White House: Al Qaeda strikes 'separate and apart' from those on ISIS

The Obama administration considers airstrikes against a band of al Qaeda-affiliated militants in Syria "separate and apart" from near-simultaneous ones on the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS), a senior administration official said Tuesday.

On Monday night, the U.S. launched airstrikes for the first time within Syria's borders. The U.S. planes, drones and Tomahawk missiles targeted both ISIS, the radical Sunni group that has captured large swaths of Iraq and Syria, and the Khorasan Group, a band of veteran al Qaeda operatives that had set up camp within the war-torn country.


The latter was a surprise to many Americans, with headlines and public White House statements focused almost exclusively on the threat posed by ISIS in recent weeks.

But according to officials, the administration has been watching the senior al Qaeda operatives "for many months."

Intelligence officials believed the Khorasan Group was "nearing the execution phase" of an "imminent" attack in Europe or the U.S. homeland. That plot included efforts to "actively recruit Westerners" who would "go back and blend in to their home countries," officials said.

Members of the group are "essentially the same cast of characters that we've had our eye on for many years," the official said.

With a "broad intelligence picture that pointed to the danger of the Khorasan Group," U.S. officials were considering strikes against the organization even if the administration wasn't yet ready to move against ISIS.

According to one Obama aide, the decision to strike ISIS targets near Raqqa "gave opportunity" for the U.S. to also bomb a Khorasan Group site west of Aleppo — an "action we were contemplating separate and apart from" ISIS.

"The president has been crystal clear we take action against terrorists who pose a threat to the United States," the official said, adding that was true "irrespective of borders."

A series of eight U.S. airstrikes hit the group's training camps, an explosive and munitions factory, a communications building, and command and control facilities, the Pentagon said Tuesday.

The White House said it had authority for the strikes stemming from the same authorization for use of force the administration has leaned on to hit al Qaeda groups in other countries, as well as ISIS.

"These are known operatives to us, rather than a new group appearing out of whole cloth," one official said. "This is more like, again, a group of people that we are concerned about seeking to exploit the safe haven in Syria to plot against us, and that’s why we took action we did."

Deputy national security adviser Ben Rhodes also suggested Tuesday the action was warranted because the Syrian government and the moderate opposition were "certainly unable" to engage the group on their own.