WASHINGTON (CBS DC) — A cell of “veteran al Qaeda fighters” may not be dominating headlines like the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, but the group of explosive-making experts from Osama bin Laden’s old network are a direct threat to U.S. aviation.
The al Qaeda cell calling itself “Khorasan” has U.S. counterterrorism agencies warning that they are unable to track the group’s Western passport-holding recruits in Syria. The veteran operatives are explosives experts, loyal to al Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahri and have raised U.S. and Great Britain-bound airport security for their ability to crate hard-to-detect bombs, CBS News reports.
Two dozen foreign airports with U.S.-bound passengers are already undergoing enhanced security screenings, with agents increasing efforts to find hidden explosives and banning laptops and phones with dead batteries. The largely classified reports of the Khorasan cell have not been in the international spotlight like their Syrian counterparts, ISIS, but U.S. security experts warn that their threat to the U.S. is far more immediate.
During Wednesday testimony, Director of the National Counterterrorism Center, Matt Olsen, warned that U.S. agencies are unable to effectively track Western jihadists inside Syria – although U.S. officials have not issued any specific warning about the terrorist cells.
“In Syria, we’ve seen veteran al Qaeda fighters travel from Pakistan to take advantage of the permissive environment there,” said Olsen.
The Khorasan group is believed to be developing fresh plots to target U.S. flights, and Westerners who have flocked to Syria are thought to be recruited by both ISIS and the al-Nusra Front fighters loyal to al Qaeda. Sources tell CBS News that the fear is these U.S. and European passport holders could more easily smuggle explosives onto flights.
The Khorasan cell includes bomb-making technicians such as Ibrahim al-Asiri, the Yemen-based Asiri notoriously built two – ultimately unsuccessful – bombs placed in underwear and concealed in printer cartridges. Sources tell CBS News that the Asiri is the most innovative bomb-builder in the jihadist world.
CIA Chief John Brennan told CBS News that U.S. officials are “doing what [they] can” to track Asiri down, and that his “time will come.”
U.S. officials did not list specific, credible threats to the homeland, but that much of the information about “specific organizations…should be left to a classified setting.”