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Explainer: What Is The Khorasan Group?

  • Frud Bezhan

Lieutenant General William Mayville briefs reporters on U.S.-led air strikes in Syria. Mayville says the Khorasan Group is "establishing roots in Syria in order to advance attacks against the West."

Lieutenant General William Mayville briefs reporters on U.S.-led air strikes in Syria. Mayville says the Khorasan Group is "establishing roots in Syria in order to advance attacks against the West."

Islamic State (IS) militants may have stolen the headlines recently, but when a U.S.-led coalition launched air strikes at targets inside Syria this week, a lesser-known extremist group jumped to the fore.

The Khorasan group has been described by the Pentagon as an Al-Qaeda affiliate that was planning attacks in Europe and the United States. Khorasan positions and training camps in northwest Syria were targeted in multiple air strikes carried out by the United States this week.

What is Khorasan?

Khorasan has been labeled a radical Islamist group based near the northwest Syrian city of Aleppo. Unlike IS, which has grabbed headlines for its spectacular advances in Iraq and its social-media prowess, Khorasan and its leadership has had little or no profile.

This, according to some observers, is because the group was unheard of until the name Khorasan was apparently coined by the United States to describe what it calls a "network of seasoned Al-Qaeda veterans."

Khorasan is believed to be made up of Al-Qaeda operatives from across the Middle East, South Asia, and North Africa. Deputy national security adviser Ben Rhodes said the group included "core Al-Qaeda operatives from Afghanistan and Pakistan who made their way to Syria."

On September 21, U.S. Representative Mike Rogers (Republican-Michigan), who chairs the House Intelligence Committee, described the group as "forward-deployed Al-Qaeda operatives" working with Al-Qaeda’s affiliate in Yemen -- Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula -- to build bombs and bring down airplanes.

The Pentagon has called Khorasan an "offshoot from Al-Nusra," Al-Qaeda's branch in Syria. Al-Nusra has earned a reputation as one of the most brutal and effective groups fighting the Syrian government. Al-Nusra, a mix of Syrian extremists and foreign jihadists, has seen many of its foreign fighters defect to the IS militant group over the past year.

Experts say it is unclear how many members the Khorasan Group has and exactly how long it has been in existence.

Why is it being targeted by the United States?

Washington believes the group is using the conflict in Syria as a springboard to launch attacks against the West. Pentagon spokesman Rear Admiral John Kirby told Alhurra on September 23 that Khorasan "was in the final stages, we believe, of planning an attack on Western targets, perhaps in Europe, perhaps in the U.S. homeland."

Khorasan leader Muhsin al-Fadhli in a 2002 photo

Khorasan leader Muhsin al-Fadhli in a 2002 photo

Lieutenant General William Mayville, director of operations for the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, said the group "is clearly not focused on the Syrian people" or the regime of President Bashar al-Assad.

"They are establishing roots in Syria in order to advance attacks against the West," he said. Mayville warned that Khorasan was recruiting foreign fighters who could use their Western passports to return to their countries and carry out attacks.

Director of National Intelligence James Clapper said late last week that "in terms of threat to the homeland, Khorasan may pose as much of a danger" as IS militants.

What are its goals?

Max Abrahms, a professor at Boston's Northeastern University and a terrorism analyst at the Council on Foreign Relations, says that what sets Khorasan apart from other militant groups in Syria, including IS, is that its principal enemy is the West.

"Even though ISIS (the former abbreviation used by the Islamic State militant group) is highly international in terms of its membership -- it has killed American journalists and has rhetorically threatened to attack the U.S. homeland -- the Khorasan Group is even more focused on international attacks," says Abrahms. "The Khorasan Group is not interested in establishing a caliphate and overthrowing Assad."

Abrahms says the emergence of the Khorasan Group could be explained by Al-Qaeda trying to compete organizationally with rival IS militants. He says there is no better way for Al-Qaeda to do that than to cause mass casualties in an attack against the United States through one of its affiliates.

"Al-Qaeda wants to signal to potential members that ISIS is not the only game in town and that Al-Qaeda is still very much around," says Abrahms. "And that if [potential militants] are interested in joining a terrorist group that is active, then Al-Qaeda should be a top choice."

Who leads it?

Khorasan is led by Muhsin al-Fadhli, a 33-year-old Kuwaiti national who until recently was based in Iran, from where he is believed to have raised funds and organized logistical support for Al-Qaeda members in Syria.

Al-Fadhli's past in Iran could help explain the name coined for the group, Khorasan refers to a region in Iran, but is also the name of a historical geographic area that includes parts of modern-day Iran, Afghanistan, and Central Asia.

Fadhli, a veteran Al-Qaeda operative, has been tracked by Washington for more than a decade. The State Department has described him as a "senior facilitator and financier" for Al-Qaeda and put out a $7 million reward for information about his whereabouts in 2012.

According to a statement released by the State Department, Fadhli "has assisted Al-Qaeda in moving multiple operatives from Pakistan via Iraq and Turkey to destinations in Europe, North Africa, and Syria, and [he] is believed likely to continue moving experienced Al-Qaeda operatives to reinforce and gain influence in those areas."

Fadhli, who is believed to have had a close relationship with slain Al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden, has been described by the United Nations as a "bodyguard and second-in-command for a leader in the Al-Qaeda network and fought for Al-Qaeda in the north of Afghanistan. Al-Fadhli also fought against Russian forces in Chechnya, where he trained in the use of firearms, antiaircraft guns, and explosives. Al-Fadhli was a facilitator connected with [Al-Qaeda leader Ayman] al-Zawahri groups in Iraq, providing support to fighters there."

Following a spell in a Kuwaiti prison for funding terrorist activities, Fadhli went to Iran, where Abrahms says he was the head of Al-Qaeda's local affiliate. At some point in the past three years, Fadhli moved to Syria, where he is believed to be residing today.

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    Frud Bezhan

    Frud Bezhan covers Afghanistan and the broader South Asia and Middle East region. Send story tips to bezhanf@rferl.org. 

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