Yesterday, the United States and allied Arab nations began a campaign of air strikes in Syria to “degrade and ultimately destroy” the so-called Islamic State, a Syria- and Iraq-based al-Qaeda splinter group also known as ISIS or ISIL.
Nearly two weeks after U.S. President Barack Obama first announced that he would expand his aerial campaign from Iraq—where the U.S. Air Force has conducted a total of 194 strikes since August 7—to Syria, the attacks against Islamic State targets in places like Raqqa and Deir ez-Zor came as no surprise. But in a press statement issued on Tuesday, September 23, the U.S. Department of Defense also announced that it is attacking other targets in Syria:
Separately, the United States has also taken action to disrupt the imminent attack plotting against the United States and Western interests conducted by a network of seasoned al-Qa'ida veterans - sometimes referred to as the Khorasan Group - who have established a safe haven in Syria to develop external attacks, construct and test improvised explosive devices and recruit Westerners to conduct operations. These strikes were undertaken only by U.S. assets.
The statement goes on to claim a total of eight aerial attacks “against Khorasan Group targets west of Aleppo” including “training camps, an explosives and munitions production facility, a communication building and command and control facilities.”
The “Khorasan Group”
The “Khorasan Group” is a term that gained currency only in the past two weeks. It was first discussed in a September 13 dispatch by the Associated Press, but reporting didn’t really take off until after September 20, when the New York Times quoted U.S. Director of National Intelligence James Clapper as saying that “in terms of threat to the homeland, Khorasan may pose as much of a danger as the Islamic State.” This set off a minor tsunami of headlines in U.S. and international media, typically presenting this “Khorasan” as a hitherto unknown but incredibly lethal new terrorist group in Syria.
A closer reading of the actual statements by U.S. officials to the New York Times, Associated Press, and other media paints a different picture. What is being discussed is not a “new terrorist group,” but rather a specialized cell that has gradually been established within, or on, the fringes of an already existing al-Qaeda franchise, the so-called Nusra Front. What this seems to be about is a jihadi cell consisting of veteran al-Qaeda members who have arrived to the Nusra Front in Syria from abroad, mainly via Iran, and who are in direct contact with al-Qaeda’s international leader Ayman al-Zawahiri, himself believed to be based in Pakistan.
What’s in a name?
To begin with, calling the group “Khorasan” makes no sense either in Arabic or any other language. Khorasan is not an organizational name or even some exotic acronym, but an ancient Islamic historical term for the far east of the Muslim world. It is used today by al-Qaeda (and others who are fond of archaic Islamic terminology) to describe the Afghanistan-Pakistan-Iran region.
If the group came from Iran and answers to a leadership based in Pakistan, it explains how the word “Khorasan” came into the picture. But since it refers to a geographic region, calling the group only “Khorasan” would be nonsensical, in the same way that you wouldn’t refer to the far-right paramilitary group known as the Michigan Militia as simply “Michigan.” If Khorasan is to be part of the name, then it must be the “Khorasan group,” the “Khorasan network,” the “Khorasan cell,” or something along those lines.
Whatever one decides to call it, this is not likely to be an independent organization, but rather a network-within-the-network, assigned to deal with specific tasks. Most likely it has no fixed name at all, and the “Khorasan Group” label has simply been invented for convenience by U.S. intelligence or adopted from informal references within the Nusra Front to these men as being, for example, “our brothers from Khorasan.”
The Fadhli team: an external operations cell
According to the New York Times, the “Khorasan Group” moniker specifically refers to a small number of al-Qaeda veterans under the leadership of one Muhsin al-Fadhli, who may or may not have been killed in these air strikes, but who was, without a doubt, a high-priority target.
Fadhli is referred to by at least one well-connected jihadi figure, lamenting his supposed death on social media, as “Abu Asma al-Khorasani,” or Abu Asma from Khorasan. In fact, Fadhli, who is a Kuwaiti al-Qaeda veteran, has lived in Iran for several years. He seems to have been one among a small community of al-Qaeda leaders and their families who, after fleeing the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan in 2001, were kept under strict surveillance but not imprisoned, extradited, or killed by Iran’s fundamentalist Shia government. (To avoid jeopardizing this arrangement, al-Qaeda apparently held back from attacks on Iranian soil, despite considering Iran an archenemy; politics make strange bedfellows.) In recent years the al-Qaeda leadership group in Iran appears to have diminished in numbers, and Fadhli himself apparently relocated to Syria, where U.S. intelligence now believes he heads a small core of elite operatives drawn both from the Nusra Front and the wider al-Qaeda network—what the United States terms the “Khorasan Group.”
Centered in northwestern Syria, Fadhli’s team has joined or attached themselves to al-Qaeda’s Nusra Front franchise, the leadership of which is known to include several such veteran international jihadis (for example, its spokesman Abu Firas al-Souri, a Syrian veteran of the Afghanistan war who lived in Yemen until 2013). However, the Fadhli team is not necessarily fighting frontline battles or spending much time on the Nusra Front’s domestic concerns. Rather, they are alleged to have used the protection provided by the Nusra Front’s fighters to build a capacity for international attacks against the United States and other Western nations, for example by siphoning off some of the Nusra Front’s foreign recruits who have access to Western passports.
With or without the formal participation of the Nusra Front, such attacks could then be claimed by al-Qaeda’s central leadership, which is desperately seeking to reaffirm its militant credentials in the face of the Islamic State’s challenge to its legitimacy.
In other words, what has emerged around Fadhli is not an organization in its own right, but rather a sort of external operations division within, or on the fringes of, the Nusra Front, probably operating under the direct supervision of Zawahiri’s international al-Qaeda leadership in Pakistan.
The Yemeni example
According to the Associated Press, Fadhli’s network has been working with Yemeni bomb makers to improve their capacity for global attacks. This is interesting for several reasons. The Yemen-centered al-Qaeda affiliate known as al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, or AQAP, was long seen as “the most dangerous regional node in the global jihad,” as the CIA director at the time, David Petraeus, told the U.S. Congress in September 2011. The group was responsible for a string of failed bombings against U.S. aviation in 2009 and 2010.
This sudden spike of attacks coming out of far-off Yemen was no coincidence. It appears to have been the result of a decision by al-Qaeda and AQAP in the late 2000s to form an external operations group within AQAP, tasked with the preparation and organization of attacks against high-priority targets outside Yemen. This decision was accompanied by new efforts at recruiting Westerners and inciting “lone wolf” attacks in Europe and the United States, for example by the publication of Inspire, an English-language propaganda newsletter that began online publication in mid-2010.
The United States responded in kind, by intensifying drone strikes and cruise missile attacks against AQAP in general, and those members thought to be connected to the external operations in particular. The casualties of this campaign included Anwar al-Awlaki, a U.S. citizen who was controversially assassinated on orders of Obama in September 2011; at the time, he appears to have been the head of the external operations cell.
If U.S. intelligence sources are correct, a similar development has now taken place within the Nusra Front, with Fadhli copying the role of Awlaki. U.S. strategy has shifted accordingly, as signified by the eight strikes targeting Fadhli’s operations in northwestern Syria on September 22—that is, against what the United States terms the “Khorasan Group.”
The Idleb imbroglio
The sudden flurry of revelations about the “Khorasan Group” in the past two weeks smacks of strategic leaks and political spin. Even if the information provided is entirely correct, which it may well be, the timing can hardly be coincidental—within two weeks of the first press reports, attacks had started against Fadhli and his allies in Syria. Rather, these leaks seem to have been designed to bolster the case for strikes against the Nusra Front, after a public debate that had, until then, focused only on the Islamic State.
Interestingly, the strikes also come at a time when U.S. officials must be worried about the Nusra Front’s growing assertiveness in the northwest of Syria, particularly in the border regions of northern Idlib and the western Aleppo countryside. This is an area where the United States and its allies seek to support rival rebel forces, in order to gradually squeeze out the hardline jihadis and reshape the insurgency against Syria’s President Bashar al-Assad.
As I wrote on Syria in Crisis a few days ago, there are many indications that the Nusra Front is in internal disarray, after suffering battlefield and propaganda defeats against the Islamic State for several months. But whether because of or despite this internal unrest, the Nusra Front’s forces in the Idlib and Aleppo region have recently begun to consolidate territorial control and harass rival rebel groups. The balance of power in this corner of Syria may now be shifting, not least after the mysterious September 9 bombing that killed most leaders of Ahrar al-Sham, a powerful independent Salafi group that has worked with both the Nusra Front and with U.S. allies. In particular, Ahrar al-Sham plays a central role in the administration of the strategic Bab al-Hawa border crossing, which is a chokepoint for support to Syria’s rebels, including to pro-U.S. rebel forces. Whether it will be able to retain that role after September 9 is anyone’s guess.
The U.S. attacks against Nusra Front facilities in northwestern Syria may have been narrowly focused on Fadhli’s external operations wing, as claimed by the Pentagon, but distinguishing Fadhli’s men from the rest of the Nusra Front/al-Qaeda apparatus in Syria must be easier said than done. Then again, if the bombing campaign also happens to weaken the Nusra Front’s hold on territory in Idlib and around the Bab al-Hawa border crossing, so much the better for U.S. strategy.