When the Islamic State declared a caliphate in June, its leader, Abu Bakr Al Baghdadi, was lauded as a natural successor to Osama Bin Laden.
But for all the publicity surrounding Baghdadi, US intelligence officials were more interested in a one-time confidant of Bin Laden, a man they suspected was more committed to – and more capable of – launching attacks against Western targets.
So while the Islamic State was the public target of Tuesday’s aerial attack, the US also had in its crosshairs Muhsin al-Fadhli, the leader of a little known terror cell – and al-Qaeda offshoot – called the Khorasan.
The 33-year-old al-Fadhli has long been highly thought of within al-Qaeda ranks. At the age of 20, he was reportedly so close to Bin Laden he was one of the few people to know of the 9-11 attacks in advance.
The Arab Times newspaper has reported that al-Fadhli “recruits European Muslims to join the jihad in Syria and trains them on how to execute terror operations in the Western countries, focusing mostly on means of public transportation such as trains and airplanes”.
The Tunisian-born terrorist is one of the US government’s most wanted men. In October 2012 it offered a $US7 million ($7.9 million) reward for information that leads to his death or capture.
Some experts believed al-Fahdli was personally dispatched to Syria by Ayman al Zawahiri, bin Laden’s successor as head of al-Qaeda, with the purpose of recruiting foreign fighters who could return to their homelands to stage attacks. Hundreds of Americans and Western Europeans have gone to Syria to fight for al-Nusra, the Islamic State and other Islamist groups.
al-Fadhli has been tracked by US intelligence agencies for at least a decade. According to the State Department, before al-Fadhli arrived in Syria, he had been living in Iran as part of a small group of al-Qaeda operatives who had fled to the country from Afghanistan after the September 11 attacks. Iran’s government said the group was living under house arrest, but the exact circumstances of the al-Qaeda operatives were disputed for years, and many members of the group ultimately left Iran for Pakistan, Syria and other countries.
In 2012, the State Department identified al-Fadhli as al-Qaeda’s leader in Iran, directing “the movement of funds and operatives” through the country. They said he was working with wealthy “jihadist donors” in Kuwait, his native country, to raise money for al-Qaeda-allied rebels in Syria.
In a speech in Brussels in 2005, President George W Bush referred to al-Fadhli as he thanked European countries for their counterterrorism assistance, noting that al-Fadhli had assisted terrorists who bombed a French oil tanker in 2002 off the coast of Yemen. That attack killed one and spilled 50,000 barrels of oil that stretched across 60 kilometres of coastline.
There are reports that al-Fadhli may have been killed in the air strikes.
US officials said they were not certain if he had been killed, but Twitter accounts associated with jihadi groups said that he and another Khorasan leader, Abu Yusef al-Turki, had died in the airstrikes.
One Twitter user said that by killing al-Fadhli, the US had “presented him a great wish and a most honorable gift” of martyrdom, according to the SITE Intelligence Group, which monitors militant groups’ social media postings.
US politicians and terrorism experts said that even if al-Fadhli had been killed, it would not necessarily derail the group’s ambitions.
“Fadhli is certainly one of the most capable of the al-Qaeda core members,” said Representatibe Adam B Schiff, who is on the US House Intelligence Committee. “His loss would be significant, but as we’ve seen before, any decapitation is only a short-term gain. The hydra will grow another head.”
New York Times, Telegraph, London