European counterterrorism specialists say their American counterparts never mentioned an imminent plot by al-Qaida operatives in Syria to attack Western targets and didn’t brief them on the group that’s supposedly behind the plan, a previously unknown terrorist unit that American officials have dubbed the Khorasan group.
The interviews with the specialists, from two European NATO allies with close intelligence ties to the United States, raise questions about why the United States used its first series of airstrikes on the Islamic State, also known as ISIS or ISIL, in Syria to also attack eight installations belonging to the Nusra Front, an al-Qaida affiliate that anti-government rebel groups consider an important ally in their fight to topple the government of Syrian President Bashar Assad.
U.S. officials didn’t use the word Nusra to identify the targets, instead saying the strikes in Idlib province, far from Islamic State-controlled territory, were aimed at the Khorasan group. But activists and other rebels in Syria identified the positions hit as belonging to Nusra and said 50 Nusra fighters were killed.
U.S. officials said the Khorasan group was composed of senior al-Qaida operatives who had been dispatched to Syria to plot attacks against the West. The officials said the strikes were intended to break up a plan for an imminent attack.
The White House declined Friday to expand on that description or say with whom the intelligence about the group had been shared.
“We, along with our foreign partners, have been watching this group over the past two years since many of its members arrived in Syria from Pakistan and Afghanistan, and we took action when their plotting reached an advanced stage,'” said Caitlyn Hayden, the spokeswoman for the National Security Council. “I’m not going to be able to discuss with whom intelligence was shared in this case.”
The European specialists, who meet regularly with U.S. officials on terrorism issues – particularly air travel and potential terrorist operations involving Western passport holders – said they were never specifically warned about such a group or such a plot. Such an omission, the specialists said, seemed unlikely if the plot were truly imminent.
“We obviously have had big concerns about the terror threat linked to the Syrian civil war from both ISIS and the other jihadist groups. We have had many briefings on Daash with other European allies because of the concern that some of our citizens will return from fighting abroad and conduct attacks here,” said one of the specialists, referring to the Islamic State by its Arabic nickname. “But we have not heard of this Khorasan group before.”
The second specialist, who works in military intelligence for a northern European country with very large numbers of its citizens fighting alongside the Islamic State, said he had been passed some intelligence from “our larger allies” about concerns that al-Qaida was planning operations from within Syria and was working to recruit passport holders from Europe and the United States. But he said he, too, had never seen or heard the name Khorasan.
“There are regular warnings about activity, and some of the recent warnings could be related to this sort of thing,” the second official said. “But no, there was not a warning or intelligence shared about a specific plot, and we’re trying to learn more.”