Why the Khorasan Group Matters: Part Two
I argued in my last post that the Khorasan Group, as well as a series of developments throughout the al-Qaeda (AQ) network, suggest the return of AQ as a potentially serious threat to the United States. A number of events in South Asia, which might have been overlooked if not for the threat from the Khorasan Group, are especially illustrative of the depth of the problem that the U.S. and the world are facing in the AQ network’s resurgence.
On September 4, AQ leader Ayman al-Zawahiri announced the creation of a new affiliate called Al-Qaeda in the Indian Subcontinent (AQIS). This is the first new branch for the group to appear since Shabaab in February 2012, and the territory that it purportedly covers—as well as its main focus—show the scope and scale of the effort that AQ has put into the new affiliate. In his statement introducing AQIS, Zawahiri said that the purview of the fledgling group covered the entire Indian Subcontinent from Burma to Ahmedabad. A follow-up statement by the new head of the group, ‘Asim ‘Umar, specifically named Burma, Bangladesh, India, and Pakistan as part of the territory included in the organization’s portfolio. Meanwhile, the AQIS spokesman named “waging jihad against America and the system of global disbelief” as the first objective of the group, emphasizing the threat to America posed by this affiliate.
Zawahiri also noted that the creation of AQIS was the result of two years of work to bring together the “mujahidin” into the new branch. Although it is difficult to say precisely which groups Zawahiri might have in mind, it is telling that ‘Umar was a member of Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), an insurgent group generally viewed as having a local agenda. At the same time, it is worth remembering that TTP was behind the attempted attack on Times Square in 2010, showing a focus on attacking America as well.
At the time of Zawahiri’s statement, attention was focused on the Islamic State (IS) as the main threat to the United States, Iraq and Syria, and much of the rest of the world. News stories focused on the genocidal behavior of IS, the growing power and appeal of the group, and the decision by the U.S. to support the Iraqi government in its fight against the organization. Given this context, observers believed that Zawahiri’s announcement of AQIS was a publicity stunt, designed to distract from the massive gains made by IS.
Then, the Pakistani government announced on September 9 that, a few days earlier, a “major terrorist attack” against the Pakistani Navy had been disrupted. Over the next three weeks, two completely different descriptions of the incident emerged. Pakistani authorities said that the terrorists attempted to seize control of a ship and carry out an attack against an American vessel, but that the plot was foiled and all the terrorists were killed or arrested before the ship sailed. A series of statements from AQIS, meanwhile, claimed responsibility for the attack and disputed the version of events given by Pakistani authorities. The new AQ affiliate claimed that infiltrators had taken over the ship after it sailed on September 3, and were stopped only sometime after. In this statement AQIS also claimed that they took over another frigate to use against an Indian naval vessel. The purpose of the attacks, AQIS said, was to show that America was the main target of the new affiliate. AQIS would separately take responsibility for the September 6 assassination of Brigadier General Zahoor Fazal Qadri, who served in the Pakistani intelligence services (the ISI).
Several facts stand out from reports on these two terrorist attempts: a number of Pakistani naval officers were involved in the naval plot; at least one ship was targeted, the frigate PNS Zulfiqar, a class of vessel typically armed with a 76.2mm main gun, missiles, torpedoes, and a helicopter; if this plot had succeeded, there would have been serious consequences for any ship attacked by the frigate; and the assassination of an ISI general is unprecedented. Each of these facts has significance for understanding the threat posed by AQIS. Thus, given the position that the military holds in Pakistani society, the suborning of officers is deeply troubling. Also worrisome is the size and scope of the plot, especially from a group that was just formed. If AQIS had managed to carry out its assaults on the American naval ship, it would have led to catastrophic loss of life, far beyond the damage caused by the attack on the USS Cole in 2000. The successful murder of an ISI general is also telling, since it shows the capabilities of this new group.
It is here that we return to the Khorasan Group. Before the news about the Group emerged, it was rather easy to dismiss the creation of AQIS as a “publicity stunt,” Zawahiri as an elderly and isolated man, and the AQ naval attackers as “future Darwin Award Winners.” But the imminent threat posed by the Khorasan Group presents a very different view of AQ’s leadership and the seriousness with which any attack emanating from AQ and its affiliates must be taken. This is especially true given that many of AQ’s affiliates, like AQIS, have specifically threatened to carry out attacks against the U.S.
Not only is the IS not stealing recruits from AQ, both groups are attempting to externalize their competition, turning their fighting and terrorism outward rather than at each other.
The entire series of events also underlines a point that should be reiterated here: earlier thinking about IS was that it would take over the global jihad and sideline AQ by convincing jihadists to join up with the new “Caliphate.” There were even hopes that serious infighting between IS and AQ would lead to their mutual exhaustion and collapse. These events, and other developments over the past few months—as well as hard data from the Syrian Observatory—show something quite different. Not only is the IS not stealing recruits from AQ, both groups are attempting to externalize their competition, turning their fighting and terrorism outward rather than at each other. The Khorasan Group and the new AQIS, in other words, show that the creation of the Islamic State has not lessened the danger to the United States posed by AQ. Instead, the establishment of IS might, in fact, have simply doubled the threat.