U.S. military forces attacked more than just the Islamic State in Syria on Monday night. President Obama confirmed in his brief remarks on Tuesday morning that he ordered airstrikes against a group of "seasoned al-Qaeda operatives" in Syria who have become known as the Khorasan Group.
In a statement describing the air assault, U.S. Central Command said the action was taken "to disrupt..."imminent attack plotting against the United States and Western interests."
Separately, the United States has also taken action to disrupt the imminent attack plotting against the United States and Western interests conducted by a network of seasoned al-Qa'ida veterans - sometimes referred to as the Khorasan Group - who have established a safe haven in Syria to develop external attacks, construct and test improvised explosive devices and recruit Westerners to conduct operations. These strikes were undertaken only by U.S. assets."
The military carried out eight strikes against the Khorasan Group west of Aleppo, compared to 14 that were launched against ISIS targets on the first day of the Syria campaign.
Obama said the airstrikes made clear that "we will not tolerate safe havens for terrorists who threaten our people."
That officials used the word "imminent" to describe the threat posed by the Khorasan Group is significant, because it suggests those terrorists are actually more of a danger to the U.S. homeland than ISIS. Obama and senior Cabinet members have said they have no indication that ISIS is intent on or capable of carrying out a terrorist attack inside the United States, although they have warned about foreign ISIS fighters carrying U.S. passports who could return.
Pentagon spokesman William Mayfield went a step further on Tuesday, telling reporters that the Khorasan Group was "nearing the execution phase of an attack either in Europe or on the homeland."
Asked if the airstrikes effectively quelled the threat, Mayfield said officials were still "assessing the effects of our strikes."
The New York Times reported Tuesday that U.S. officials had identified the Khorasan Group as the cell that "may be the most intent on hitting the United States or its installations overseas with a terror attack."
UPDATE: In a conference call with reporters conducted on the condition of anonymity, senior administration officials said the U.S. had been monitoring the Khorasan Group "for many months" and that enhanced airport security measures implemented earlier in the year had been done with them in mind.
One official described the terrorists in the Khorasan Group as "the same cast of characters" the U.S. had been tracking for over a decade, including former members of Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula and other fighters from Afghanistan, Pakistan, Yemen, Iraq, Iran and elsewhere in the region.
They were asked why Obama had ordered those strikes in Syria on the same night as the beginning of the campaign against ISIS there. Was it, in effect, an attempt to get two terrorist groups for the price of one? The administration officials said the U.S. was contemplating strikes against the Khorasan Group "separate and apart" from its attack on ISIS, but they acknowledged that the ISIS operation "provided an opportunity" to target the Khorasan Group as well.