaeda, sent the group to Syria specifically to plan attacks against the US and its interests. The group, which takes its name from al Qaeda’s Khorasan shura (or advisory) council, is reportedly led by Muhsin al Fadhli, an experienced al Qaeda operative who has been involved in planning international terrorist attacks for years.

Al Fadhli’s presence in Syria was first reported by the Arab Times in March. Shortly thereafter, The Long War Journal confirmed and expanded on this reporting. [See LWJ report, Former head of al Qaeda’s network in Iran now operates in Syria.] The Long War Journal reported at the time that al Fadhli’s plans “were a significant cause for concern among counterterrorism authorities.”…

Unconfirmed reports on jihadist social media sites say that al Fadhli was killed in the bombings. Neither US officials, nor al Qaeda has verified this reporting. The fog of war often makes it difficult to quickly confirm whether an individual jihadist has been killed, wounded, or survived unscathed.

My knee-jerk reaction is that jihadis wouldn’t be touting a victory for America unless there was some truth to it, although I suppose the death rumors could just be a way to throw western spies off his trail while he slips out of the country. As for al-Fadhli’s significance, the NYT had a nice backgrounder on him a few days ago. He’s only 33 but was already so far up the Al Qaeda food chain as a teenager that he allegedly knew about the 9/11 attack in advance, one of only a few AQ capos who did. His specialty is fundraising and recruiting; Bush mentioned him by name in a speech nine years ago for his role in rounding up personnel for an attack on a French ship in 2002. Two years ago the State Department accused him of being the de facto leader of Al Qaeda’s chapter inside Iran and announced a $7 million reward for his capture. The latest on him was that he’d snuck into Syria and was using his safe haven in Nusra Front territory to recruit jihadis from western nations for terror operations back in their home countries. They’ve got U.S. and UK passports, after all; as long as they’re not on a terror watch list, they can waltz right through the airport after their flight home and head off to meet their contact.

Then again, maybe their flights home weren’t supposed to land.

The relatively tiny group’s potential threat to the U.S. homeland stemming from experiments with next-generation undetectable bombs — consisting of non-metallic components — made the massive airstrikes critically urgent to thwart a clear and present danger, several officials told ABC News.

“They are taking the knowledge of [Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula] AQAP’s master bombmaker and experimenting with their own designs for undetectable IEDs [Improvised Explosive Devices],” one senior counterterrorism official recently told ABC News regarding the Khorasan Group’s threat.

Two points about all of this. One: Richard Engel thinks the timing of last night’s strikes was all about the U.S. flexing muscle right before Obama heads to the UN to demand international support for the war on ISIS. Fair enough, but if I had to bet I’d bet that the timing had more to do with our intelligence on the Khorasan Group. They were the prime target in last night’s strikes, I’d guess, not ISIS. ISIS is a static element inside Syria in some ways — Raqqa is their capital, so if you want to send a message, you bomb Raqqa (which we did). The Khorasan Group is a small outfit (50 members or so, allegedly) and would have scattered if we had hit ISIS before targeting them. They had to be hit in the first wave. If you believe federal officials, the Group also presented a more urgent threat of terrorism against the U.S. than ISIS did, with the Pentagon’s spokesman using the, er, interesting phrase “imminent attack plotting” this morning. The reason so many American counterterror specialists started babbling to the media last week about the Khorasan Group, I assume, is because they felt the Group was close to acting and knew that the White House would be moving soon to hit them first. They needed to educate the public on who the Group was and why they were dangerous in order to avoid the otherwise inevitable question this morning of why we’re bombing the Nusra Front’s territory when we’re ostensibly waging war on ISIS.

Two: Even if al-Fadhli’s not dead, the Pentagon seems confident that a bunch of Khorasaners were eliminated last night. That’s … quite an intelligence coup. For the past three months, one of the sharpest criticisms of bombing Syria has been that our intel there isn’t very good. It’s exceptionally dangerous for spies to operate on the ground and, with so many different Sunni and Shiite jihadi outfits running around, it must be difficult even for people familiar with the battlefield to keep track of where potential targets are at a given moment. On top of all that, with reports trickling into the NYT lately about U.S. intelligence targeting the Khorasan Group, al-Fadhli et al. must have been taking countermeasures to stay out of harm’s way. And yet — we still got them, or at least some of them. How? Did some of those Syrian “moderates” infiltrate Nusra territory near Aleppo and figure out where the Group’s members were hiding out? That’d be an amazing feat for amateurs. Was it maybe Jordanian or Saudi intelligence who figured things out? Al-Fadhli might have been traceable based on the money that was flowing to his gang through the jihadi pipeline from friends in Kuwait and other Sunni countries. Or did Assad’s people give us a heads up on where the Khorasaners were? I’m not sure how Shiite sympathizers would be able to operate in Nusra country, but go figure that a regime that had eyes and ears everywhere before the war broke out might retain a few even in unlikely places afterward.