In the last two days, Washington, along with various media outlets, have been reporting on the "Khurasan Group," a shadowy terrorist cell in Syria in its later stages of an attack plot against an unspecified Western target(s). It seemed to come out of nowhere; America, in launching what has been specifically branded as a war on the Islamic State (IS), claims a victorious aerial attack against a group no one has ever heard of.
The truth, however, is that virtually everyone around the world has heard about this group, more likely by its other name: al-Qaeda (AQ).
Understanding the Khurasan Group
The "Khurasan" in "Khurasan Group" refers to the Afghanistan/Pakistan area―an older Islamic term designated to the region and used by jihadists just the same as "Shaam" for Syria or "Bilad al-Rafadayen [the country of the two rivers]" for Iraq. Since AQ grew in the last decade with branching subgroups, some are also identified by their historic location names, such as al-Qaeda in Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) as a reference to the Western north Africa.
We're all familiar with AQ as being present in the Afghanistan/Pakistan area for at least two decades now. The region has housed such senior operatives as late AQ leader Osama bin Laden and current leader Ayman al-Zawahiri. Thus, to differentiate between the various AQ branches and locations, jihadists often refer to AQ leadership as "The Khurasan leadership" or "the brothers in Khurasan," rather than using the name "al-Qaeda central."
In recent years, amid the extremist vacuum created by the Syrian Civil War, AQ operatives and leaders from the Afghanistan/Pakistan region were dispatched to Syria to assist and form AQ's relatively new branch there, al-Nusra Front.
In recent years, amid the extremist vacuum created by the Syrian Civil War, AQ operatives and leaders from the Afghanistan/Pakistan region were dispatched to Syria to assist and form AQ's relatively new branch there, al-Nusra Front. Here, the "Khurasan Group" has essentially operated alongside al-Nusra Front as a co-AQ affiliate since at least 2011.
Prominent members of AQ's "Khurasan Group" have included well-known AQ operatives and trainers such as Abdullah Suleiman Salih al-Dhabah (AKA Abu Ali al-Qasimi), a tacked name on Saudi Arabia's list of most-wanted AQ members who arrived in Syria as early as 2011. This list also includes top al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), including their top leader, Nasser al-Wahayshi. As reported by SITE, al-Dhabah was killed in Syria in January of this year. Also among the leaders is Abdulmuhassan Abdullah Ibrahim al-Sharj (AKA Sanafi al-Nasr), another wanted Saudi AQ affiliate and recruiter who moved with the group to Syria from the Afghanistan-Pakistan area.
Other prominent members include long-time AQ financier Muhsin al-Fadhli, another name on the Saudi most-wanted list who was purportedly killed in recent U.S. airstrikes in Syria between September 22 and 23; and "Abu Yousuf al-Turki," a AQ senior operative dispatched to Syria and considered among the best AQ snipers and trainers. Since his arrival to Syria, al-Turki served as a commander with the Nusra Front.
It should be noted that these men with the "Khurasan Group," acting as AQ operatives in Syria, did not attempt to hide their presence in the region. Some of them were even active on Twitter. For instance, when al-Dhabah was killed in January 2013, it was al-Nasr who tweeted about it and provided a photo to his 23,000+ followers. He stated:
#Martyrdom_Abu_Ali_alQasimi [Dahab] the lion fighter, one of the wanted in the 47 list, may Allah rest his soil, got injured in Afghanistan but his end was in al-Sham
Al-Nasr's Twitter page constantly tweets the group's activities in Syria with the Nusra Front. He has even reported about his discussions with IS leadership in attempt to try resolving the problems between the groups.
The connections between these AQ operatives and the Nusra Front were publicly stated many times. On December 18, 2013, al-Nasr wrote about Abu Mohammed al-Joulani, the head of Nusra Front, "Joulani represents me. May Allah protect him."
Though al-Nasr was reported to be dead by some jihadists in March 2014, later reports in April showed him alive in Syria, claiming that previous announcements of his death were for "security reasons." His last tweet was made less than a week ago on September 18.
Al-Nasr is not the only one from the group to openly communicate to followers through Twitter. Even the slain leader, al-Dhabah, had a Twitter page. His last tweet was made on January 17, 2014, a day before his reported death. Throughout his tweets, he repeated his pledge to Zawahiri, his experiences with jihad, and suggestions to the fighters in Syria. On January 13, four days before his death, he tweeted:
Advice to the Muhajireen in Syria, teach your women to use arms like the Kalashnikovs and guns and hand grenades and the application should be practical so as to break the fear of arms with them.
Al-Dhabah even tweeted inspired calls for women in Syria to become more involved in the fight:
Allah is great, one of the Muhajireen women in Syria wears an explosive belt and saying that if the Sahwaat enter upon us I will pull it against them. The Muhajireen [immigrant] women are a red line, you dirty Sahwaat.
Regardless of whether we reference them as the Khurasan Group or any other name, there is no doubt that these and other AQ operatives and leaders who moved from the Afghanistan/Pakistan region remain just as much a part of AQ as ever.
Also important to note is that AQ attempts to attack Americans and American targets more than any other jihadi group. And, being in Syria along with al-Nusra Front, the group has obtained further access for everything that takes to prepare attacks: explosives, men (Americans), training camps, and the expertise.
Why the Renaming?
Knowing these details, the name "Khurasan Group" begins to beg questions. Why did the Obama administration create a new name? Why not simply call the group AQ? Is the AQ name no longer sufficient to credit attacks?
There is more than one reason for the renaming.
For one, the U.S. government's naming of this cell of jihadist heavyweights as the "Khurasan Group" is an attempt to distance the group from AQ—even though that is precisely what the group is.
One of the Obama Administration's key foreign policy bragging points has been that "al-Qaeda has been decimated." However, the existence of this AQ haven in Syria—allegedly nearing the final stages of a Western-aimed attack—pokes a sizable hole in this assertion.
By labeling this cell as the "Khurasan Group," a name that would expectedly seem obscure to many Westerners, AQ's thriving presence in Syria is effectively dumped into a confusing sea of remaining groups and subgroups.
AQ's exploits in Syria have been lost in the dominating buzz surrounding IS as well as the chaotic bed of other rebel groups in the region. By labeling this cell as the "Khurasan Group," a name that would expectedly seem obscure to many Westerners, AQ's thriving presence in Syria is effectively dumped into a confusing sea of remaining groups and subgroups.
Statements from Washington reflect this rhetorical maneuver. In his recent speech on September 10, President Obama made 20 references to IS (referring to the group as ISIL), and zero mentions of al-Nusra Front. More, the president's only mentions of AQ were made as part of initial claims of targeting leaders and affiliates in Yemen, Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Somalia, and then of the group's former affiliation with IS.
Washington's labeling diversion is not only purposed for Americans. Currently, the U.S. government is working to maintain a coalition not only of Western nations, but also of Arab allies such as Bahrain, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Jordan. Such cooperation has been easier to achieve now than it was a decade ago—particularly due to a mutual distaste for IS. AQ, however, still draws widespread support across the region, making it a tricky element in the mix.
Attempting to counter Iranian Shi'a expansions in Syria from one hand, and worried about the growing strength of IS, Gulf countries comprise a large amount of Nusra Front funding and support. For instance, figures like Sheikh Shafi Al-Ajami, a prominent member Kuwait's parliament, has openly found a venue on Kuwaiti state television to fundraise AQ-affiliated military operations in Syria. On May 25, 2013, Ajami was able to state that "we bought, and will continue buying" weapons for Mujahideen fighters in Syria, and even followed up with a "weapons wish list" consisting of heat-seeking missile, guided rockets, armor piercing shells, and anti-aircraft machine gun—all with their respective prices.
So, while the Obama Administration balances a delicate coalition of Arab nations, attacks on AQ will likely continue to be swept under the carpet—or at least labeled otherwise. In the meantime, the American public and media should not take every name and operation they hear at face value as the politics of war are often, by their very nature, misleading.