Leader of al Qaeda's Syria cell killed in US airstrike

  • AP, Washington
  • Updated: Jul 22, 2015 13:50 IST
Muhsin al-Fadhli is seen in an undated photo provided by the US state department in Washington, DC. A long-time al Qaeda operative and key figure in the Khorasan Group al-Fadhli, was killed in a US air strike while traveling in a vehicle near Sarmada, Syria. (Reuters)

A key figure who led a dangerous al Qaeda offshoot comprising militants sent from Pakistan to Syria has been killed in a US airstrike, the defense department said on Tuesday.

Muhsin al-Fadhli was killed in a July 8 air attack while traveling in a vehicle near Sarmada, Syria, Pentagon spokesperson captain Jeff Davis said in a statement.

Davis did not further elaborate on the nature of the air strike, such as whether al-Fadhli was killed by a drone or a piloted aircraft.

Al-Fadhli was a leader of the Khorasan Group, a cadre of al Qaeda operatives who were sent from Pakistan to Syria to plot attacks on the West. Officials say the Khorasan Group is embedded in the al Nusra front, Syria's al Qaeda affiliate.

Previously based in Iran, al-Fadhli was the subject of a $7 million reward by the state department for information leading to his capture or death. He had been falsely reported as having been killed last fall.

Davis noted that he was "among the few trusted al Qaeda leaders that received advanced notification of the Septemberr 11, 2001, attacks."

Al-Fadhli was also involved in October 2002 attacks against US Marines on Faylaka Island in Kuwait and on the French ship MV Limburg, Davis said.

"His death will degrade and disrupt ongoing external operations of al Qaeda against the United States and our allies and partners."

Officials have said that the Khorasan militants were sent to Syria by al Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri to recruit Europeans and Americans whose passports allow them to board a US-bound airliner with less scrutiny from security officials.

According to classified US intelligence assessments, the Khorasan militants have been working with bomb-makers from al-Qaida'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 US-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 US that originated in Europe and the Middle East.

The Khorasan group remains a threat, American officials said. Its existence demonstrates that core al Qaeda in Pakistan can still threaten the West, despite the damage done to that organization by years of drone missile strikes.

"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 al-Fadhli will not be easily replaced.

The US military has periodically targeted the group as part of its air campaign in Syria, beginning with eight strikes against Khorasan targets last September.

Among those who have so far survived the bombs is a French-born jihadist who fought in Afghanistan with a military prowess that is of great concern to US intelligence officials.

David Drugeon, who was born in the Brittany region and converted to Islam as a youth, spent time with al Qaeda in the tribal areas of Pakistan before traveling to Syria, French officials say.

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