RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:
One of the first targets of American airstrikes in Syria was an al-Qaida unit that U.S. officials have called the Khorasan Group. Even now, there are many questions about the organization, including why the public hadn't heard of it until just before the U.S. launched attacks.
Rebels on the ground in Syria say, they've never heard of it. Others claim it's just another name for what's known as core al-Qaida. That's the terrorist group that the Obama administration said was decimated years ago. NPR's counterterrorism correspondent Dina Temple-Raston explains how the Khorasan Group operates.
DINA TEMPLE-RASTON, BYLINE: For weeks now, the Pentagon has been having to field questions about Khorasan, including whether it even exists.
(SOUNDBITE OF PRESS CONFERENCE)
JOHN KIRBY: We've been watching this group for a long time. I can't account for the fact that it wasn't a household name in America or elsewhere around the world.
TEMPLE-RASTON: That's Pentagon spokesman Rear Adm. John Kirby in a press conference this week.
(SOUNDBITE OF PRESS CONFERENCE)
KIRBY: The notion that we would just, you know, make them up or fancify the threat that they pose, you know, to justify an alternate action is just absolutely ridiculous.
TEMPLE-RASTON: In fact, two intelligence officials confirmed to NPR that the U.S. military's joint special operations command felt that the Khorasan threat was serious enough to put together a target list in June. That list included the group's leaders who were embedded with other Islamist fighters near the Syrian city of Aleppo.
The mission didn't get very far because at the time, the White House wasn't ready to launch strikes in Syria or Iraq. Intelligence officials say that the concern was that the Khorasan Group might be able get hard-to-detect bombs onto airplanes. In response to that threat, the Transportation Safety Administration issued a warning in July for airlines to step up screening, and the Khorasan became a top priority.
BRUCE HOFFMAN: The real importance of the Khorasan Group is that it challenges the conventional wisdom that al-Qaida Core - the al-Qaida senior leadership has been so utterly degraded that they're inconsequential.
TEMPLE-RASTON: Bruce Hoffman is head of the security studies department at Georgetown University.
HOFFMAN: Its fundamental objective is a means to project al-Qaida's core power further afield than South Asia.
TEMPLE-RASTON: Al-Qaida Core - that's the original al-Qaida, based in Pakistan. Khorasan takes its marching orders directly from it, and that makes it different from al-Qaida affiliates, like the ones in Yemen or Somalia. Officials say, it's both a consultative body - something known in Arabic as a shura - as well as a forward operating base for al-Qaida Core to launch attacks. Khorasan is thought to be made up of between 40 to 60 key al-Qaida people, plus another 100 or so drivers, note-takers and others. Khorasan members are living - one U.S. official said, nesting - with al-Qaida Syria affiliate al-Nusra Front.
HOFFMAN: It's almost like the Taliban and al-Qaida before 2001.
TEMPLE-RASTON: Again, Georgetown's Bruce Hoffman.
HOFFMAN: Al-Qaida couldn't have existed in Afghanistan without the logistical support and the sanctuary that the Taliban provided them. That's exactly the role that the Nusra Front plays with the Khorasan Group.
TEMPLE-RASTON: Officials are getting a better sense of the group's leadership. The man widely reported to be the leader of the group - his name is Muhsin al-Fadhli - is actually the group's number three. He's in charge of external operations - launching attacks against the West.
Another key figure is thought to be an Egyptian. His name is Mohammed Islambouli. His brother's one of the Egyptian army officers who assassinated Anwar Sadat in 1981. Islambouli has helped plan airplane hijackings in the past. So Khorasan is more sophisticated than a simple al-Qaida affiliate. And officials and analysts say, it's helping Core al-Qaida to rebuild by convincing recruits to defect from other groups and join them instead.
DAVEED GARTENSTEIN-ROSS: I think al-Qaida's probably sees Syria and Iraq as being the key to this generation of jihadists.
TEMPLE-RASTON: Daveed Gartenstein-Ross studies terrorist radicalization at the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies.
GARTENSTEIN-ROSS: The number of foreign fighters who've been attracted to the battlefield is immense. The Syrian state is not going to be put back together. It's in the heart of the Middle East. And so it can be used as a launching pad to destabilize a large number of countries around there.
TEMPLE-RASTON: And breathe fresh life into Core al-Qaida. Dina Temple-Raston, NPR News.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.