Politics & Policy

Was the ‘Khorasan Group’ Plotting an Imminent Attack?

Ayman al-Zawahiri in 2005 (Getty)
There may have been a plot, but Obama can’t acknowledge its real source.

The Daily Beast’s Eli Lake is one of the best national-security reporters there is. Late this week, he made an important contribution to the “Khorasan” debate — the controversy over President Obama’s commencement of an aerial bombing campaign, in the absence of congressional authorization, based on what the administration has portrayed as an “imminent” threat to the United States. The source of the threat was said to be the “Khorasan Group,” a virtually unknown terrorist entity.

The upshot of Mr. Lake’s report is that back in June, U.S. military and intelligence officials assessed that “a shadowy network of al Qaeda veterans in Syria were planning to attack airliners flying to the United States.” The officials thus formulated combat plans for strikes against this terror cell’s key locations. These “targeting packages,” however, were not submitted to the president because, according to an unidentified senior intelligence official, military brass knew Mr. Obama would not authorize the strikes. They did not want to ask if the answer was certain to be “no.”

I have no doubt that this is the case. My focus, however, is on Mr. Lake’s description of the Khorasan controversy. As he frames it,

Some critics on the left and right have questioned whether the White House invented the threat from the so-called “Khorasan Group” in order to justify airstrikes that began in September against al Qaeda and ISIS targets in Syria.

“ISIS,” of course, refers to the Islamic State, formerly, the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (meaning Iraq and Greater Syria or the Levant). It is the al-Qaeda spin-off currently rampaging across that region. ISIS is distinguished from al-Qaeda because the two — at least for the moment — are rivals. Al-Qaeda’s Syrian franchise is Jabhat al-Nusra. Mr. Lake further asserts that this franchise “has been focused on its fight inside [Syria],” in apparent distinction from the so-called Khorasan Group’s focus on attacking the United States.

This is all worth teasing out because there is confusion about what the Khorasan controversy is over. The Lake report, moreover, is a valuable demonstration of how the government’s conscious avoidance of Islamic-supremacist ideology leads to wayward analysis and policy.

It is true that Obama critics have questioned whether the White House invented the threat from the “Khorasan Group.” Still, this conflates two things that should be scrutinized separately: (a) whether there really was a threat, and (b) whether there really is a “Khorasan Group” as represented by administration officials. Many of us who reject the latter are less skeptical about the former.

With respect to the so-called Khorasan Group, the overarching objection here is that we are really just talking about al-Qaeda. No one doubts that al-Qaeda, being an international terror network that has been at war with the United States for about 20 years, has an internal organizational structure as well as both franchises and smaller cells throughout the world. But the units, franchises, and cells are not independent, autonomous operators; they are al-Qaeda. That, in fact, is what separates them from the Islamic State, which has broken away from the mother ship, at least for the time being.

The Obama administration portrayed the abruptly emergent “Khorasan Group” as if it were a standalone terrorist organization — a jihadist-combat entity targeting the United States. In reality, the threat the administration was talking about was from al-Qaeda. The administration does not like to admit that al-Qaeda is still a formidable enemy because President Obama has made a habit of falsely claiming to have defeated it. That is why we are hearing about the “Khorasan Group.”

To the extent such an entity exists, however, it is merely a small group of experienced and trusted al-Qaeda operatives who advise the terror network’s emir, Ayman al-Zawahiri, and carry out his directives. In this instance, Zawahiri sent some of these top terrorists to Syria, to work with the Syrian franchise, al-Nusra. As I noted earlier this week, and as Mr. Lake also reports, al-Anan Television’s Jenan Moussa has documented that putative Khorasan members were understood within the al-Qaeda framework to be al-Nusra’s elite unit. This is consistent with other reporting I’ve previously cited, which details how Syrian jihadists now said to be part of “Khorasan” were working within, and were indistinguishable from, al-Nusra.

Bottom line: It was all al-Qaeda. Khorasan, al-Nusra, and al-Qaeda are one and the same.

Obama’s approach is to atomize al-Qaeda into its separate parts. Politically, this is intended to make it appear that the president has made great progress against a network that, in actuality, has gotten larger and more threatening on his watch. Philosophically, it fits the Obama agenda of miniaturizing the enemy into small outfits, consumed by regional or parochial concerns and largely unthreatening to the United States — nuisances unconnected by Islamic-supremacist ideology and manageable by law-enforcement processes.

Obama implausibly bragged that the killing of bin Laden by U.S. special forces during his first term was a fatal blow to the global terror network. Patently, this has proved not to be the case, so administration officials now maintain that the president was referring merely to “core al-Qaeda” — the hierarchy of al-Qaeda said to be holed up in Pakistan and Afghanistan. That is deceptive revisionism: If you review the president’s campaign rhetoric, he was extravagantly claiming to have defeated al-Qaeda, not a small subset of al-Qaeda. But the fraud runs deeper: “Core al-Qaeda” is a term cooked up by our government, not by the terror network. It is useful because the “core” can be sliced as finely as the president needs to slice it in order to depict the killing of this or that terrorist as “decimation.”

The pretense does not end with assertions that the “core” is distinct from the impressive transcontinental network al-Qaeda’s leaders have built, or that even the core is somehow distinct from its own little “Khorasan.” The government draws further artificial distinctions by claiming that separate al-Qaeda entities have unconnected missions.

For example, the “Khorasan Group” was clearly operating within al-Nusra, the Syrian al-Qaeda franchise. Yet, Mr. Lake reports the intelligence community’s assessment that al-Nusra “has been focused on its fight inside” Syria, while the allegedly separate “Khorasan” concentrated on attacking the United States.#page#

This ignores al-Qaeda’s Islamic-supremacist ideology. Al-Qaeda — the whole international network — has an overarching goal of global conquest: placing the entire world under an Islamic caliphate governed by its construction of sharia. Put aside whether you think the goal can be accomplished. The point is that they believe it can — that, in time, it will.

Achieving the goal calls for the accomplishment of several important missions, most prominently including: defeating the United States (“the head of the snake”) and its Western allies; destroying Israel (“the little Satan” — the U.S. being “the big Satan”); overthrowing Middle Eastern regimes said to be “secular” or “infidel” (i.e., non-adherent to al-Qaeda’s construction of sharia even if nominally Muslim); and uniting Islamist factions that control territory into a single jihadist juggernaut.

You can’t pick up a carpet by all four corners at once. Some al-Qaeda units are assigned to one or more of these objectives at different times; but all al-Qaeda units support and work toward the comprehensive, hegemonic program. It is highly unlikely that the so-called Khorasan Group is working on a mission completely distinct from al-Nusra’s mission; but even if there were such a division of labor, they are still one organization with one ideology and one ultimate goal.

Attacking the United States is essential to the goal, which is why al-Qaeda never stops plotting such attacks — many of which have been carried out. As a result, none of us can confidently rule out the administration’s claim that an “imminent” attack was being planned.

As Mr. Lake points out, “U.S. officials have walked back claims in the last week that the strikes on the Khorasan Group were an attempt to disrupt an imminent threat.” Moreover, I have contended that the administration had a motive to exaggerate the threats as “imminent.” A president is not required to seek congressional authorization in order to respond militarily to threats of imminent attack. Obama did not want to ask Congress’s approval. Doing so would have launched a potentially embarrassing examination of (a) the president’s claims to have defeated al-Qaeda, and (b) the fact that the “moderate rebels” Obama proposes to aid in Syria work arm-in-arm with al-Qaeda.

By claiming to act against an imminent threat, the president sidestepped that problem. Of course, there could still have been an imminent threat — that an assertion is politically convenient does not necessarily make it untrue. However imminent the threat, though, its source is al-Qaeda.

— Andrew C. McCarthy is a policy fellow at the National Review Institute. His latest book is Faithless Execution: Building the Political Case for Obama’s Impeachment.

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