Even as it launched sweeping new airstrikes against Islamic State militants in Syria, the U.S. military said Tuesday that it had expanded the campaign to the northern Syrian city of Aleppo, targeting an offshoot of Al Qaeda said to be plotting "imminent" attacks against American and Western targets.
A total of eight U.S. air attacks carried out in Syria’s largest city were aimed at the Khorasan Group, described in a U.S. Central Command statement as an organization of Al Qaeda veterans.
The Aleppo campaign marked an expansion of the bombing effort launched initially against strongholds of the Islamic State in eastern Syria, conducted by U.S. planes, drones and ships with the help of five Arab nations.
The strikes indicate that the U.S. air campaign in Syria has broader objectives than going after the Islamic State, the target of the attacks in eastern Syria.
The bombing west of Aleppo, about 100 miles northeast of the Islamic State stronghold of Raqqa, was intended “to disrupt the imminent attack plotting against the United States and Western interests conducted by a network of seasoned Al Qaeda veterans -- sometimes referred to as the Khorasan Group -- who have established a safe haven in Syria,” the Central Command statement said.
A senior military officer, briefed on the Aleppo attacks, said intelligence reports suggested that the group “was nearing the execution phase of an attack in Europe or the U.S.”
In another development, Israeli military officials said they had shot down a Syrian aircraft that was said to be attempting to infiltrate Israeli airspace in the Golan Heights.
“The Israel Air Force retaliated by firing a Patriot anti-aircraft missile. The Syrian plane was successfully hit,” the Israeli Defense Forces said in a statement.
It did not say whether the plane was a fighter jet or a drone, nor did it say whether the aircraft had approached Israeli airspace deliberately or inadvertently.
The Israeli newspaper Haaretz said it was the first time since 1982 that the Israeli air force had downed a Syrian aircraft.
The Islamic State, an Al Qaeda breakaway group, has taken control of vast tracts of Syria and Iraq in recent months. Its fighters have executed hundreds of Syrian and Iraqi soldiers, beheaded two American journalists, driven thousands of ethnic Kurds from their homes and threatened to slaughter religious minorities in Iraq.
The Pentagon has launched about 190 airstrikes against the militants' positions and convoys in Iraq since Aug. 8, pushing them back from two strategic dams. The large-scale attack on Syria is a departure from those airstrikes, which chiefly targeted trucks, Humvees, checkpoints and mortar positions.
The Central Command statement Tuesday said the new airstrikes, the first to be launched in Syria, struck "training camps, an explosives and munitions production facility, a communication building and command and control facilities."
American officials have said little in public about the Khorasan Group, but privately describe it as a clandestine organization of former Al Qaeda fighters with expertise in bomb-making.
The group has been seeking “to develop external attacks, construct and test improvised explosive devices and recruit Westerners to conduct operations,” according to the Central Command, which oversees U.S. military operations in the Middle East.
“These strikes were undertaken only by U.S. assets,” the statement said, without identifying whether they involved warplanes or cruise missiles fired from Navy ships.
The strikes against Islamic State militant strongholds involved participation or support by several Arab coalition partners, including Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates.
Central Command officials said the attacks included a total of 14 strikes against Islamic State targets, using a mix of fighters, bombers, drones and Tomahawk missiles launched from ships operating in international waters in the Red Sea and North Arabian Gulf.
In addition to Raqqa, where the Islamic State has established a headquarters of sorts, the strikes “destroyed or damaged” targets near Dayr az Zawr, Al Hasakah and Abu Kamal, U.S. officials said.
Among the facilities hit were training compounds, headquarters and command and control facilities, storage facilities, a finance center, supply trucks and armed vehicles, the Central Command said.