Qaeda Cell Leader Killed in Airstrike in Syria, Pentagon Says

WASHINGTON — A military airstrike in northwest Syria has killed the leader of a shadowy Qaeda cell that American officials say has been plotting attacks against the United States and Europe, the Pentagon announced on Sunday.

The leader, Sanafi al-Nasr, a Saudi citizen, was the highest-ranking leader of a network of about two dozen veteran Qaeda operatives called the Khorasan Group, and the fifth senior member of the group to be killed in the past four months. His death was announced in a Pentagon statement describing Thursday’s operation, which American officials said was a drone strike.

The American use of drones, as opposed to piloted aircraft, to carry out such strikes may reduce the stakes of any inadvertent confrontation with Russian planes over Syria. For nearly three weeks, Russia has carried out strikes in support of the embattled Syrian leader, Bashar al-Assad, including some that have killed American-trained Syrian rebels. But last week’s successful drone strike is not expected to resolve a continuing policy debate over the long-term success of targeting individual terrorist leaders.

The dead Khorasan leader, whose full name was Abdul Mohsen Abdallah Ibrahim al Charekh, was a longtime militant experienced in funneling money and fighters for Al Qaeda, said Peter Cook, the Pentagon press secretary.

The statement from Mr. Cook said Mr. Nasr had organized and maintained routes for new recruits to travel from Pakistan to Syria through Turkey, in addition to helping Al Qaeda’s external operations in the West. Mr. Nasr previously worked for Al Qaeda’s Iran-based facilitation network and, in 2012, he took charge of the group’s core finances before relocating to Syria in 2013.

In imposing terrorism sanctions on Mr. Nasr last year, the Treasury Department said he had raised money and facilitated travel to Syria for the Nusra Front, Al Qaeda’s affiliate in Syria.

“Al-Nasr is important as a financier for Al Qaeda with key connections in the Gulf states,” said Bruce O. Riedel, a former C.I.A. analyst who is now at the Brookings Institution.

Last week’s strike was another significant blow to the Khorasan network, American terrorism officials said. In early July, the group’s founding leader, Muhsin al-Fadhli, was killed while traveling in a vehicle near Sarmada, in northwestern Syria. Mr. Fadhli was a senior Qaeda operative who, according to the State Department, was so close to Osama bin Laden that he was among a small group of people who knew about the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks before they were launched.

Also in July, David Drugeon, a French citizen and an explosives expert for Khorasan, was killed in an allied airstrike near Aleppo, Syria.

As the United States has shifted its main counterterrorism focus to the Islamic State from Al Qaeda, intelligence officials say the Khorasan Group has emerged as the cell in Syria that may be the most intent on, and capable of, striking the United States or its Western allies with an organized terrorist attack.

Matthew G. Olsen, the former director of the National Counterterrorism Center, said the succession of strikes against Khorasan had significantly hurt its ability to plot attacks.

“It seem plausible that the deaths of so many of these guys in Syria over the past year has really degraded the Khorasan Group as a whole,” Mr. Olsen said. The American effort has also helped prevent Al Qaeda from taking advantage of the chaos in Syria to find space in which to operate, he said.

There is little public information about the Khorasan Group, which American officials say is made up of about two dozen seasoned Qaeda operatives from the Middle East, South Asia and North Africa who were sent to Syria by Ayman al-Zawahri, Al Qaeda’s leader who is believed to be in Pakistan. Embedded within the Nusra Front, the Khorasan operatives were to recruit Europeans and Americans whose passports allow them to travel on American-bound jetliners with less scrutiny from security officials.

Micah Zenko, a scholar at the Council on Foreign Relations, said experts inside and outside the government were divided over the long-term efficacy of a so-called decapitation strategy, in which a terrorist group’s leaders are killed.

“There’s a pretty vigorous debate within the security community about whether this works,” Mr. Zenko said. Some officials believe that the fear of strikes makes it harder for extremists to meet and communicate and that killing leaders means advancing less competent operatives.

But Mr. Zenko said he was among the skeptics. The decapitation approach, he said, really becomes a “recapitation” strategy because the targeted groups learn to anticipate the deaths of leaders and prepare deputies to succeed them. Any disruption tends to be temporary, he said.

He noted that American officials thought the coalition fighting the Islamic State extremists had killed about 20,000 fighters, but that estimates of the size of the existing fighting force had barely changed. “They’re just replenishing, either with recruits from within Syria and Iraq or with foreign fighters,” he said.

Some American officials believe, however, that as a small, specialized force specifically focused on attacks against the West, the Khorasan Group is more susceptible to disruption by strikes than either the Islamic State or the Nusra Front.


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