The U.S. launched airstrikes in Syria for the first time overnight. Much of the public discourse in the weeks leading up to the bombings focused on the Islamic State, a former branch of al Qaeda that has captured a significant amount territory across both Iraq and Syria. But the bombings are not just intended to weaken the Islamic State. U.S. bombers are also targeting positions controlled by Jabhat al Nusrah, al Qaeda’s official branch in Syria.
This is the right course for the Obama administration to pursue.
With its stunningly effective military tactics and mass killings, the Islamic State has garnered most of the headlines since earlier this year. The recorded beheadings of James Foley and Steven Sotloff played no small part in shaping the American public’s opinion that something must be done.
But Jabhat al Nusrah, which has been openly at odds with the Islamic State since last year, is also a threat.
Consider all of the following.
Al Qaeda operatives embedded within Jabhat al Nusrah are tasked with targeting the U.S. and Western interests. The Obama administration says they were plotting “imminent” attacks.
In recent days, U.S. officials openly worried about al Qaeda operatives, known as the “Khorasan group,” who had been dispatched to Syria by al Qaeda’s senior leaders to plan attacks against the West. The Khorasan group, which is named after al Qaeda’s Khorasan shura, or advisory, council is embedded within Jabhat al Nusrah.
A statement released by CENTCOM notes that the U.S. airstrikes in Syria targeted "a network of seasoned al Qaeda veterans - sometimes referred to as the Khorasan Group - who have established a safe haven in Syria to develop external attacks, construct and test improvised explosive devices and recruit Westerners to conduct operations." The strikes are intended "to disrupt the imminent attack plotting against the United States and Western interests."
In an interview with ABC News, Pentagon spokesperson Rear Admiral John Kirby said, "We had very good indications that this group, which is a very dangerous group, was plotting and planning imminent attacks against Western targets to include the U.S. homeland and it was on that basis that we struck targets, Khorasan targets inside Syria."
Kirby continued, "We believe that the individuals that were plotting and planning it have been eliminated and we’re going to continue... to assess the effectiveness of our strikes going through today."
“Core” al Qaeda members are part of Jabhat al Nusrah and the “Khorasan group.”
U.S. intelligence officials often claim that there is a “core” of al Qaeda that is supposedly confined to the geography of South Asia. “Core al Qaeda” is imprecisely defined. But, in general, when President Obama and U.S. officials use this term they are invoking the idea that this part of al Qaeda was the most worrisome, as it was responsible for the 9/11 attacks, and everything else in the jihadists’ world is necessarily less problematic. When President Obama speaks of “decimating” al Qaeda, he is referring to the idea of “core al Qaeda.”
This paradigm never fit the evidence. Core al Qaeda operatives are stationed in at least several countries, including Syria.
The head of the Khorasan group within Jabhat al Nusrah is a longtime al Qaeda operative known as Muhsin al Fadhli, who has been connected to international terrorist plots for more than a decade.