A top Al-Qaeda figure in Syria who was one of the few people with advance notification of the Sept. 11 attacks has been killed in a U.S. airstrike, the Pentagon said in a news release issued Tuesday.
Muhsin al-Fadhli, labeled a longtime Al-Qaeda operative, was killed in a strike on July 8 while traveling near Sarmada, Syria, officials said. He was the leader of the Khorasan group, a cadre of Al-Qaeda veterans hiding out in Syria and plotting attacks on the United States and its allies, according to the Pentagon.
“His death will degrade and disrupt ongoing external operations of Al-Qaeda against the United States,” Capt. Jeff Davis, a Pentagon spokesman, said in the news release.
Fadhli was “among the few trusted Al-Qaeda leaders that received advanced notification of the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks,” Davis said. He was also involved in the 2002 attacks against U.S. Marines in Kuwait and on the French ship MV Limburg, the Pentagon said. Previously based in Iran, Fadhli was the object of a $7 million reward by the U.S. State Department for information leading to his capture or death. He was falsely reported as killed last fall.
American officials say Fadhli and the rest of the Khorasan group are part of Jabhat Al-Nusra (the Nusra Front), Syria’s Al-Qaeda affiliate, which ranks among the most powerful rebel factions fighting Bashar al-Assad's regime. The U.S. has said Khorasan fighters were sent to Syria by Al-Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri to recruit Europeans and Americans whose passports allow them to board U.S.-bound planes with less scrutiny from security officials.
They have presented the group as evidence that the core of Al-Qaeda remaining in Pakistan can still threaten the West, despite the damage done to that organization by years of drone strikes. Since last year the U.S. military has periodically targeted the group as part of its air campaign in Syria, beginning with eight strikes against Khorasan targets in September, which came in conjunction with the onset of an aerial campaign against the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) across Syria and Iraq.
ISIL, which split from Al-Qaeda in 2013, is now one of the group’s chief rivals — competing for recruits, funding and, in Syria, territory.
Many analysts, however, have cast doubt on the U.S. government's characterization that the Khorasan group is separate from Jabhat Al-Nusra, which has earned the respect of many of Syria’s diverse and disjointed rebel factions for its military successes against the Assad regime and its willingness to work alongside other rebels (unlike ISIL, which is opposed by other Syrian rebels).
Aymenn Jawad al-Tamimi, a fellow at the Middle East Forum in Washinton, D.C, told Al Jazeera shortly after the first U.S. strikes on Khorasan that "the U.S. is using this distinction as a means to strike [Jabhat Al-Nusra], which fits in with a wider policy in the region of targeting Al-Qaeda affiliates with airstrikes while hoping to avoid alienating locals and other rebel groups who support or wish to work with Jabhat Al-Nusra."
The group is "not actually a separate group" but a contingent of Al-Qaeda members within Jabhat Al-Nusra that come from the Afghanistan-Pakistan border region, he said. Khorasan is a reference to a province under an ancient caliphate that once included parts of Afghanistan.
Jabhat Al-Nusra leader Abu Mohammed al-Jolani denied in an interview with Al Jazeera in May that the Khorasan group was real. “The so-called Khorasan group, supposedly active within our ranks, doesn’t exist,” Jolani said. “We first heard about it via the media after the U.S.-led coalition bombed us. It is merely a Western invention to justify the bombings on us.”
With The Associated Press. Michael Pizzi and Philip Victor contributed to this report.