WASHINGTON – 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 Center 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 have 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 eight airstrikes against the group in Syria on Tuesday to counter what officials said was an “imminent” terrorist attack. U.S. officials believe the attack’s plotters were killed, but so far have provided no details.
U.S. intelligence officials are trying to confirm whether the strike killed a man who used the name Muhsin al-Fadli. They believe he was the operational leader of Khorasan in Syria.
However, one official cautioned that the intelligence so far is inconclusive, and al-Fadli’s death would not be the end of the group because it has a small cadre of leaders with experience in Pakistan and Afghanistan. Al-Qaida created Khorasan, the official said, after the death of Osama bin Laden.
A particular concern about the Khorasan faction, say U.S. intelligence officials, is the group’s link to al-Qaida 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 has been bombs that are designed to explode aboard aircraft and are inserted into clothing, implanted in the human body or hidden inside packages or computer printers, said the officials. So far, they said, his explosive of choice has been the powerful pentaerythritol tetranitrate, more commonly known as PETN.
Despite the attention being paid 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 is 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, the 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-Qaida 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 Tuesday on terrorism.
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 oppose 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-Qaida 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. The members had fled to Iraq and Iran from Afghanistan in late 2001 and early 2002, said Gunaratna.
Al-Qaida leaders had dispatched the core group from the tribal areas of Pakistan to recruit holders of European Union, Russian and U.S. passports who were coming to Syria to wage jihad. Some U.S. intelligence officials think it may be recruiting as well in Chechnya, Libya and Somalia, which also are magnets for young, disaffected Muslims.
The strikes against Khorasan militants west of Aleppo, Syria’s largest city, were conducted by the U.S. using Tomahawk cruise missiles.
Lt. Gen. William Mayville, director of operations for the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said he did not know yet whether the strikes against Khorasan had been successful or whether any of the group’s leaders had been killed.
“We’re still assessing the effects of our strikes,” Mayville said at a Pentagon news conference Tuesday.
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.
An intelligence bulletin issued by the Department of Homeland Security and the FBI 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 will not 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,” he 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.”
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 Nusra Front, which has ties to al-Qaida and has made clear its intent to launch attacks outside of the Syrian battleground.
Compared with Islamic State, fighters for 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 do not show identifiable fighters from the U.S. and Europe, even though the group attracts the second-largest contingent of foreign militants in Syria.
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