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Al-Qaida's Syrian cell alarms US

Published:Sunday | September 14, 2014 | 12:00 AM
Fighters from the al-Qaida-linked Islamic State of Iraq marching in Raqqa, Syria. -File

WASHINGTON (AP):While the Islamic State group is getting the most attention now, another band of extremists in Syria — a mix of hardened jihadis from Afghanistan, Yemen, Syria and Europe — poses a more direct and imminent threat to the United States (US).

According to America, the group is working with Yemeni bomb makers to target US aviation.

At the centre is a cell known as the Khorasan group, a cadre of veteran al-Qaida fighters from Afghanistan and Pakistan who travelled to Syria to link up with the al-Qaida affiliate there, the Nusra Front.

But the Khorasan militants did not go to Syria principally to fight the government of President Bashar Assad, US officials say. Instead, they were sent by al-Qaida leader Ayman al-Zawahiri to recruit Europeans and Americans whose passports allow them to board a US-bound airliner with less scrutiny from security officials.

In addition, according to classified US intelligence assessments, the Khorasan militants have been working with bomb makers from al-Qaida's Yemen affiliate to test new ways to slip explosives past airport security. The fear is that the Khorasan militants will provide these sophisticated explosives to their Western recruits who could sneak them on to US-bound flights.

The Obama administration has said that the Islamic State group, the target of more than 150 US air strikes in recent weeks, does not pose an imminent threat to the continental US The Khorasan group, which has not been subject to American military action, is considered the more immediate threat.

Because of intelligence about the collaboration among the Khorasan group, al-Qaida's Yemeni bomb makers and Western extremists, US officials say, the Transportation Security Administration in July decided to ban uncharged mobile phones and laptops from flights to the US that originated in Europe and the Middle East.

"The group's repeated efforts to conceal explosive devices to destroy aircraft demonstrate its continued pursuit of high-profile attacks against the West, its increasing awareness of Western security procedures and its efforts to adapt to those procedures that we adopt," Nicholas Rasmussen, deputy director of the National Counter terrorism Centre, recently told a Senate panel.