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U.S. Air Strike Kills Top Al-Qaeda Operative In Syria

  • RFE/RL

A longtime Al-Qaeda operative who plotted terrorists attacks against the West from a base in Syria was killed in a U.S. air strike two weeks ago, the Pentagon said July 21.

Muhsin al-Fadhli, who was among the most wanted terrorist suspects worldwide, was traveling in a vehicle on July 8 near Sarmada, Syria, west of Aleppo, when he was hit by an air strike, the Pentagon said.

Fadhli was involved in attacks in October 2002 against U.S. Marines on Faylaka Island in Kuwait, and against the French ship MV Limburg.

He "was a senior Al-Qaeda facilitator who was among the few trusted Al-Qaeda leaders that received advanced notification of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks," Navy Captain Jeff Davis, a Pentagon spokesman, said.

"He was the leader of a network of veteran Al-Qaeda operatives, sometimes called the Khorasan group, who are plotting external attacks against the United States and our allies and partners," Davis said, adding that "his death will degrade and disrupt ongoing external operations of Al-Qaeda."

Khorasan is a historical term for a geographical area encompassing Afghanistan, parts of Central Asia, and other neighboring countries, where Al-Qaeda's main council is thought to be hiding. The militants moved to Syria after the civil war erupted there and were believed to be aiding Al-Qaeda's Syrian affiliate, the Nusra Front.

U.S. 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 the United States and other Western targets, particularly airliners.

Khorasan militants were sent to Syria by Al-Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri to recruit Europeans and Americans whose passports allow them to board U.S. and European-bound airliners with less scrutiny from security officials.

According to classified U.S. intelligence assessments, the Khorasan militants have been working with bomb-makers from Al-Qaeda's Yemen affiliate to test new ways to slip explosives past airport security.

Officials feared the Khorasan militants would provide these sophisticated explosives to their Western recruits, who could sneak them onto U.S. and European-bound flights.

Because of intelligence about the collaboration among the Khorasan group, Al-Qaeda's Yemeni bomb-makers and Western extremists, the Transportation Security Administration decided last July to ban uncharged mobile phones and laptops from flights to the United States that originated in Europe and the Middle East.

"A seasoned, knowledgeable and dangerous terrorist who actively sought to harm the United States and its allies has been taken off the battlefield for good," said Rep. Adam Schiff, the top Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee, noting that Fadhli will not be easily replaced.

The United States had offered a $7 million reward for information leading to Fadhli's whereabouts in 2012 after he was suspected of facilitating the movement of funds and operatives through Iran for Al-Qaeda, according to the State Department.

Fadhli was a major facilitator to late militant Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, who once led Al-Qaeda in Iraq.

He was designated by the U.S. Treasury Department for providing financial and material support to Zarqawi's network and Al-Qaeda.

He had also been wanted by authorities in Saudi Arabia and Kuwait, among other countries, as he was involved in raising money for attacks in Yemen, Afghanistan, and Saudi Arabia.

More recently, he was involved in moving fighters and money through Turkey to Syria.

Fadhli, who was born in Kuwait, was targeted in a U.S. air strike in September 2014. At the time, fellow jihadists tweeted condolences over his death.

While U.S. officials believed he was killed at the time, they were never able to confirm that. Some were suspicious that Fadhli had decided to "fake his death and go underground," a suspicion that proved to be correct.

With reporting by Reuters, dpa, AP, and AFP