As the Islamic State terrorist organization commands attention with its cold-blooded tactics of rape and murder, another group of violent extremists in Syria considers itself tougher — and actually may have more ambition to attack the United States.
The group, known as Khorasan, was acknowledged and named publicly for the first time Thursday by National Intelligence Director James Clapper.
Clapper confirmed that Khorasan may pose as great a threat to the U.S. as the Islamic State, also called ISIS or ISIL. “There is potentially yet another threat to the homeland, yes,” he said at an intelligence conference in Washington.
In an interview with The Daily Signal, James Phillips, an expert on the Middle East at The Heritage Foundation, breaks down the basics of the Khorasan group, explains their ambition and discusses the threat they pose to Americans.
The Daily Signal: What exactly is the Khorasan group and what is their aim?
Phillips: The Khorasan group is a cell of veteran terrorists belonging to the al-Qaeda core group — the high command of the al-Qaeda network that relocated to Pakistan after the 2001 defeat of the Taliban regime in Afghanistan.
Osama bin Laden’s successor, Ayman al-Zawahiri, reportedly dispatched the Khorasan group to Syria to link up with al-Qaeda’s official franchise in Syria, Jabhat al-Nusra — which means “the Victory Front.”
U.S. intelligence officials believe their mission is to recruit European and American Muslim militants who have traveled to Syria to fight alongside Islamist extremist groups that form part of the rebel coalition fighting Syria’s Assad regime.
The Khorasan group hopes to train and deploy these recruits, who hold American and European passports, for attacks against western targets.
Q: How long has the group been around? Did they only recently get on America’s radar?
A: Al-Qaeda has sought to attack America, the “far enemy,” for more than two decades and the Khorasan group is its most recent vehicle for launching such attacks.
U.S. intelligence agencies have been aware of its efforts for many months, but did not publicly acknowledge it by name until Thursday, when Director of Intelligence James Clapper confirmed its existence at an intelligence conference in Washington.
Jabhat al-Nusra proclaimed its formation in 2012, and the Khorasan group probably was deployed in Syria some time after that.
Q: What is their main goal in Syria?
A: The Khorasan group is focused on launching terrorist attacks on western targets outside Syria, while cooperating with the al-Nusra Front, which focuses on overthrowing the Assad regime and eventually establishing an Islamic state in Syria.
ISIS is an al-Qaeda offshoot that broke away from the leadership of Zawahiri and proclaimed that it already has established an Islamic state in Syria and Iraq.
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The brash and ambitious ISIS leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghadi, belongs to a new generation of al-Qaeda leaders and sees himself as Osama bin Laden’s true successor.
The al-Nusra Front has clashed violently with ISIS inside Syria, but the Khorasan group as far as I know has focused exclusively on organizing attacks on western targets rather than on rival Islamist extremist groups or the Assad regime.
Q: Is it true that the Khorasan group is working with al-Qaeda’s Yemen affiliate on making bombs? How sophisticated are the bombs? Could they get past airport security?
A: U.S. intelligence officials report that the Khorasan group has cooperated closely with AQAP (Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula), one of the most dangerous al-Qaeda franchises. AQAP’s innovative bomb-maker, Ibrahim al-Asiri, has developed sophisticated explosive devices that have been placed on at least three aircraft bound for the United States.
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He has pioneered new techniques for making bombs that are extremely difficult to detect, including the one worn by the “underwear bomber” who sought to destroy an American airliner over Detroit on Christmas Day in 2009.
Now the Khorasan group is seeking to match up Western recruits developed by al-Nusra with bombs developed by AQAP. This threat has prompted heightened security precautions at airports.
Q: The Khorasan group has been described as being more of a threat to the U.S. than ISIS. Is that true?
A: I think each group presents a diverse set of threats to the United States and its allies. ISIS now poses primarily a regional threat, but could soon pose a threat to the U.S. homeland by inspiring “lone wolf” terrorist attacks or more complex terrorist operations.
The Khorasan group currently poses more of a threat to the U.S. homeland, because of its greater experience in transnational terrorist operations and access to more sophisticated bombs.
Q: Has the Khorasan group been subject to American military action? If not, why not?
A: The Khorasan group is much smaller and harder to target with conventional military attacks than ISIS, which has mushroomed into a quasi-state with a hybrid army that is more visible and vulnerable to attack.
As far as I know, Khorasan has not been singled out for attack, but it may have been hit in attacks targeted at its al-Qaeda fraternal partners.
But since it operates in areas controlled by al-Nusra, which apparently is not included in the Obama administration’s strategy for combatting terrorism in Syria, the Khorasan group may be relatively free from worrying about immediate U.S. military action.
Q: How would you characterize the threat that the Khorasan group poses to the U.S., especially compared with core al-Qaeda or ISIS?
A: The Khorasan threat is part of the al-Qaeda network’s war against America. ISIS has drifted away from its al-Qaeda parent organization, but continues to mount terrorist threats, primarily in the Middle East region. All of the groups are poison fruit from the same Islamist extremist ideological tree, but they have different priorities in launching their attacks.