The U.S. launched eight airstrikes Monday night against a little-known, al-Qaida-affiliated militant group in Syria.
The United States Central Command said Tuesday morning that American forces hit the Khorasan Group near Aleppo to stop "imminent attack-planning against the United States and Western interests." At a Pentagon press briefing shortly after, defense officials explained just how imminent such an attack may have been.
"The intelligence reports indicated that the Khorasan Group was in the final stages of plans to execute major attacks against Western targets and potentially the U.S. homeland," said Lt. Gen. William Mayville, the director of operations for the Joint Chiefs of Staff.
U.S. strikes hit the group's "training camps, an explosives and munitions production facility, a communications building, and command and control facilities," according to a Pentagon statement released Tuesday morning.
Little is known about the Khorasan Group, which the Pentagon said has "established a safe haven in Syria to develop external attacks, construct and test improvised explosive devices, and recruit Westerners to conduct operations." As The Washington Post's Terrence McCoyexplained Tuesday:
Even now, it's unclear how many members Khorasan has, how long it's been in existence, or what its core message is. Its low profile provides a sharp contrast to the flamboyance of the Islamic State, which operates with an almost pathological desire for attention, publishing graphic-heavy magazines and flooding social media with images of carnage.
U.S. intelligence believes that the organization, which has deep ties with al-Qaida, poses a direct threat to the U.S., even more than ISIS does. In a brief statement Tuesday morning, President Obama called the group's members "seasoned al-Qaida operatives."
A senior administration official said Tuesday afternoon that Khorasan grew out of al-Qaida. "This is essentially the same cast of characters that we've had our eye on for many years," he said. The official said that, because of that connection, the 2001 Authorization of Military Force applies to strikes against the group.
The timing of tandem air strike missions, against ISIS and the Khorasan Group, was not planned, according to senior adminsitration officials. For the last several months, a senior administration official said, striking Khorasan "was an action that we were contemplating taking separate and apart from the growing threat" of ISIS.
"We might have been doing this anyway," an official said, adding that U.S. intelligence of a potential attack was the driving force behind the strikes against Khorasan.
White House Deputy National Security Adviser Ben Rhodes said Tuesday that the U.S. has had the Khorasan Group on its radar, according to press pool reports. "For some time, we've been tracking a plot to conduct attack in the United States," he said. "We believe that attack-planning was imminent."
The terrorist group, Rhodes continued, had "clear ambitions to launch external operations against the United States." "We see this very much as an extension of the threat posed by al-Qaida and their associated forces," he said.
Rhodes said that Syrian opposition forces alone are "certainly unable" to combat the threat of the Khorasan Group. American forces acted alone in their strikes against the group in Syria on Monday night. In their 14 strikes against the Islamic State in the same country, they had help from Bahrain, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and the United Arab Emirates.