Middle East

Syria conflict: US strike 'kills Khorasan Group leader'

Muhsin al-Fadhli Image copyright Reuters
Image caption The US had offered a large reward for information leading to al-Fadhli's capture or death

The United States says it has killed a senior al-Qaeda militant in an air strike in north-western Syria.

A Pentagon statement said Muhsin al-Fadhli was targeted two weeks ago while travelling in a vehicle near Sarmada.

It described Fadhli as the leader of a network of veteran al-Qaeda operatives, known as the "Khorasan Group", who were allegedly plotting external attacks against the US and its allies.

The Kuwaiti was also reported to have been killed in a US strike last year.

Fadhli was a confidant of Osama Bin Laden and one of the few al-Qaeda members to receive advanced warning of the 11 September 2001 attacks, according to the US.

Reward

Shortly before the US began air strikes on Islamic State (IS) across Syria in September, cruise missiles struck two areas near the northern city of Aleppo. The targets were not IS positions, but buildings allegedly used by the Khorasan Group.

US officials said the shadowy organisation was made up of about 50 veteran militants from Afghanistan and Pakistan, which jihadists refer to as Khorasan, as well as North Africa and Chechnya.

Image copyright BBC/SNAP

They had been sent to Syria by al-Qaeda's leader, Ayman al-Zawahiri, not to fight the government of President Bashar al-Assad but to "develop external attacks, construct and test improvised explosive devices and recruit Westerners to conduct operations", the officials claimed.

Fadhli, their alleged leader, was believed to have arrived in Syria in 2013 but kept a low profile.

In 2005, the US treasury department said Fadhli was based in the Gulf and had been providing support to al-Qaeda militants fighting US-led forces in Iraq under Abu Musab al-Zarqawi.

Seven years later, the state department offered a $7m (£4.5m; €6.4m) reward for information that led to the capture or killing of Fadhli, saying he had become the leader of al-Qaeda's network in Iran and was responsible for the movement of money and fighters for its operations in the region.

'Serious' blow

Reports on social media following September's missile strikes said Fadhli was among the dozens of militants who were killed, but they were not confirmed by US intelligence agencies.

On Tuesday night, Pentagon spokesman Capt Jeff Davis announced that they were now confident that the 34 year old had been killed "in a kinetic strike" on 8 July near Sarmada, only 7km (4 miles) from Syria's border with Turkey.

"His death will degrade and disrupt ongoing external operations of al-Qaeda against the United States and its allies and partners," he added.

Image copyright AFP
Image caption Al-Nusra Front and its supporters insist the Khorasan Group does not exist

Bruce Riedel, a former CIA analyst who is now at the Brookings Institution, meanwhile told the AFP news agency that Fadhli's death was a "serious but not fatal" blow to the jihadist network.

Before September's missile strikes, US intelligence reports indicated that the Khorasan Group was "in the final stages of plans to execute major attacks".

Classified US assessments said it was collaborating with bomb makers from the Yemen-based al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) to test ways to get explosives past airport security.

However, some opponents of the Syrian government expressed doubts about whether the Khorasan Group actually existed, saying the US created it to justify attacks on al-Qaeda's local affiliate, al-Nusra Front.

In May, al-Nusra leader Abu Mohammed al-Julani said in a TV interview that he had been ordered by al-Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri not to use Syria to launch attacks on the West. "There is nothing called Khorasan Group. The Americans came up with it to deceive the public," he insisted.

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