‘When black flags emerge from the east . . .”
— Quote from a hadith (reported saying of Mohammad)
Khorasan is a historic region of central and southern Asia.
But when an al-Qaeda splinter group embraced “Khorasan” as its name, it wasn’t thinking about geography. Rather, it was seeking the identity of Salafi-extremist purity. It would be a black-flag-bearing army descending from the metaphorical mountains of despair and advancing toward a war for holy justice. For these jihadists, the name “Khorasan” holds mystical significance as nomenclature for God’s army: that which cannot be defeated.
Khorasan sees itself as a movement of divinely inspired, valiant warriors, unafraid and certain of ordained victory.
In reality, of course, Khorasan is a terrorist group that wants to blow up innocent civilians at 35,000 feet. And although it lacks the raw, reflexive brutality of the Islamic State, Khorasan possesses no moral consideration for innocent people. Instead, for Khorasan, as for all violent Salafis — from al-Shabaab to Boko Haram — existential purpose is defined by theological totalitarianism.
Khorasan poses a special threat to America and the West. That is why the U.S. military attacked Khorasan alongside its opening sorties against Islamic State positions in Syria.
Why is it such a threat?
First, while Khorasan is very small (a good estimate is 50 to 80 operatives), it’s an al-Qaeda special-forces unit. Led by Muhsin al-Fadhli — a strategically minded zealot experienced in both terrorist network facilitation and direct action — and manned by skilled and proven terrorists from many different al-Qaeda affiliates, Khorasan has the capacity and intent to conduct major attacks.
Especially problematic for Western intelligence services is the fact that Khorasan makes a fetish out of covert, highly compartmentalized planning. Put simply, where the Islamic State drowns itself in blood, Khorasan relies upon a few select individuals to develop creative plans to evade Western security nets. Guided by al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula’s master bombmaker, Ibrahim al-Asiri, Khorasan has a special affinity for advanced IEDs. The group pursues explosives that can be smuggled onto airliners in laptops or shoes, for example, and then detonated.
And Khorasan doesn’t just pose a physical threat. It also poses a threat in terms of serving as a model for other terrorist groups. Like the Islamic State, Khorasan has learned the lessons of the past. It avoids electronic platforms vulnerable to intelligence monitoring. Moreover, extending al-Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri’s “lone wolf” strategy, Khorasan seeks holders of Western passports — mainly from the EU — to give it greater mobility across Western borders. And, crucially, through airport security checkpoints.
Taken together, all of this makes Khorasan a major threat to the West. While the Islamic States poses a more serious overall threat because of the thousands of Europeans in its ranks and its destabilizing effect in the Middle East, Khorasan must be confronted with urgent, decisive force. Absent that response, the group’s “black flags” will continue their advance from the east, and the lives of Western citizens will be placed in increasing jeopardy.