September 23, 2014
The Khorasan Group: Syria's al Qaeda Threat
Eight U.S. strikes targeted the Khorasan group west of Aleppo in Syria on September 22. Pentagon spokesman Rear Admiral John Kirby confirmed that the Khorasan group, which is tied to al Qaeda, was “planning imminent attacks” against targets that included the U.S. homeland. The al Qaeda threat growing in Syria is now realized. It is independent from that posed by the Islamic State, and both must be addressed by any Iraq-Syria strategy.
The Khorasan group is a new group in name only. It is al Qaeda. The highly secretive group is a collection of about 50 veteran al Qaeda operatives that moved into Syria and began working with Jabhat al Nusra, al Qaeda’s affiliate there by mid-2013. U.S. officials only just acknowledged its existence officially: Director of National Intelligence James Clapper said that the Khorasan group may be as a great a threat to the U.S. homeland as the Islamic State is on September 18. The Khorasan group’s precise role in Syria is not fully known, but it is behind efforts to recruit and train Americans and Europeans for operations in the West and may also serve as a key link between Jabhat al Nusra and al Qaeda’s Yemen-based affiliate, al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula.
The leader of the Khorasan group, Muhsen al Fadhli, is a senior operative who had been close to Osama bin Laden and who ran al Qaeda’s Iran-based network until the recent spike sectarian tensions ended the alliance of convenience between Shia Iran and Sunni al Qaeda. Fadhli’s resume is long and distinguished: he is one of the few individuals to know of the September 11, 2001 attacks in their planning stage and he also fought in Afghanistan and Chechnya. He facilitated al Qaeda in Iraq and is linked to a terrorist financing network in Kuwait. Fadhli assumed command of al Qaeda’s Iranian network in late 2011, which served as a key pipeline of funds and fighter for al Qaeda. Fadhli moved from Iran to Syria in April 2013, probably to mediate the infighting between Jabhat al Nusra and the Islamic State in Iraq and al Sham (ISIS). He also probably helped connect Jabhat al Nusra and others to his Kuwaiti network. (Unconfirmed reports say that Fadhli was killed in the U.S. strikes.)
CNN identified a second member of the Khorasan group, Abdulrahman Mohammed al Juhni. Juhni had been a member of al Qaeda’s shura council and was al Qaeda’s chief of security for counterintelligence. Like Fadhli, Juhni is a veteran. He helped support al Qaeda in Afghanistan and was in charge of al Qaeda’s administrative affairs for regions in North and South Waziristan, Pakistan. He left Pakistan for Syria in 2012 and was among a group of senior al Qaeda members who entered Syria to direct operations against Western targets by mid-2013, around the same time that Fadhli entered Syria.
The Khorasan group’s presence shows a continued strength of the al Qaeda network: its ability to move its expertise across geographic space and coordination between multiple groups. The announced February 2014 al Qaeda threat to western airlines connected to AQAP’s bombmaker, Ibrahim al Asiri, and Syrian foreign fighters is probably a by-product of such coordination. Intelligence confirmed in June 2014 showed that Jabhat al Nusra and AQAP were cooperating to produce a new bomb design with nonmetallic explosives. A second al Qaeda group, the “Victory Committee,” is supposed to be working in Syria as well with Jabhat al Nusra to assist with the group’s strategic planning. Here, senior al Qaeda members led by Sanafi al Nasr serve to advise Jabhat al Nusra's leadership in the Syria fight, tapping into a wealth of experience. Other known senior al Qaeda members in Syria, Abu Humam al Suri, Abu Firas al Suri, and Abu al Hassan, add to al Qaeda’s expertise there.
Al Qaeda’s Jabhat al Nusra may be focused on the local fight against the Syrian regime, but senior al Qaeda leadership continues to direct attacks against the U.S. using the Syrian safe-haven as a base. Any counterterrorism strategy in Iraq and Syria must also articulate a plan to deal with the Jabhat al Nusra and al Qaeda threat as well.