What is Khorasan?
Part of Washington’s legal defense of its violation of Syrian sovereignty in launching airstrikes against ISIS targets on Syrian soil is self-defense against the Khorasan Group, an organization whose name US officials hadn’t uttered until a few days ago and which Syrian rebels say they’ve never heard of and which appears to have no independent existence apart from al-Qaeda’s Syria affiliate, Jabhat al-Nusra, which cooperates militarily with CIA-directed rebels seeking to overthrow the secular nationalist government of Bashar al-Assad.
On September 20, US officials publicly expressed concern about the Khorasan Group, which they described as an offshoot of the Nusra Front. US officials told reporters that “Khorasan had emerged in the past year as the cell in Syria that may be the most intent on hitting the United States or its installations overseas with a terror attack.” 
Yesterday, US deputy national security adviser Ben Rhodes announced that Khorasan “had very clear and concrete ambitions to launch external operations against the United States or Europe.” He added that there “was actual plotting that was ongoing from Syria.” The September 23 airstrikes, carried out by the United States and a coalition of Arab crowned dictatorships, were in part, Rhodes said, “aimed to disrupt that plotting.” 
To give its violation of Syrian sovereignty legal cover, the United States declared that it was acting at the request of the Iraqi government in connection with Iraq’s right of self-defense against aggression by ISIS, and that its actions were therefore consistent with the UN Charter. The airstrikes were also congruent with international law, insisted Washington, as a matter of self-defense against the Khorasan Group, which it said was plotting against the United States.  Neither defense is cogent since Washington rejected coordination with the Syrian government and refused to seek its assent to carry out air strikes on its territory.
Despite Washington pointing to Khorasan as a group with an independent existence apart from the Nusra Front, it appears to be indistinguishable from the latter. The alleged leader of the group, Muhsin al Fadhli, is a longtime al Qaeda operative. Since the Nusra Front is al-Qaeda’s official franchise in Syria, it follows that Fadhli is working with Jabhat al-Nusra. Moreover, US officials acknowledge that Khorasan and Nusra Front “are intertwined.” 
Both Jahbat al-Nusra and ISIS were censured by the UN Security Council this summer for gross, systematic and widespread abuse of human rights . Nevertheless, the United States hasn’t officially declared the Nusra Front to be a target of its mission to degrade and ultimately destroy ISIS. This shows that protection of human rights does not underpin the US anti-ISIS campaign, notwithstanding expressions of concern about the plight of the Yazidis, ethnic cleansing and genocide.
Instead, Washington’s real motivations are linked to the divergent goals of the two al-Qaeda progeny. The Nusra Front’s ambitions are limited to Syria, and its immediate aim of toppling the country’s secular nationalist government meshes with US objectives. ISIS, in contrast, has larger territorial ambitions, which clash with US domination of the Middle East, particularly its informal control of Iraq’s oil. Hence, ISIS, which is against US foreign policy interests, falls within the crosshairs of the US military campaign, while the Nusra Front, which works (for the moment) in directions which compliment US goals in Syria, is ignored, despite a human rights record which is as deplorable and barbaric as that of ISIS (and the United States, if the matter is taken further. Watch the testimony of US soldiers about the conduct of US forces in Vietnam and Iraq to see that barbarity isn’t unique to ISIS and the Nusra Front.)
Still, there’s a loose string. US warplanes and drones struck several bases and an ammunition warehouse belonging to the Nusra Front, according to the New York Times. Almost five dozen Nusra fighters were killed. 
If the Khorasan Group is a part of the Nusra Front, and not a separate organization, the apparent contradiction in the United States excluding the al-Qaeda franchise in Syria as an official target of its war on ISIS, while at the same time attacking it, goes away. It also explains why rebels have never heard of the organization. 
What remains unclear, however, is why the United States attacked Nusra Front targets. Does Khorasan indeed exist as a wing of al-Qaeda’s Syrian franchise? Was it plotting attacks on Western targets? Were US airstrikes directed specifically at this wing?
Whatever the case, one leader of a rebel group under US sway objected to the strike on Nusra targets on grounds that al-Qaeda’s Syrian franchise is “a loyal partner in the battle against Mr. Assad.”  Numerous press reports have pointed to US-backed rebels cooperating with al-Qaeda in Syria. One veteran observer has argued that there is no dividing wall between “America’s supposedly moderate opposition allies” and ISIS and the Nusra Front.  It’s all one movement, no part of it secular, and all parts of it, including the misnamed “moderate” rebels, are overwhelmingly Islamist. 
That the Nusra Front is a loyal partner of US-backed rebels means that the alleged Khorasan leader Muhsin al Fadhli has been an important part of Washington’s war on Assad. Fadhli was close to Osama bin Laden. According to the Wall Street Journal, he “is a senior al Qaeda facilitator and financier” who “has an extensive network of Kuwaiti jihadist donors who have sent money to Syria through Turkey.” 
While US warplanes were bombing Nusra Front targets and US-backed rebels were objecting to US attacks on their loyal al-Qaeda partner, Israel was intervening on behalf of the Nusra Front by shooting down a Syrian warplane that was attacking Nusra positions on the Syrian-controlled Golan Heights. Al-Qaeda fighters have captured most of this territory. 
The Syrian aircraft had strayed about a half mile into territory of the Golan Heights under Israeli control (legitimately belonging to Syria but occupied by Israel since 1967), and had turned back when Israeli forces shot it down. That the Syrian warplane had no aggressive intention against Israel was clear in its quickly retreating into Syrian airspace.
The absence of aggressive intent was also clear from the context: With its hands full fighting Islamist proxies of the United States, Turkey, Jordan and the US-backed Gulf oil tyrannies, Syria is in no position to undertake a war with Israel, and, indeed, is no position to do so even under the most favorable of circumstances. It should have been clear to Israeli commanders that the pilot had made an error, and likely was clear. All the same, it would appear that Israel couldn’t resist an opportunity to lend a hand to al-Qaeda—not to mention al-Qaeda’s Western and Arab allies of convenience—in their battle against a government they all deplore for their own reasons: Israel, because the Assad government is anti-Zionist; al-Qaeda and Turkey, because it is secular; and the United States and its Arab puppet dictators, because it is nationalist and refuses to be integrated into the US-dominated global economic order.
But for the support of Russia and China, Iran and Hezbollah, Syria stands alone against a US-led club of imperialists, their democracy-abominating Arab clients, a Zionist colonial settler regime, and Islamist fanatics, who brazenly dub themselves Friends of Syria, but parts of which are in reality enemies of secularism and the other part enemies of national independence and self-directed development.
Imperialists, royalist dictatorships, an apartheid settler regime, and jihadists who seek to make the Koran their constitution, are as far away from democrats as could possibly be, which makes the spectacle of their invoking democracy as grounds for their war on Syria’s secular nationalist government—topped off now by the violation of Syrian territory by the United States and its Arab janissaries—a matter of revulsion and egregious hypocrisy.
Khorasan explained: why the US is bombing an al-Qaeda group you’ve never heard of
Since the United States began bombing an organization called “Khorasan” in Syria, there’s been a flurry of conversation about the group allegedly plotting attacks on the American homeland. But what is Khorasan, really? What are they doing in Syria, and what do they want?
Here are answers to the seven most important questions about the organization.
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.
2. Where does the name “Khorasan” come from?
Jabhat al-Nusra’s black flag. (أبو بكر السوري)
“Khorasan” is a word used by al-Qaeda uses “to describe the Afghanistan-Pakistan-Iran region,” according to Aron Lund, an expert on Syrian rebel groups at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. (It is currently the name of a province in eastern Iran, along the Afghan border.) For jihadis, Khorasan also has a second, and more violent, meaning — one that al-Qaeda draws from classical Islamic teaching.
Specifically, the name is drawn from this hadith: “If you see the black banners coming from Khorasan, join that army, even if you have to crawl over ice; no power will be able to stop them. And they will finally reach Baitul Maqdis [Jerusalem], where they will erect their flags.”
This verse, former FBI counterterrorism agent Ali Soufan explains, is absolutely vital to al-Qaeda ideology. After all, al-Qaeda is headquartered in Afghanistan but aims to conquer the Middle East. Why shouldn’t the prophesied black banners be theirs? It should be noted that the authenticity of this hadith is very much in doubt, but the point is that al-Qaeda believes in it.
It’s not 100 percent clear that the group actually calls itself Khorasan — which, given that Khorasan refers to a region, would basically be the same as a National Guard unit from Virginia simply calling itself Virginia. For probably that reason, the US government internally refers to it as the Khorasan Shura [council], rather than simply Khorasan. But there is also some skepticism among analysts that this is the group’s name.
“Most likely it has no fixed name at all,” Lund suggests. “The ‘Khorasan Group’ label has simply been invented for convenience by U.S. intelligence or adopted from informal references within the Nusra Front [other Syrian al-Qaeda fighters] to these men as being, for example, ‘Our brothers from Khorasan.’”
3. How dangerous is Khorasan?
We’re not sure. The US justified its initial strikes on Khorasan on the grounds that the group poses an “imminent threat” to Western, possibly American, targets — meaning, in this case, Khorasan was in the process of executing some kind of attack on the West.
In recent days, that’s been walked back. One US official told the New York Times that Khorasan’s plotting was “aspirational,” meaning that they didn’t have an actual plan yet. So we have no idea how imminent the threat from Khorasan was when the US started bombing.
We do, however, know for sure that the group’s main goal is to execute such attacks, even if they’re not yet capable of doing it. Unlike ISIS, which doesn’t appear to be prioritizing attacks on Western targets, Khorasan is all about hitting the United States and Europe.
The bigger question is whether or not they’re capable of such kind of attacks. Transnational terrorism is hard and getting harder all the time, and the mere fact that an al-Qaeda group wants to blow up stuff in America doesn’t mean it can pull it off.
According to Foreign Policy, US intelligence sources are expressing pretty significant concern about Khorasan acquiring that capability, though. Specifically, they worry that Khorasan will link up with al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), the group’s branch based in Yemen. AQAP’s top bomb-maker, Ibrahim al-Asiri, is relatively capable at making bombs and is allegedly teaching other al-Qaeda members the skill — there’s a reason US intelligence thinks AQAP is the international terrorist group most likely to strike the American homeland. If Khorasan operatives learned how to make and disguise bombs from Asiri, they’d become a more serious threat.
4. Is Khorasan part of al-Qaeda’s branch in Syria?
That’s a point of some debate between experts on al-Qaeda. The debate matters, because the way the US treats Jabhat al-Nusra — the al-Qaeda group in Syria that has several thousand members and is fighting the Syrian government — is important to its broader strategy against ISIS, which is not part of al-Qaeda.
Some analysts think that Khorasan is basically a division of Nusra. “It’s cute [that the] Pentagon is literally making up [a] new group called ‘Khurasan,’” Aaron Zelin, a fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, tweeted. Zelin thinks Khorasan is basically just a fancy name for Nusra fighters who joined up from Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Iran.
Others believe that Khorasan answers only to al-Qaeda’s central leadership in Afghanistan and Pakistan. “[Khorasan] is embedded in Nusra but it is not itself part of Nusra,” Daveed Gartenstein-Ross, a senior fellow at the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies, argues. “Having the Khorasan Shura there and keeping it separate is kind of like having members of the State Department in a war zone…[being there] doesn’t make it part of the Department of Defense “
According to Gartenstein-Ross, it’s impossible to tell who’s right because there’s not enough information available. But the debate matters. Several different studies of terrorist groups have found that a group’s bureaucratic makeup matters a lot for how it fights — how it chooses leaders, for example, or how vulnerable it is to targeted killing campaigns against said leaders. Figuring out whether Khorasan is part of Nusra is critical to understanding how the group operates and how to defeat it.
5. Does Khorasan have links with ISIS?
Gartenstein-Ross says there is “literally zero evidence” of such links, and for good reason: ISIS might very well kill each and every member of Khorasan if they could find them.
Al-Qaeda and ISIS are essentially at war with each other. Both groups claim to be the true leaders of the global jihadi movement and have at times fought openly in Syria. ISIS also has a history of assassinating leaders of other Islamist groups in Syria. For example, it appears that an ISIS car bomb was responsible for the explosion that killed essentially the entire senior leadership of Ahrar al-Sham, another Syrian Islamist militant group, in mid-September.
6. What does al-Qaeda want to do with Khorasan?
In one sense, there’s an obvious answer to this question: al-Qaeda wants to kill Westerners, and they think that Syria is a good launching pad for attacks on the West. That’s why they created Khorasan, or whatever they are calling it, and sent them to Syria’s war.
There may also be a more subtle game at work — and it has a lot to do with ISIS.
“I think al-Qaeda’s plan is to let the US degrade ISIS’s leadership, and then once the leadership is degraded, use the Khorasan shura to carry out a terrorist attack in retaliation,” Gartenstein-Ross suggests. “This accomplishes a lot of things. Number one, it’s a statement of jihadist unity. Number two, it puts al-Qaeda at the forefront of leading the global jihad. And number three, it exposes ISIS’ relative impotence in terms of its ability to carry out terrorist attacks.”
This is one theory for why the US called Khorasan an “imminent” threat, even though it doesn’t seem like it was in the process of launching an attack. “The process of degradation of ISIS’ leadership is probably when the Khorasan shura was getting ready to launch” — so when the US began targeting ISIS in Syria, it might have made Khorasan more likely to spin up an attack on the US. It’s just a theory, but would help explain the strange timing of the US strikes.
7. Can US bombing destroy Khorasan?
It’s possible — Khorasan’s membership is very small, so the US could theoretically kill enough of those members in bomb strikes. But there are two big problems with that: intelligence and America’s broader strategy in Syria.
Khorasan’s small size also makes it hard to find amid Syria’s chaos. We still have know idea if Khorasan’s leader, Fadhli, was killed on the first day of strikes — one US official said they believe Fadhli is dead, but the Pentagon officially isn’t sure. “We don’t have personnel on the ground to verify, so we’re continuing to assess,” spokesperson Steve Warren told Reuters, indicating just how much of an intelligence challenge this is.
Moreover, Nusra fighters are deeply embedded with other Syrian rebels, and they don’t wear jerseys differentiating extremists from moderates. Syrian rebels as a whole, according to McClatchy, are furious that the US is targeted ISIS and Nusra, but not Assad. Bombing Khorasan likely requires bombing Nusra, which means bombing non-Nusra Syrian rebels, which means alienating those same rebels that the US is trying to recruit to its side.
America’s strategy for destroying ISIS depends on cooperation from Syrian rebel groups, which the US wants to recruit as its proxy ground force against the Islamic State. But if the US keeps bombing Nusra targets to get Khorasan, Syrian rebels may be less likely to cooperate. In other words: the goal of destroying ISIS is at tension with the goal of demolishing Khorasan. Waging war from the air, especially in a conflict as complex as Syria’s, is just not easy.
Correction: This post originally referred to Khorasan as an Arabic word. While it is used by Arabic speakers today, the word originally came from Persian.
Notes to the first article: “What is Khorasan?”, by Stephen Gowans
- 1. Mark Mazzetti, Michael S. Schmidt and Ben Hubbard, “U.S. suspects more direct threats beyond ISIS,“ The New York Times, September 20, 2014.
- 2. Siobhan Gorman and Julian E. Barnes, “U.S. feared al Qaeda group targeted in Syria was plotting terror,” The Wall Street Journal, September 23, 2014.
- 3. Somini Sengupta and Charlie Savage, “U.S. invokes Iraq’s defense in legal justification of Syria strikes,” The New York Times, September 23, 2014.
- 4. Julian E. Barnes and Sam Dagher, “Syria strikes: U.S. reports significant damage in attacks on Islamic state, Khorasan,” The Wall Street Journal, September 23, 2014.
- 5. UN Security Council Resolution 2170 (2014). http://www.un.org/News/Press/docs/2014/sc11520.doc.htm
- 6. Ben Hubbard, “Startling sight where blasts are the norm,” The New York Times, September 23, 2014.
- 7. Gorman and Barnes.
- 8. Hubbard.
- 9. Patrick Cockburn, cited in Belen Fernandez, “Book review: The Jihadis Return: ISIS and the New Sunni Uprising,” The Middle East Eye, September 3, 2014.
- 10. Ben Hubbard, Eric Schmitt and Mark Mazzetti, “U.S. pins hope on Syrian rebels with loyalties all over the map”, The New York Times, September 11, 2014.
- 11. Gorman and Barnes.
- 12. Joshua Mitnick, “Israeli military shoots down Syrian aircraft,” The Wall Street journal, September 23, 2014.
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