Al Qaeda in Syria denies plans to attack West

Members of al Qaeda's Nusra Front carry their weapons as they walk near al-Zahra village, north of Aleppo, Syria, Nov. 25, 2014.

Reuters

BEIRUT -- The leader of al Qaeda's branch in Syria says they have no plans to attack the West and denies that the so-called Khorasan group exists.

The Syrian known as Abu Muhammed al-Golani, who heads the Nusra Front, says the aim of his group is to march to the capital Damascus and bring down President Bashar Assad's government.

An undated photo released by Syrian officials shows a man believed to be Abu Muhammad al-Golani, the leader of Al Qaeda's Syrian branch, the Nusra Front
An undated photo released by Syrian officials shows a man believed to be Abu Muhammad al-Golani, a nom de guerre, the leader of al Qaeda's Syrian branch, the Nusra Front.

He said in an interview with the Al-Jazeera TV aired Wednesday night that "there is nothing called Khorasan group. We heard this from the Americans only."

Washington says the Khorasan group is a special cell within Nusra focused on plotting attacks against Western interests. Most of the U.S. airstrikes inside Syria have, according to the Pentagon, specifically targeted Khorasan, rather than the wider Nusra Front.

Inside Syria, however, activists and rebels dismiss the U.S. attempt to distinguish between Khorasan and Nusra, saying they are one entity. Many analysts also question the distinction.

CBS News' Bob Orr has reported that Khorasan was, and presumably still is, working to develop explosives that could be used or transported aboard planes, according to U.S. officials.

Al-Golani said that the directions they have received from al Qaeda's leadership are "not to use Syria for attacks against the West and Europe."

FBI director James Comey and Rear Adm. John Kirby, the Pentagon spokesman, acknowledged in September that the U.S. did not have precise intelligence about where or when the Khorasan group would attempt to strike a Western target.

But both officials said at the time that it didn't matter, because the U.S. became convinced that the militants had developed the plans, intentions and capability to kill Westerners. U.S. officials said last year the most likely scenario was an attempt to blow up a U.S. or European airliner in flight.

Syria is a place where "we don't have complete visibility," Comey told reporters at FBI headquarters, but "what I could see concerned me very much that they were working toward an attack."

Comey added, "It's hard to say whether that's tomorrow, three weeks from now or three months from now. But it's the kind of threat you have to operate under the assumption that it is tomorrow."