The Defense Department announced today that Muhsin al Fadhli, a longtime al Qaeda operative from Kuwait, was killed on July 8 “in a kinetic strike” while “traveling in a vehicle near Sarmada, Syria.”
Al Fadhli was a leader in al Qaeda’s so-called “Khorasan Group,” a cadre of veteran jihadists from around the globe who relocated to Syria. They have been “plotting external attacks against the United States and its allies,” Navy Capt. Jeff Davis, the Defense Department’s press operations chief, said in a statement.
Al Fadhli was first targeted by US airstrikes in September 2014. Some accounts claimed at the time that he had been killed. Al Fadhli’s comrades in Syria, including a senior al Qaeda official known as Sanafi al Nasr, even mourned him on Twitter. But as The Long War Journal cautioned, Nasr’s claims should not be taken at face value. Nasr himself had supposedly been killed at one point, according to al Qaeda leaders on Twitter, only to reappear months later. Neither al Qaeda nor the US confirmed al Fadhli’s death following the 2014 bombings.
The Pentagon’s statement today is the latest indication that al Fadhli survived the airstrikes last September. The US has targeted the “Khorasan Group” on a number of occasions since then, including the strike that reportedly killed al Fadhli earlier this month.
While al Fadhli’s death would be a blow to al Qaeda’s network, other veterans remain active in Syria. For example, Sanafi al Nasr is a leader in the “Khorasan Group.”
According to US intelligence officials, al Qaeda emir Ayman al Zawahiri ordered trusted operatives from Afghanistan, Chechnya, Iran, Pakistan, Yemen, and North Africa to relocate to Syria. Some of them were trained by Ibrahim Asiri, an expert bomb maker who has designed sophisticated explosive devices for al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP).
US officials publicly expressed their concerns about the “Khorasan Group” last year, saying that Al Fadhli and his fellow terrorists were identifying Western recruits and others with clean passports for attacks abroad. But counterterrorism officials had been tracking al Fadhli for years, especially after he was identified as a suspect in attacks on the US Marines on Faylaka Island in Kuwait and the French ship MV Limburg in 2002.
A decade later, in 2012, al Fadhli became the head of al Qaeda’s operations in Iran. Al Fadhli replaced another senior al Qaeda leader, Yasin al Suri, in that role after the US government made al Suri one of the world’s most wanted men.
In July 2011, the US Treasury Department identified al Suri as the head of the Iran-based network, saying it exists as part of an agreement between the Iranian regime and al Qaeda. Several months later, in December 2011, the State Department announced a reward of $10 million for information leading to al Suri’s arrest.
This put pressure on the Iranians to shelve al Suri for a time. In February 2012, press reporting indicated that al Fadhli had replaced al Suri as al Qaeda’s chief inside Iran. And in October 2012 the Treasury Department said that al Fadhli had indeed filled in for al Suri.
But in early 2014 the US government announced that al Suri had assumed his leadership role inside Iran once again. Treasury and State Department officials spoke with Al Jazeera, saying that al Suri was supporting the Al Nusrah Front from Iranian soil despite the fact that Al Nusrah, an official branch of al Qaeda, is at war with Iran’s ally and proxies in Syria. In early February 2014, the Treasury Department announced that al Suri had “resumed leadership of al Qaeda’s Iran-based network after being temporarily detained there in late 2011.”
With al Suri back in the game, al Qaeda had the operational freedom to deploy al Fadhli to Syria. The Long War Journal confirmed in March 2014 that he had in fact relocated from Iran to Syria, where he worked with the Al Nusrah Front.
Al Fadhli has been connected to at least one specific plot against Western interests in recent years. In May 2013, Egyptian officials alleged that al Qaeda operatives were targeting the US Embassy in Cairo and other Western facilities inside Egypt. The planned attack was tied to a terrorist known as “Dawud al Asadi,” who had been in contact with the cell responsible during the months beforehand.
Dawud al Asadi was one of the aliases used by Muhsin al Fadhli. According to the Egyptians, al Asadi (al Fadhli) put members of the cell in contact with Muhammad Jamal al Kashef, a longtime subordinate to al Qaeda emir Ayman al Zawahiri, as well as with other members of Jamal’s network.
Although al Fadhli was thought to be in Iran when the plot against the US Embassy plot was disrupted, he may have already relocated to Syria.
Among al Fadhli’s other duties, he reportedly assisted the effort to reconcile the Islamic State with the Al Nusrah Front and other jihadist groups. That effort failed, but al Fadhli carried on, eventually finding himself in the crosshairs of American missiles.