WASHINGTON — A U.S. military drone strike in northwest Syria has killed Muhsin al-Fadhli, the head of a shadowy cell of veteran al-Qaida operatives known as the Khorasan Group that sought to attack Western targets, Pentagon officials said.

WASHINGTON — A U.S. military drone strike in northwest Syria has killed Muhsin al-Fadhli, the head of a shadowy cell of veteran al-Qaida operatives known as the Khorasan Group that sought to attack Western targets, Pentagon officials said.


The 34-year-old Kuwaiti’s vehicle was hit July 8 as it traveled near the Turkish border in the Syrian town of Sarmada.


Al-Fadhli reportedly had long-term relationships with top-ranking al-Qaida leaders, including Ayman al-Zawahri, the Egyptian who took over the terrorist network after Navy SEALs killed Osama bin Laden in Pakistan in 2011.


"He was a senior al-Qaida facilitator who was among the few trusted al-Qaida leaders that received advanced notification of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks," Pentagon spokesman Capt. Jeff Davis said in a statement.


"His death will degrade and disrupt ongoing external operations of al-Qaida against the United States and our allies and partners."


CIA and military analysts had tried to track al-Fadhli’s movements since he allegedly took part in the 2002 attack on the French ship MV Limburg. The assault killed one crew member, injured four others and released thousands of barrels of oil into the Gulf of Aden off Yemen.


Al-Fadhli, a former teenage Taliban fighter in Afghanistan, rose steadily through al-Qaida’s ranks.


In 2012, he was identified as head of the network’s operations in Iran. He wore a close-cropped beard and a thin black mustache in one of the FBI’s few photographs of him.


A year later, al-Fadhli traveled to Syria to become a senior member of the Nusra Front, al-Qaida’s affiliate there. The group is among several rebel groups in the country’s bloody civil war.


But the officials said al-Fadhli was sent to Syria with other al-Qaida operatives from Yemen, Pakistan and Afghanistan specifically to recruit foreign fighters from America and Europe. They hoped to send them home to carry out lethal attacks, intelligence reports said.


Al-Fadhli’s faction became known as the Khorasan Group, a name derived from an ancient Persian word that means the "land where the sun rises." The group is also named after an eighth-century province in an early Islamic caliphate that spanned what is now northern Iran and part of Afghanistan.


U.S. intelligence officials warned that al-Qaida, which had suffered heavy losses to drones and counterterrorism operations, was intensifying efforts to launch attacks on Western targets as the Obama administration and its allies focused on the emerging threat from Islamic State, a rival group.


Al-Fadhli brought in operatives from Yemen who had learned from a notorious al-Qaida bomb maker, Ibrahim Asiri. U.S. officials believe Asiri created the bomb that a Nigerian passenger unsuccessfully sought to detonate aboard a Northwest Airlines plane over Detroit on Christmas Day in 2009.


Intelligence analysts feared al-Fadhli and the Khorasan Group were getting closer to being able to execute a terrorist attack on a passenger jet by concealing explosives in clothing or cellphones.


The Obama administration specifically targeted al-Fadhli and others in the group last September when the Pentagon launched airstrikes against Islamic State militants and positions in northwestern Syria.


At the time, U.S. intelligence officials believed they had killed al-Fadhli.


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