The U.S. ability to pinpoint with airstrikes the operational hubs of the al Qaeda offshoot Khorasan Group in Syria and penetrate one of its bombing plots shows the importance of the much-maligned National Security Agency, defense analysts said Tuesday.
The Khorasan Group is an especially hard target because, unlike other al Qaeda spinoffs, it stays in the shadows and refrains from pronouncements on social media. Its goal is to design explosives that can defeat airport security and blow up an airliner, killing hundreds of people. Its prime target: the United States.
“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,” Army Lt. Gen. William Mayville, director of operations of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told reporters Tuesday at the Pentagon.
Defense analysts said that signals intelligence or Sigint — the result of intercepted communications — likely played a major role because developing spies in war-wracked Syria has been difficult at best and often results in unreliable information.
The NSA has weathered a barrage of criticism since last year, when rogue contractor Edward Snowden leaked to the news media reams of top-secret documents about how the Fort Meade, Maryland-based agency vacuums up mountains of phone and Internet data.
But U.S. airstrikes on the shadowy Khorasan Group’s operational centers show that America cannot fight a war on terrorism without electronic eavesdropping, analysts said.
“Presumably, all available intelligence assets are being brought to bear on this mission, including signals intelligence, overhead reconnaissance and human intelligence [Humint],” said Steven Aftergood, a national security director at the Federation of American Scientists. “In the past, the kind of signals intelligence performed by NSA has been a strength for U.S. war fighters, while human sources have often been unreliable or hard to come by. In all likelihood, the same is true today.”
With unprecedented assistance from the Arab nations of Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Bahrain, Jordan and the United Arab Emirates, the U.S. conducted airstrikes Monday night against the Islamic State group and the Khorasan Group west of the Syrian city of Aleppo, hitting “training camps, an explosives and munitions production facility, a communication building, and command and control facilities,” according to a Pentagon statement.
The target list of U.S. Central Command suggests the U.S. came to know a lot about the Khorasan Group’s day-to-day activities.
Retired Army Maj. Gen. Robert Scales was impressed by the amount of intelligence the U.S. had collected in order to put Tomahawk cruise missiles on precise Khorasan locations.
“What’s important here is that, when we operate in a denied area like Syria, it’s pretty much all Sigint,” Gen. Scales said. “Over time, we will re-establish our Humint [spies] network, but that takes time and it’s infinitely harder.”
Recruiting spies inside the Khorasan Group or the Islamic State’s terrorist army is “infinitely harder. No one wants to do this. The price of failure is death,” he said.
The Khorasan Group is a cell of al Qaeda veterans of wars in Afghanistan and Pakistan who traveled to Syria to link up with the Nusra Front, the al Qaeda affiliate there. U.S. intelligence officials say the group has been working with bomb makers from al Qaeda’s Yemeni affiliate to perfect explosives that can fool Western airport security measures, including, one official said, a bomb in a toothpaste tube.
It’s not clear whether the group’s leader, identified by U.S. officials as Muhsin al-Fadhli, was killed in one of the strikes. He is a Kuwaiti who spent time in Iran and has long been identified as a significant figure in al Qaeda.
While the core leaders of the Khorasan Group may practice good operational security, analysts say, their recruits may not be as careful when communicating on cellphones, radios and the Internet.
U.S. officials have complained that Mr. Snowden’s disclosures on what NSA does and how it does it have proved to be a windfall to Islamic terrorist groups who plot to attack Americans abroad and in the homeland.
“So now we understand the real impact of Snowden,” Gen. Scales said. “Sigint is a very thin reed and relies on the ignorance of our enemies for success. So the more they know, the less effective we are.”
James Phillips, a Middle East analyst at the Heritage Foundation, said it’s a good bet that Jordanian intelligence provided some information. He said Saudi Arabian intelligence developed good information on another al Qaeda franchise, al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, which also focuses on attacking the U.S.
“It could have been an NSA intercept, but al Qaeda reportedly has taken steps to reduce its electronic vulnerabilities, thanks to information divulged by Snowden,” he said.
“I think the Khorasan Group is the latest organization built by the al Qaeda network for launching terrorist attacks at the U.S. homeland and other Western targets,” Mr. Phillips said. “It is a cell dispatched by al Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahri to Syria to recruit, train and deploy foreign fighters that have streamed into Syria and Iraq from Western countries and use them to attack Western targets.”
Retired Army Lt. Gen. William Boykin, the Pentagon’s second-ranking intelligence official in the George W. Bush administration, said the Khorasan Group is essentially the product of core al Qaeda and thus knows how to avoid the NSA.
“A Humint network is the critical intel link due in large measure to the fact that Snowden, et al., have revealed a lot of our Sigint capabilities,” he said. “That said, I think that Sigint has played a significant role in targeting this group. But I think that they were switched on to the Khorasan Group by a Humint source and then began to work their magic. NSA is very critical to a successful counterterrorism program in the U.S.”
Jordan, which has taken in more than 1 million refugees from Syria, participated in Monday night’s three-prong coalition attack.
“Jordan is the next major target for [the Islamic State], and [Jordanian] King Abdullah knows it,” Mr. Boykin said. “Their intel is very good on some things, and this is one of them. They have a great deal at stake, and they work the Humint hard. They likely have al Qaeda penetrated at some level.”
• Guy Taylor contributed to this article, which is based in part on wire service reports.
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