The Terrorist Group That Wasn’t There

The Khorasan Group.

They’re the latest dire threat to the United States, so dire that we’ve either diverted resources from bombing Daesh positions in Syria to strike them or have used Daesh as an excuse to bomb inside Syria so that we could strike Khorasan targets. The name conjures up images of Abbasid shock troops forming in the region of Khorasan and marching west under black banners to overthrow the corrupt Umayyad caliphs, or of a prophetic Hadith attributed to Muhammad:

The Prophet Sallallahu ‘Alaihi Wa Sallam said: “Before your treasure, three will kill each other — all of them are sons of a different caliph but none will be the recipient. Then the Black Banners will appear from the East and they will kill you in a way that has never before been done by a nation.” Thawban, a companion said: ‘Then he said something that I do not remember by heart’ then continued to say that the Prophet, praise and peace be upon him, said: “If you see him give him your allegiance, even if you have to crawl over ice, because surely he is the Caliph of Allah, the Mahdi. If you see the black (meaning war) flags coming from Khurasan (Afghanistan), join that army, even if you have to crawl over ice, for this is the army of the Caliph, the Mahdi and no one can stop that army until it reaches Jerusalem.” 

Of course, that Hadith was only “compiled” after the Abbasids and their black flags had “appeared from Khorasan,” so chances are pretty good that some fan of the Abbasids either creatively rewrote what Muhammad really said or just invented the thing altogether.

The general public first started hearing about the Khorasan Group about a week ago, when The New York Times reported that intelligence and defense officials inside the U.S. government believed that it “posed a more direct threat to America and Europe” than Daesh (an AP report from a week earlier than that didn’t seem to really catch anybody’s attention like the NYT report did). Considering that Daesh poses really almost no “direct threat to America and Europe” right now, that’s not exactly a high bar to get over, but it still sounds scary.

Then, a couple of days after the Times report, The Washington Post quoted a senior U.S. Army general who went much farther and much scarier:

Army Lt. Gen. William C. Mayville Jr., director of operations for the Joint Chiefs of Staff, later told reporters that the group was in the “final stages of plans to execute major attacks against Western targets and potentially the U.S. homeland.” He added, “We believe the Khorasan Group was nearing the execution phase of an attack either in Europe” or the United States, having attempted to recruit Westerners who can more easily enter the target countries.

Whew, that sounds bad. Coincidentally, Mayville was speaking just after America had hit supposed Khorasan targets in the earliest rounds of airstrikes inside Syria. Those strikes, we’re told, may have “disrupted” Khorasan’s pending terror plots, and might even have killed the alleged group’s alleged leader, senior al-Qaeda figure Muhsin al-Fadhli. A tweet (in Arabic) proclaiming Fadhli’s “martyrdom” says that he was known as “Abu Asma al-Khurasani,” which could also help explain the group’s name, I guess? Assuming that actually is the group’s name (see below).

What’s going on here? Well, I have helpfully summarized what I think we can say we really know for sure about the Khorasan Group and the threat it poses into one handy chart:


Yeah, speaking purely for those of us out here in the blogging and writing Regular People world, there’s a lot of “information” about KG flying around out there, and no doubt some of it is accurate, but there’s really no way to evaluate it yet. But that’s just us Regular Folks. When it comes to the U.S. defense and intel communities, I’m sure their info on Khorasan is far less coherent than that. I mean, I assume that, perhaps unfairly, based solely on past performance.

No, really, I’m kidding. Sort of.

Don’t take my word for this confusion. Here’s how Vox is trying to explainer the group:

1. What is Khorasan?

Khorasan is a division of al-Qaeda based in Syria. (Some analysts say it is actually not a formal division but rather an informal group of commanders.) It’s dedicated to planning and executing attacks on American and other Western targets, although it has not carried any out and details on the purportedly planned attacks seem sketchy at best.

Most of the group’s roughly two dozen operatives came to Syria from Afghanistan and Pakistan in 2012. Khorasan is allegedly led by Muhsin al-Fadhli — there are unconfirmed reports that Fadhli was killed by American bombs. He’s a longtime al-Qaeda veteran who was one of a handful to know about the September 11 attacks before they happened. The United States bombed targets it believed were connected to Khorasan on September 23, the same day it began bombing Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) in Syria.

Those are the bare basics. Beyond that, there isn’t a lot known about Khorasan — and understanding these ambiguities is critical to understanding what degree of threat the group poses and its role in the broader Syrian conflict.

So Khorasan is a division of al-Qaeda that some people say isn’t a division of al-Qaeda but just an informal group of dudes, and it’s dedicated to planning and executing attacks that it hasn’t carried out and might not actually have any plans to carry out. It’s currently led by a guy who is allegedly no longer alive, and the U.S. may have bombed targets possibly connected with them at the same time it was bombing some other targets connected with another group of bad guys.

Oh, and “beyond that, there isn’t a lot known about” them. Including their name, which may not be “Khorasan” at all.

Or consider Rosie Gray’s piece on Khorasan at Buzzfeed:

“The group has been referred to elliptically in open-source reporting for several months now,” said Daveed Gartenstein-Ross, a counter-terrorism analyst at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies. Gartenstein-Ross said that the composition and size of the group is still unclear, though: “At the very least, number one, it’s embedded with Jabhat al-Nusra but it’s a separate organization from Nusra.” The name, he said, “has particular eschatological meanings related to jihadist views of the end times.”

Aaron Zelin, an expert on extremist groups at the Washington Institute, said there was “no difference” between Khorasan and Jabhat al-Nusra.

“They are AQ members dispatched by Zawahiri that were based in AfPak or Iran to Syria to build up JN’s external operations capabilities since there’s more operational space and closer to the West,” Zelin said. He said there were reports about Khorasan going back “at least 6-18 months.”

In summary: there have been reports about something like Khorasan for several months now, and we know for sure that they are both separate from and exactly the same as Jabhat al-Nusra. Also, Gartenstein-Ross and Mustafa Alani of the Gulf Research Center both seem pretty sure that Muhsin al-Fadhli wasn’t (isn’t?) running the group. He’s “not a field commander,” according to Alani.

The basic story that’s emerging is that “Khorasan” is a cadre of Al Qaeda veterans from the Afghanistan-Pakistan region (which, along with eastern Iran and a big chunk of Turkmenistan, comprises geographic/historic “Khorasan”) who were sent to Syria to coordinate with Jabhat al-Nusra, maybe to bolster Nusra’s capabilities in the fight against Daesh, or to recruit from Syria’s increasingly and disturbingly large group of foreign fighters who have U.S. or European passports and thus could be sent back home to perpetrate attacks there with relative ease, or maybe both. The Carnegie Endowment’s Aron Lund speculates that they’re coordinating with Nusra but are planning attacks that could be directly attributed to al-Qaeda Central, whose profile may be in need of some raising when compared to the recent activities of its offshoots and its biggest rival.

How many KG operatives are there, you ask? Well, I’m glad you asked. There are 50 of them, “or so.” “Or so” is probably carrying a lot of weight in that sentence, if you’re wondering.

But are these guys a real immediate threat? You’ll note that after the airstrikes the Pentagon started downgrading the threat KG poses from “imminent” to “aspirational” (actually, they’d already started walking back the “imminent threat” talk the day before the bombing started, but you get the idea). I don’t know how we’re defining “aspirational” in this context, but it seems like there are probably a whole bunch of groups around the world, including some back home, that “aspire” to attack the United States. A “senior U.S. counterterrorism official” told Foreign Policy that “Khorasan has the desire to attack, though we’re not sure their capabilities match their desire,” which, again, doesn’t sound all that imminent. DNI James Clapper says that “in terms of threat to the homeland, Khorasan may pose as much of a danger as the Islamic State,” the seriousness of which depends on your estimation of the threat that IS poses.

KG is supposedly experimenting with “non-metallic” bombs that could thus pass through a metal detector. So, they’ve got plastic explosives and underwear bombs? No, apparently they’re building on the work of Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula’s “master bombmaker,” Ibrahim al-Asiri, who is such a master of his craft that he hasn’t ever actually managed to pull off an attack against a Western target, to develop “next gen” undetectable explosives.

The other issue I have with the “imminent threat” story is that this “imminent threat” was apparently, we’re supposed to believe, somehow vulnerable to airstrikes, since our strikes in Syria have supposedly disrupted their plans. Now, short of killing the entire group, or at least all its key leaders, or somehow verifiably blowing up its entire stockpile of undetectable super explosives, how are airstrikes going to disrupt a low-key terror plot? Was the plan to drive a tank across the Atlantic Ocean and set it up in downtown New York? Because that’s the kind of plan you can really mess up with Tomahawk missiles. A guy blowing up his underpants on a passenger airplane isn’t as likely to be hindered by that particular tactic.

If you’re conspiratorially minded, like Marcy Wheeler, then all this information about the Khorasan Group and its imminent threat was strategically leaked to burnish (it was self-defense!) what is otherwise a legally almost indefensible decision to expand the air war against IS into Syria. Of course, “preemptive self defense” is only permissible when the threat is, in fact, imminent (if “aspirational” is the new standard, then I guess the Iraq War was legal after all). Lund suggests that the Khorasan leaks weren’t intended to justify bombing inside Syria, but were intended to justify making Nusra a target of the bombing, because we’re concerned that they’ve regrouped from suffering several losses to IS and are tightening their control of the area around Aleppo.

If you like conspiracies about the terrorists more than conspiracies about the US, Gartenstein-Ross told Vox that Khorasan might be planning an attack in the West in “retaliation” for the campaign against Daesh, but will wait until after Daesh has been seriously degraded before launching it. That way Al Qaeda gets to benefit from a severely curtailed Daesh while also making a statement about jihadi unity and its own superior capacity to further the cause.

These are all speculative theories, but then again so is pretty much everything else out there about Khorasan right now.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.