Hours Before Strikes, U.S. Official Says Targets Presented No 'Imminent Threat'

09/23/2014 10:45 am ET | Updated Sep 23, 2014

Hours before the U.S. launched airstrikes and cruise missiles into Syria, a senior administration official had told the Guardian that neither of the two groups targeted in the Monday night strikes -- the Islamic State militant group or the Al-Qaeda splinter group Khorasan -- posed an imminent threat to the U.S.

From the Guardian:

Earlier this month, Jeh Johnson, the US secretary of homeland security, said there was “no credible information that [Isis] is planning to attack the homeland”. The senior US official echoed that assessment, even as the US has launched a war to roll back the advances of Isis in Iraq and will soon conduct airstrikes against it in Syria. Nor did the official see an imminent threat to the US from al-Qaida’s Syrian affiliate, despite recent warnings about its so-called “Khorasan” cell targeting the US domestically.

By Tuesday morning, a Pentagon spokesperson had a new assessment. Speaking to ABC's 'Good Morning America,' Rear Admiral John Kirby said Monday night's strike on the Khorasan group, part of the Syrian Al-Qaeda affiliate Jabhat al-Nusra, was prompted by information of an "imminent" attack on U.S. soil. The strikes in Syria appear to have eliminated the militants plotting the attack, Kirby added.

Aboard Air Force One on Tuesday, Deputy National Security Adviser Ben Rhodes told reporters that the administration had been tracking a threat from Khorasan. "We believe that attack planning was imminent," he said.

James Clapper, the director of national intelligence, told a Sept. 17 conference in Washington that the Khorasan Group posed as great a threat to the U.S. as the Islamic State.

But the official who spoke with the Guardian yesterday repeated the idea -- stated by the administration elsewhere -- that Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) in Yemen is still the biggest danger to the U.S. homeland.

But that's not the case with the groups fighting in Syria. “There’s no real indication of either actual planning or capacity to launch such an attack into the US,” the senior official told the Guardian, referring to the risk of a Western-born militants using their passport to launch an attack in their homeland.

Even as it expands its assault on the Islamic State and other Syria-based militants aggressively, the administration appears to remain uncertain about what threat it seeks to counter in this latest operation. In making his case for the campaign in an address to the nation earlier this month, President Barack Obama spoke of "ultimately destroy[ing]" the Islamic State -- and made no mention of Khorasan. But as of Tuesday morning, it was that group he referred to as threatening Americans.

The president issued a statement Tuesday morning from the White House lawn. "Last night, we also took strikes to disrupt plotting against the United States and our allies by seasoned al Qaeda operatives in Syria who are known as the Khorosan Group," he said. "And once again, it must be clear to anyone who would plot against America and try to do Americans harm that we will not tolerate safe havens for terrorists who threaten our people." He did not respond to a question from the press about the specific threat presented to the American people by the targets of his airstrikes.

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