By Kristina Wong - 09/24/14 06:29 PM EDT
The Khorasan Group, an al Qaeda cell in northern Syrian, has gained attention after U.S. airstrikes Monday night targeted the militants.
The strikes, which came alongside U.S. missions against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS), hit Khorasan compounds, weapons manufacturing sites and training camps west of Aleppo.
Here are five important things to know about the Islamic militant group:
1) Officials believe the Khorasan Group poses a greater threat to the U.S. homeland than ISIS.
The Khorasan Group consists of veteran jihadists from Afghanistan and Pakistan with long combat experience and its leader was once part of Osama bin Laden’s inner circle.
The group was personally dispatched to Syria by al Qaeda's current leader, Ayman al-Zawahiri, to recruit foreign fighters for a bombing campaign against Western targets — including the U.S. homeland.
Unlike Jabhat al-Nusra, al Qaeda’s affiliate in Syria, the Khorasan Group is not focused on fighting Bashar Assad’s regime. It has established roots in Syria only to develop a safe haven to plan attacks against the West, Pentagon officials said.
Pentagon press secretary Rear Adm. John Kirby said the Khorasan Group had used its foothold in Syria to plan external attacks, construct and test improvised explosive devices and recruit Westerners to conduct operations.
Officials say the group has been working with other militant outfits who have the bomb-making experience to carry out such attacks, including al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula.
Some members of the Khorasan Group are also part of other al Qaeda cells, connecting the group to a global terror network, experts say.
Initially, that crossover led to confusion as counterterrorism experts debated whether the Khorasan Group was part of Jabhat al-Nusra.
Daveed Garterstein-Ross, a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, said embedding top leaders in other militant groups was common to al Qaeda.
“It’s within the M.O. of al Qaeda,” Garterstein-Ross said.
2) Officials claim the group was in the "final stages" of a Western bomb plot.
U.S. officials said the recent strikes against the group were undertaken to disrupt “imminent attack plotting” against the United States and Western targets.
"We hit them last night out of a concern that they were getting close to an execution date of some of the plans that we have seen," Attorney General Eric HolderEric H. HolderSenior House Republicans fighting for their lives Issa hits back at Obama over campaign mailer Podesta floated Bill Gates, Bloomberg as possible Clinton VPs MORE told Yahoo News on Tuesday.
According to media reports, the plots included carrying out a suicide bomb attack on a U.S.-bound flight using uncharged laptops and cellphones to hide the explosives.
The threat caused the U.S. to heighten security measures for overseas travelers in the summer, according to ABC News.
“We've been watching this group closely for sometime. We believe the Khorasan Group is — was nearing the execution phase of an attack either in Europe or the homeland,” said Army Lt. Gen. Bill Mayville, director of operations for the Joint Chief of Staff.
3) The group has been active for years.
Director of National Intelligence James Clapper acknowledged the Khorasan Group by name for the first time last week, but experts say it originated as early as 2009.
Experts say it appears to have started as the "Ittehad-e-Mujahedeen Khorasan," a secret and ruthlessly violent group formed around 2009 in northwest Pakistan. That unit consisted of many battle-hardened fighters from al Qaeda, the Pakistani Taliban and the Haqqani Network.
There are differing reports as to the size of the group that range from 100 to 2,000 members.
Its members reportedly wear black clothing, face-masks and headbands with green armbands, and often go barefoot.
The group is also believed to be the counterintelligence wing of a powerful Pakistani Taliban faction led by Hafiz Gul Bahadur.
Despite years of drone strikes in Pakistan, the group has been rejuvenated in the past year, bolstered by a flood of Western extremists to the safe haven created by Syria’s civil war, The Associated Press reported.
In January, Clapper first disclosed during a Senate hearing that a group of core al-Qaeda militants from Afghanistan and Pakistan was plotting attacks against the West in Syria, likely a reference to Khorasan.
4) U.S. airstrikes may have killed Khorasan’s leader.
U.S. officials believe strikes may killed the group’s leader in Syria, Mohsin al-Fadhli.
"We believe he is dead," an official told Reuters, speaking on condition of anonymity.
National security adviser Susan Rice said U.S. intelligence has seen reports on social media claiming al-Fadhli was killed, but they have not been independently verified.
Pentagon officials on Wednesday said the Khorasan leader’s death was not confirmed.
The Pentagon characterized the initial airstrikes as successful and effective, but said it was still assessing the effects of the strikes.
“It would be premature to comment on the effects we see. We need to do a little bit more study,” said Army Lt. Gen. Bill Mayville.
5) Its name refers to a jihadist prophecy.
“Khorasan” is the historical name of a region dating to the time of Prophet Muhammed that included Afghanistan and parts of modern-day Pakistan, Iran and Central Asia.
The name also has great symbolic meaning for jihadists. It refers to a prophecy that claims a jihadist army will rise from the land of Khorasan, holding the “Black Flags of Islam,” and conquer occupied lands of Muslims until it reaches Jerusalem.
That prophecy is especially important to al Qaeda, experts say.
The black flag has great symbolic meaning; it was the battle flag carried by Muhammed and his companions, and is used as a symbol of jihad and establishing an Islamic caliphate.