Khorasan group, first heard of publicly after the US raids in Syria in September, is not a new terrorist group but rather a specialized wing of Al Qaeda formed in coordination with Al Nusra Front in Syria. It is made up of Al Qaeda veterans who set up a base in Syria to prepare attacks against Western targets, specifically civilian airplanes, and they are in direct contact with Ayman Zawahiri, Al Qaeda’s leader (Lund, 2014).
Origins of the name “Khorasan”
The term Khorasan is used by Al Qaeda as a reference for the far east of the Islamic world. Currently, it is used by Al Qaeda to refer to the Afghanistan-Pakistan-Iran region; the members reportedly came to Syria through Iran and answer to the leadership in Pakistan which may indicate why the term is used. Islamic writings are also related to the name; for example, there are hadiths about an army carrying black flags coming from Khorasan, which will be the Mahdi’s army coming to redeem the world. These reasons make the name appealing to Al Qaeda who likes to include Islamic traditions in current situations, reject modern state borders, and believe they are playing a part in this end of days scenario (Lund, 2014).
Some reports stated that the group may actually be called the “Wolf Unit”, knowing that the US officials didn’t know the name of the group previously and used Khorasan as a way to refer to the group (Levitt b, 2014).
Leadership of the group
The group is led by Muhsin Al Fadhli whose fate remains unclear after the raids. Al Fadhli is a Kuwaiti Al Qaeda veteran who lived in Iran for several years. In addition, he is one of Al Qaeda’s leaders who fled to Iran after the US invasion of Afghanistan, and was placed under strict supervision but was not arrested by the Iranian government. This is due to a reported deal between Iran and Al Qaeda in which Al Qaeda would not launch attacks on Iranian soil.
US intelligence indicates he relocated to Syria last spring to head the Khorasan group (Lund, 2014).
Fadhli has experience in fighting, organizing, and raising funds for Al Qaeda affiliates in Afghanistan, Yemen, Kuwait, Gulf countries, and Iran. In Iran, he was responsible for the transfer of fighters and money through Turkey to Syria. In addition, he was linked to the bombing of French ship MV Limburg and the attack on US Marines on Kuwait’s Falayka Island. Furthermore, he was sentenced to a five year imprisonment in Afghanistan for funding terrorism and undergoing military training for terrorist aims. Moreover, he was a major facilitator for Zarqawi whilst demanding videotapes of successful attacks to be able to raise more money, fought with the Taliban, was a bodyguard for a senior Al Qaeda leader, fought in Chechnya, and was one of the few Al Qaeda operatives who knew about the 9/11 attacks. All this history has earned him unique credibility and trust with the Al Qaeda leadership (Levitt a, 2014).
Another important member of the group is French jihadist David Drugeon who is a skilled bomb maker. He is believed to be heavily involved in facilitating the movement of the fighters to and from Europe, in addition to planning attacks in Europe as well. He is reported to have ties with the Al Qaeda leadership in Pakistan, from which he came to Syria in the last two years. In addition, US intelligence officials believe he is still living in Syria and may be involved in creating bombs that are easy to conceal which have led to increased security precautions in airports last summer (Starr, 2014).
Location and Goals
The group is located in Northwest Syria, and they are reportedly under the protection of Al Nusra Front. They do not engage in the battles on the ground or the domestic issues; their main focus is to exploit the power vacuum in Syria to set up preparations for attacks in the US and other Western countries, develop and test hard to detect explosive devices, and recruit Westerners, whose passports allow them to board planes heading to the US with less scrutiny, to perform the operations. A Pentagon spokesman stated that they were “in the final stages of plans to execute major attacks”. This group may be a reaction to the diminishing influence of Al Qaeda in favor of ISIS, and that a successful attack would reaffirm their credentials against the Islamic State (Lund, 2014) (Levitt a, 2014).
Some speculate that the group was first sent to Syria to try to mediate the conflict between ISIS and Al Nusra (Levitt a, 2014).
Links to Bomb Experts of the AQAP
One of the most alarming information for counterterrorism officials is that Fadhli’s network includes bomb making experts from AQAP, most notably Ibrahim Al Asiri who is an expert in making and hiding bombs (underwear bomb, toner cartridge bombs, explosive prototype…) and one of the most wanted terrorists for the West; for example, he was the mastermind behind the underwear bomb that Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab tried to detonate in an airplane over Detroit in 2009. He was also part of the network that led to the ban of uncharged mobiles and laptops on flights (Levitt a, 2014).
Communication intercepts indicate the possibility of Al Asiri travelling to Aleppo in Syria to provide direct assistance to the group; however, US officials believe he would not take such a high risk because of the presence of US surveillance over Syria (Starr, 2014).
Result of the US Strikes
US officials have stated that many leaders and members of the group were able to escape before the raids took place. They also took with them technologically advanced explosive devices that were being prepared for an attack on civil aviation or something similar (Hosenball, 2014).
46 cruise missiles were launched at eight locations linked to the group, but their effect was limited partly due to the lack of US bases, spies, and technology on the ground. The strikes were able to set back the group, but it is definitely not a deadly blow to the group’s operations. Furthermore, some US officials believe that the eulogies posted online for Fadhli may be a smokescreen to turn the attention away from him, and they are convinced he was not killed in the strikes (Hall, 2014).
On September 25, FBI director James Comey said that he was “not confident” that Khorasan’s plans were disrupted while a White House spokesman refused to comment about the level of success of the strikes. Furthermore, the US government still believes that the group is very skilled and capable of launching a surprise attack on the West (Hosenball, 2014).
Have we seen this before?
There are links between the group and Yemeni bomb makers. Yemen is the center of Al Qaeda’s branch in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP). In the late 2000s, Al Qaeda formed a sub-group for the AQAP which was specialized in preparing attacks against important targets outside Yemen. This also included attempts to recruit Westerners and incite “lone wolf” attacks in the US and Europe. This led to drone strikes that killed US citizen Anwar Awlaki who was the head of the AQAP Foreign Operations (Lund, 2014).
The current formation of Khorasan group is very similar to what happened with the AQAP since the AQAP Foreign Operations Cell was under the protection of the AQAP fighters, did not participate in the fighting, and remained behind the scenes to carefully plan international attacks (Hegghammer, 2010).