Airstrikes did not end threat from Syrian terror cell

Last month’s barrage of U.S. cruise missiles aimed at a Syrian terrorist cell killed just one or two key militants, according to American intelligence officials who say the group of veteran al-Qaida fighters is still believed to be plotting attacks against U.S. and European targets.

The strikes on a compound near Aleppo did not deal a crippling blow to the Khorasan Group, officials said, partly because many important members had scattered amid news reports highlighting their activities. Among those who survived is a French-born jihadi who fought in Afghanistan with a military prowess that is of great concern to U.S. intelligence officials now.

“The strikes were certainly effective in setting back the Khorasan Group, but no one thinks they were a permanent solution or a death blow to the threats that come from this cell,” said Rep. Adam Schiff, D-Calif., a member of the House Intelligence Committee.

On Sept. 22, the U.S. fired 46 cruise missiles at eight locations to target the group. At the same time, American airstrikes hit targets associated with the Islamic State group in Syria.

One of the U.S. missiles went awry and killed a dozen civilians in the village of Kfar Derian, according to Mohammed Abu Omar, an activist in the northern province of Idlib. The U.S. military says it has not confirmed any civilian casualties.

The limited effectiveness of the attack on the Khorasan Group is partly the result of a hazy intelligence picture that also has bedeviled the air campaign against Islamic State targets in Syria and Iraq.

The U.S. lacks the networks of bases, spies and ground-based technology it had in place during the height of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, officials say, or even the network of human sources it developed in Pakistan and Yemen.

The existence of the Khorasan Group became public only weeks before the airstrikes, but U.S. officials had been tracking it for up to two years. Officials said the group has a few dozen al-Qaida members, some of whom are long-sought militants of the fighting in Afghanistan and Pakistan. They are working closely with Syria’s al-Qaida-linked Nusra Front, officials said.

The several current and former U.S. officials spoke on condition of anonymity. Khorasan is a historical reference to a region that included parts of Iran and Afghanistan.

In public, U.S. officials have offered seemingly contradictory assessments of the attacks on the Khorasan Group.

Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said the strikes disrupted the group’s plotting, but he did not know for how long. FBI Director James Comey said he believed the plots had not been disrupted and that the group remains a threat to the U.S. Other intelligence officials embraced Comey’s view.

Unlike the Nusra Front, which is trying to topple Syrian President Bashar Assad, the Khorasan Group is focused chiefly on carrying out an attack against the West, officials say. The group is said to have been trying to recruit Europeans and Americans whose passports allow them to board a U.S.-bound airliner with less scrutiny.