Washington: A new terror group called Khorasan led by a shadowy figure who was once among Osama bin Laden's inner circle, posed a more direct threat to the US and Europe, American officials have warned.
Khorasan had emerged in the past year as the cell in Syria that may be the most intent on hitting the United States or its installations overseas with a terror attack, intelligence and law enforcement officials said as the United States begins what could be a lengthy military campaign against the dreaded Islamic State militants in Iraq and Syria.
The group is led by Muhsin al-Fadhli, a 33-year-old senior Qaeda operative who, according to the State Department, was so close to Bin Laden that he was among a small group of people who knew about the September 11, 2001, attacks in the US before they were launched, The New York Times quoted the officials as saying.
There is almost no public information about the Khorasan group, which was described by several intelligence, law enforcement and military officials as being made up of Qaeda operatives from across the Middle East, South Asia and North Africa, the report said.
Members of the cell are said to be particularly interested in devising terror plots using concealed explosives. It is unclear who, besides Fadhli, is part of the Khorasan group, it said.
The director of national intelligence, James Clapper, said on Thursday that "in terms of threat to the homeland, Khorasan may pose as much of a danger as the Islamic State."
Some American officials and national security experts said the intense focus on the Islamic State had distorted the picture of the terrorism threat that has emerged from the chaos of Syria's civil war, and that the more immediate threats still come from traditional terror groups like Khorasan and the Nusra Front, which is al Qaeda's designated affiliate in Syria.
Fadhli has been tracked by American intelligence agencies for at least a decade. According to the State Department, before Fadhli arrived in Syria, he had been living in Iran as part of a small group of Qaeda operatives who had fled to the country from Afghanistan after the 9/11 attacks.
Iran's government said the group was living under house arrest, but the exact circumstances of the 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 Fadhli as Al Qaeda's leader in Iran, directing "the movement of funds and operatives" through the country. A USD 7 million reward was offered for information leading to his capture. The same State Department release said he was working with wealthy "jihadist donors" in Kuwait, his native country, to raise money for Qaeda-allied rebels in Syria.
Fadhli had assisted terrorists who bombed a French oil tanker in 2002 off the coast of Yemen. That attack killed one person and spilled 50,000 barrels of oil.
Spokesmen for the CIA and the White House declined to comment for this article, the Times said.