Khorasan, a group of veteran terrorists created by al-Qaeda’s leadership, was little known until its plans to attack Western targets captured the attention of the international community. Although U.S. intelligence agencies have been aware of the group’s existence for months, this information was not publicly disclosed until Director of Intelligence James Clapper acknowledged the threat posed by Khorasan during a press conference in September. Here are 6 things you should know about the group:
- Officials believe Khorasan remains a threat. Unlike the Islamic State or al-Nusra Front, Khorasan isn’t focused on the Assad regime, but rather on launching terrorist attacks against Western targets outside Syria. That’s why Ayman al-Zawahiri, al-Qaeda’s leader, instructed the group to seek out Western recruits (namely those with passports) who could then be sent back to the United States or Europe. Last month, officials claimed that Khorasan was “in the final stages of plans to execute major attacks.” This necessitated U.S. airstrikes (separate from those against the Islamic State) in the Idlib province of Syria, where the group was known to operate. While this likely disrupted any imminent threat, Khorasan’s plots underscore that al-Qaeda remains active in the region—despite statements to the contrary.
- Khorasan’s leader was a confidant of Osama bin Laden. Muhsin al-Fadhli, leader of Khorasan and close friend of Osama bin Laden, had a long history with al-Qaeda and managed its network inside Iran. In 2012, the State Department offered a $7 million reward for information about his location. Al-Fadhli was reportedly killed near Aleppo following the start of U.S. airstrikes in Syria last month, though his death has not been officially confirmed.
- Khorasan had connections with Iran. Part of al-Qaeda’s core group, Khorasan is composed of battle-hardened terrorists. Its leaders fought in Afghanistan and Pakistan before relocating to Iran, after the collapse of Taliban rule in late 2001. Some, including James Phillips, Senior Research Fellow for Middle Eastern Affairs at The Heritage Foundation, have argued this may indicate tolerance for al-Qaeda by the Iranian regime.
- Khorasan was sent to Syria by al-Qaeda. Al-Zawahiri reportedly sent Khorasan to Syria in 2012 to seek out Western recruits. Some have also speculated the group was trying to mediate the growing divide between the al-Nusra Front and the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS). However, it failed to assuage Abu Bakr al-Baghadi, the firebrand leader of ISIS—which now calls itself the Islamic State. Al-Baghadi later broke-away from al-Zawahiri and established his own self-declared caliphate.
- Khorasan’s name. Although the word Khorasan does refer to a historic region in Central Asia that included parts of Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Iran, some believe the group’s name is actually a reference to a prophetic message: “If you see the black banners coming from Khurusan, join that army…no power will be able to stop them, and they will finally reach Baitul Maqdis [Jerusalem], where they will erect their flags.”
- Khorasan is cooperating with al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula. Khorasan has worked closely with al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), the Yemen-based terror organization, whose members include Ibrahim al-Asiri. He is known for his role in the attempted bombing of a Detroit-bound Northwest Airlines flight in 2009 and for trying to surgically implant explosive devices in terrorists. AQAP has reportedly trained members of Khorasan in advanced techniques for bomb-making, such as building devices that have no metal parts.
Patrick Kelly is currently a member of the Young Leaders Program at The Heritage Foundation. For more information on interning at Heritage, please click here.