The Khorasan Group is attracting
hundreds of new followers in Syria, where its recruiting of
disaffected Muslims in the U.S. and Europe makes it one of the
most dangerous terrorist groups to America and its allies.
“Syria is a very rich recruiting ground for the Khorasan
Group,” which targets primarily first-and second-generation
European immigrants because “it’s much easier to train them,
motivate them, give them a network and send them back to the
West,” said Rohan Gunaratna, head of the International Centre
for Political Violence and Terrorism Research at Nanyang
Technological University in Singapore.
Gunaratna estimates that “it cannot be more than a few
dozen” fighters who’ve gone through this process, “but they
present a significant threat, because it will be difficult for
Western governments to know who they are.” The group’s capacity
to recruit, train and activate terrorists means there probably
will be more, he said.
The U.S. carried out airstrikes against the group in Syria
yesterday to counter what officials said was an “imminent”
terror attack. U.S. officials so far have provided no details
about where, when or what the terrorists planned to attack or
the credibility of the intelligence about a possible strike.
A particular concern about the Khorasan faction, according
to U.S. intelligence officials, is the group’s link to al-Qaeda
in the Arabian Peninsula’s leading bomb designer, Ibrahim al-Asiri, a Saudi Arabian in Yemen whom the U.S. has targeted with
drones, so far unsuccessfully.
His specialty, said the officials, speaking on condition of
anonymity to discuss classified intelligence, has been bombs
designed to explode aboard aircraft and inserted in clothing,
implanted in the human body or packed into packages or computer
printers. So far, they said, his explosive of choice has been
the powerful pentaerythritol tetranitrate, known as PETN.
Despite the attention to Islamic State terrorists, Khorasan
has emerged in recent weeks as a more immediate threat in the
view of the U.S. intelligence community because it’s focused on
attacking America and Europe rather than establishing a new
extremist caliphate in the Sunni Arab world.
The group’s intentions put “them at the top of groups
threatening the West,” said Seth Jones, director of the
International Security and Defense Policy Center at the Rand
Corp., a policy group based in Santa Monica, California.
Regardless of Islamic State’s “bluster,” Jones said that
extremist group poses less of a threat than Khorasan does
because “Islamic State’s focus right now seems to me to be
trying to keep control of the territory it has in Syria and
expand what it has in Iraq.”
Khorasan “is essentially al-Qaeda central moving into the
Syria conflict,” said Peter Bergen, a national security analyst
and member of the Bipartisan Policy Center’s Homeland Security
Project, who spoke at a forum yesterday on terrorism.
Discussing the threat of a terrorist attack by the group,
Rear Admiral John Kirby, the Pentagon spokesman, said yesterday
on ABC’s “Good Morning America” that “we believe the
individuals plotting and planning it were eliminated” in the
eight U.S. airstrikes.
Khorasan’s focus on recruiting Americans and Europeans and
years of experience operating clandestinely as an extremist
Sunni organization in Shiite Iran will make it hard for the U.S.
to eliminate the threat completely, Gunaratna said.
U.S. and European officials estimate that about 12,000
foreign fighters have gone to Syria to fight. Most have gone to
fight the Syrian regime, Gunaratna said, “but Khorasan is
recruiting those people,” especially Europeans whose passports
enable them to return home or travel to the U.S., Canada,
Australia and elsewhere without restrictions.
The extremist group is a “network of seasoned al-Qaeda
veterans” preparing to attack “United States and Western
interests,” the Defense Department said in a statement.
Khorasan has expanded from a few dozen to hundreds of members
since arriving in Syria about two years ago from Iraq and Iran,
where they fled from Afghanistan in late 2001 and early 2002,
according to Gunaratna.
Al-Qaeda leaders dispatched the core group from the tribal
areas of Pakistan to recruit European Union, Russian and U.S.
passport holders coming to Syria to wage jihad, and some U.S.
intelligence officials think it may be recruiting as well in
Chechnya, Libya and Somalia, also magnets for young, disaffected
The strikes against Khorasan militants west of Aleppo,
Syria’s largest city, were conducted by the U.S. using Tomahawk
cruise missiles, according to the Pentagon. They were launched
separately from a series of strikes by the U.S. and five Arab
nations on Islamic State targets in Syria.
Lieutenant General William Mayville, director of operations
for the Joint Chiefs of Staff, was cautious in his evaluation,
saying he didn’t know yet whether the strikes against Khorasan
were successful or whether any of the group’s leaders were
“We’re still assessing the effects of our strikes,”
Mayville said at a Pentagon press conference yesterday. The U.S.
believed the group “was nearing the execution phase of an
attack either in Europe or the homeland” and “has attempted to
recruit Westerners to serve as operatives or to infiltrate back
into their homelands,” he said.
The Department of Homeland Security and the FBI yesterday
issued a joint intelligence bulletin in which they said that the
strikes “may have temporarily disrupted attack plotting” by
the Khorasan Group. It said that attacks by that group and by
Islamic State “are less likely near-term,” but that “plotting
by these groups may accelerate.”
The intelligence bulletin, which was obtained by Bloomberg
News, addresses no specific plots and encourages police agencies
to alert federal authorities to suspicious activity.
U.S security officials also have warned federal and local
police departments to be on the lookout for “homegrown violent
extremists” who may be motivated to strike in the wake of the
airstrikes in Syria.
The strikes won’t work to defeat Khorasan, Gunaratna said.
“Targeting this group from the sky, you can’t destroy it,
because they are scattered and they are excellent in their
clandestine operations,” Gunaratna said. It means “the
American fight against this group will go on for a long time,”
he said. “There are grave limits to fighting insurgency from
the sky, from 10-20-30,000 feet above the ground.”
U.S. officials had warned in the past week that the
intelligence community needs to continue watching lower-profile
terrorists amid the focus on Islamic State.
“What we can’t do is let down our guards for any one of
these” groups, CIA Director John Brennan said at a Sept. 18
conference on intelligence issues in Washington. “You have to
be looking at some of these smaller groups.”
In addition to Khorasan, those include the al-Nusra Front,
which has ties to al-Qaeda and has made clear its intent to
launch attacks outside of the Syrian battleground.
Compared with Islamic State, fighters for al-Nusra keep a
lower profile on the Internet, with most videos aimed at local
Muslims, according to the Mapping Militant Organizations project
at Stanford University in California. The videos or postings
generally don’t show identifiable fighters from the U.S. and
Europe, even though the group attracts the second-largest
contingent of foreign militants in Syria.
To contact the reporters on this story:
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Nicole Gaouette in Washington at
To contact the editors responsible for this story:
John Walcott at