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Khorasan, explained: why the US is bombing an al-Qaeda group you’ve never heard of

Jabhat al-Nusra fighters. Nusra is al-Qaeda's Syrian branch, and houses Khorasan.
Jabhat al-Nusra fighters. Nusra is al-Qaeda's Syrian branch, and houses Khorasan.
(Fadi al-Halabi/AFP/Getty Images)

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?

Nusra flag

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?

nusra fighters with allies

Jabhat al-Nusra fighters parade with members of another Syrian Islamist group. (Rami al-Sayed/AFP/Getty Images)

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?

nusra supporters

Nusra supporters parade in Aleppo, Syria. (Baraa al-Halabi/AFP/Getty Images)

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?

Destroyed ISIS car (Ahmad al-Rubaye/AFP/Getty images)

Destroyed ISIS car in Kurdistan. (Ahmad al-Rubaye/AFP/Getty Images)

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?

Syrian rebel aleppo

A Syrian rebel stands in the street in Aleppo. (Ahmed Deeb/AFP/Getty Images)

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.