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What Was The Result Of U.S. Attack Against Khorasan Group In Syria?

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STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

We have an update now on the other group the United States targeted in Syria. You'll recall the U.S. started bombing the group called ISIS within the borders of Syria six weeks ago.

RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

On the same day American troops fired more than 40 Tomahawk missiles at the group called Khorasan - that's an arm of al-Qaida. Since the strikes in September, we've heard almost nothing more about Khorasan.

INSKEEP: And it's still not clear what the strikes achieved. NPR's David Welna reports on what is known.

DAVID WELNA, BYLINE: Before the September 22 attack, almost no one had ever heard of the Khorasan group.

STEPHEN ROTHKOPF: The Khorasan thing came out of nowhere, disappeared back into nowhere.

WELNA: That's Stephen Rothkopf, CEO of the FP Group. His latest book is titled "National Insecurity."

ROTHKOPF: It's hard to tell whether this was the masterstroke in an otherwise sloppy tactical and reactive process, or it was just another sloppy and reactive and possibly overstated threat.

WELNA: Let's review what officials have said about the Khorasan group since the attack. At first they sounded pretty confident. Here's the Pentagon spokesman, Rear Admiral John Kirby, the morning after on ABC.

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REAR ADMIRAL JOHN KIRBY: We had very good indications that this group, which is a very dangerous group, was plotting and planning imminent attacks against Western targets to include the U.S. homeland.

WELNA: And Kirby asserted the attack had been successful.

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KIRBY: We believe that the individuals that were plotting and planning it have been eliminated.

WELNA: Later that same day, though, the Joint Chiefs of Staff's operations director, Lieutenant General William Mayville, walked back those claims.

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LIEUTENANT GENERAL WILLIAM MAYVILLE: It would be premature to comment on the effects we see. We need to do a little bit more study.

WELNA: By the following week, FBI director James Comey was telling CBS's "60 Minutes" the Khorasan group was possibly still looking to attack the U.S., in his words, very, very soon.

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JAMES COMEY: I can't sit here and tell you whether it's - their plan is tomorrow or three weeks or three months from now. Given our visibility, we know they're serious people, bent on destruction. And so we have to act as if it's coming tomorrow.

WELNA: Twenty-five days after the Tomahawk missile attack, still no official assessment of whether the strike was a success. General Lloyd Austin, who heads the U.S. Central Command, was in charge of the operation.

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GENERAL LLOYD AUSTIN: The assessment on the Khorasan is still a work in progress. We remain focused on this and of course, once we - as we gain better information, rest assured that we will maintain pressure on that organization.

WELNA: Yet according to the U.S. Central Command, no additional airstrikes have been carried out against the Khorasan group. Matt Olsen, who until recently directed the National Counterterrorism Center, told CNN last week it's unlikely the threat posed by that group has been eliminated.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

MATT OLSEN: By everything I've seen, I think the threat is still in the same place it was before.

WELNA: Which does raise the question, was the spectacular attack on the Khorasan group a failure? Mike Rogers, the Republican chair of the House Intelligence Committee, doesn't think so.

MIKE ROGERS: I do believe that there was some level of success. The problem is we're having a hard time determining what that level of success was against that group.

WELNA: Rogers acknowledges the missile strikes may have missed the group's reputed leader, Muhsin al-Fadhli.

ROGERS: I have seen nothing cross my desk that would say for sure and for certain he has been removed from the battlefield.

WELNA: Some insiders say there's been a deliberate effort to keep quiet about the Khorasan Group. Daniel Benjamin was counterterrorism coordinator at the State Department during President Obama's first term.

DANIEL BENJAMIN: The threat is not gone and I think that the administration and the intelligence community in particular know that they need to be very careful about preserving their intelligence sources in the region, and they don't want to do anything that might endanger them. So they're just not going to talk about it right now.

WELNA: Which makes it that much harder to answer what exactly did happen to the Khorasan group. David Welna, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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