MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:
As we just heard, in addition to Islamic State militants, one of the targets in last night's air strikes in Syria was a little-known al-Qaida offshoot. It's called the Khorasan Group.
NPR's counterterrorism correspondent Dina Temple-Raston joins us to talk more about them. And Dina, as we said, the group is little known. Is it new?
DINA TEMPLE-RASTON, BYLINE: Well, it's actually made up of about four dozen very hard-core al-Qaida veterans - people who were there when al-Qaida was getting its start. These are people who fought the Russians in Afghanistan. They lived together in the frontier regions of Pakistan for years. And some of them even escaped, in some cases, to Iran after the 9/11 attacks and stayed there for years under a loose kind of house arrest.
So the heart of this group, even though we'd never heard about it before, is made up of al-Qaida's true believers. I mean these are people who've been in the fight for decades.
BLOCK: And who's the group leader?
TEMPLE-RASTON: His name is Muhsin al-Fadhli, and he's about 33. And he's been part of the al-Qaida inner circle since he was a teenager. Officials said he was an aide to Osama bin Laden, and was one of the few people who knew about the 9/11 attacks before they happened. So he was a really trusted deputy for a long time.
And officials told us that the head of al-Qaida, Ayman al-Zawahiri, personally chose al-Fadhli to lead this group. And the idea was to set up al-Qaida operations in Syria.
BLOCK: Set up operations in Syria specifically because of the chaos there and the Western jihadis who had flocked there?
TEMPLE-RASTON: Exactly. So Zawahiri basically gave him two tasks. The first was a sort of inside-baseball task which was to patch up this major split between al-Qaida's arm in Syria and this group that now calls itself the Islamic State. And he wasn't very successful at that because the so-called Islamic State left al-Qaida late last year.
The second task was to set up at an outpost for al-Qaida to launch international attacks. And that's a lot of what was in the crosshairs last night. What was targeted was a training camp, a munitions lab, some of their command and control. I mean, what's different about this group is that there are literally thousands of groups fighting to topple the Syrian regime in Syria now, and the Khorasan Group is not. It's completely focused on the West.
BLOCK: Focused on the West - and the real question then is how much of a threat is it. The administration for weeks has been saying there is no imminent threat from Syria. But now we hear from the Pentagon that this group, the Khorasan Group, was nearing the execution phase for attacks.
TEMPLE-RASTON: Yeah, it's hard to tell really where they were on the spectrum. I mean if you look carefully at the Pentagon's language, it hadn't said that an attack was imminent. It said there was imminent attack planning. So this might have been an opportunistic strike. The U.S. has known for months what the group wanted to do. It wasn't interested in toppling the president, Assad, or fighting ISIS. The Khorasan Group was all about using the safe haven in Syria to launch attacks against the U.S. or possibly Europe.
BLOCK: And still unclear, how close they were to actually doing that.
TEMPLE-RASTON: Exactly. I mean, one of the things that was worrying officials was that there appeared to be a lot of people traveling between Syria and Yemen. And it's well-known that there's a master bomb-maker working for Al Qaeda's arm in Yemen. He's the man who was behind the underwear bomb that failed to go off properly on that flight to Detroit in 2009. He designed that printer cartridge bomb that a technician I spoke to said was - and these are his words - a thing of beauty because it was so ingeniously designed.
So the concern was that the Khorasan Group had found a way to take advantage of that knowledge for themselves. And there was talk about exploding clothes and toothpaste bombs. We don't know if those were aspirational or operational plans. But clearly officials didn't want to wait to find out, so they struck last night.
BLOCK: OK, Dina. Thank you.
TEMPLE-RASTON: You're welcome.
BLOCK: That NPR's counterterrorism correspondent Dina Temple-Raston. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.