ISIS versus Khorasan

ISIS versus Khorasan

The United States continues to launch airstrikes against ISIS. Not only is it unclear if the airstrikes are working to dislodge ISIS from its territory, but recent press reports suggest that ISIS is not even the most important threat facing U.S. interests.

The New York Times quotes Director of National Intelligence James Clapper as saying that the militant group Khorasan poses as much threat to the United States as ISIS:

Some American officials and national security experts said the intense focus on the Islamic State had distorted the picture of the terrorism threat that has emerged from the chaos of Syria’s civil war, and that the more immediate threats still come from traditional terror groups like Khorasan and the Nusra Front, which is Al Qaeda’s designated affiliate in Syria.

Mr. Fadhli, 33, has been tracked by American intelligence agencies for at least a decade. According to the State Department, before Mr. Fadhli arrived in Syria, he had been living in Iran as part of a small group of Qaeda operatives who had fled to the country from Afghanistan after the Sept. 11 attacks. Iran’s government said the group was living under house arrest, but the exact circumstances of the Qaeda operatives were disputed for years, and many members of the group ultimately left Iran for Pakistan, Syria and other countries.

In 2012, the State Department identified Mr. Fadhli as Al Qaeda’s leader in Iran, directing “the movement of funds and operatives” through the country. A $7 million reward was offered for information leading to his capture. The same State Department release said he was working with wealthy “jihadist donors” in Kuwait, his native country, to raise money for Qaeda-allied rebels in Syria.

The argument for this assessment, I suppose, is that while ISIS controls a large swath of territory in Iraq and Syria, their ambitions are currently focused on territorial expansion and local control. Although they have foreign fighters with foreign passports (and thus easy access to foreign territories), they have so far demonstrated little interest in launching terror attacks in the United States. Of course, that might change in the future once ISIS consolidates control over its territory, but for now it is an accurate statement of the current state of affairs.

In contrast, Khorasan is reportedly more focused on traditional terrorist goals: launching attacks against western countries. The group is led by a former Osama Bin Laden associate named Muhsin al-Fadhli. He was allegedly responsible for, among other things, the bombing of a French oil tanker, MV Limburg, in 2002. (A military commission recently dropped charges against defendant al-Nashiri in connection with that bombing, holding that the government had introduced no evidence to show that the MV Limburg bombing was perpetrated in connection with the armed conflict against al-Qaeda, a necessary predicate for the commission to exercise jurisdiction over the case.)

Americans often ignore the internal disputes between these various organizations, producing a vastly oversimplified portrait of the local political situation. In addition to ISIS and Khorasan, each with different agents, al-Qaeda has its own syndicate in the region, the Nusra Front, which is fighting for control over Syria against both ISIS and the government regime of President Assad. One point that the Times article makes is that the U.S. military intervention against ISIS might end up helping the Nusra Front. After the US degrades the military capabilities of ISIS, the Nusra Front might consolidate its control of the anti-Assad faction and inherit any opportunistic fighters now working for ISIS. The only way to prevent this from happening is to make sure that the moderate opposition is poised to “fill the vacuum” once ISIS is weakened. However, I’m not terribly optimistic that the US can ensure that their assistance to the moderate opposition ends up in the right hands. We have enough trouble controlling government bureaucracy in our own country; doing it in war-torn Syria seems near impossible.

As for Khorasan and its relative threat-level versus ISIS, only time will tell which group is most interested in launching terror attacks in the West. Al-Fadhli’s association with Bin Laden and his alleged participation in previous terror attacks suggests that Khorasan, and the threat it represents, should be taken seriously. The fact that it does not carry the “al-Qaeda” moniker should not confuse anyone regarding the threat that it represents.

All of this suggests that US policy might be too reactive. The Obama administration only put the ISIS threat on the front burner after the beheadings generated mass outrage. The method it selected to fight ISIS (airstrikes) does not appear to be working, and ISIS continues to gain territory and execute prisoners. On top of that, greater dangers lurk in the extremist groups that have been pushed off the front pages by recent events.

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Robert Clarke

Accepting all that, I don’t think it actually affects what seems to be the strategic rationale for the air strikes, which is that unlike all the other groups mentioned, ISIS seized swathes of Iraq, endangered two governments which are US allies (I am counting Kurdistan as autonomous, which it effectively is) and raised the spectre of massive Iranian intervention. The possibility of attacks on US soil strikes me as mere window dressing.


Today, Tuesday, air strikes against both have taken place in Syria — things have changed, much more is in the planning and “works” Stay tuned


[…] from the media, have done everything possible to foster that impression. In fact, attacks on ISIS may strengthen its main rival in Syria, the Al-Qaeda-affiliated Nusra Front. Thus law professor Ryan Goodman reports a […]