The Khorasan Group Creation Myth

Is Al Qaeda, in the form of the Khorasan group, really back with a vengeance? (Photo: Flickr)

Is Al Qaeda, in the form of the Khorasan group, really back with a vengeance? (Photo: Flickr)

In a much-discussed article at First Look, Glenn Greenwald and Murtaza Hussain analyze how the Khorasan Group suddenly emerged as the terrorist organization du jour. No, it’s not that the news cycle is so short that the Islamic State is old news. Nor is it because the Islamic State is no longer a threat. Greenwald and Hussain write:

As the Obama Administration prepared to bomb Syria without congressional or U.N. authorization, it faced two problems. The first was the difficulty of sustaining public support for a new years-long war against ISIS, a group that clearly posed no imminent threat to the “homeland.” A second was the lack of legal justification for launching a new bombing campaign with no viable claim of self-defense or U.N. approval.

The solution to both problems was found in the wholesale concoction of a brand new terror threat that was branded “The Khorasan Group.” After spending weeks depicting ISIS as an unprecedented threat — too radical even for Al Qaeda! — administration officials suddenly began spoon-feeding their favorite media organizations and national security journalists tales of a secret group that was even scarier and more threatening than ISIS, one that posed a direct and immediate threat to the American Homeland. Seemingly out of nowhere, a new terror group was created in media lore.

An Associated Press article to which Greenwald and Hussain link shows the hair-raising light in which the so-called Khorasan group was portrayed.

… the Khorasan militants did not go to Syria principally to fight the government of President Bashar Assad, U.S. officials say. Instead, they were sent by al-Qaida leader Ayman al-Zawahiri to recruit Europeans and Americans whose passports allow them to board a U.S.-bound airliner with less scrutiny from security officials.

Thus

The bombing campaign in Syria was thus magically transformed into an act of pure self-defense, given that “the group was actively plotting against a U.S. homeland target and Western targets, a senior U.S. official told CNN on Tuesday.”

…The very next day, a Pentagon official claimed a U.S. airstrike killed “the Khorasan leader,” and just a few days after that, U.S. media outlets celebrated what they said was the admission by jihadi social media accounts that “the leader of the al Qaeda-linked Khorasan group was killed in a U.S. air strike in Syria.”

Mission accomplished, write Greenwald and Hussain.

… once it served its purpose of justifying the start of the bombing campaign in Syria, the Khorasan narrative simply evaporated as quickly as it materialized. Foreign Policy’s Shane Harris, with two other writers, was one of the first to question whether the “threat” was anywhere near what it had been depicted to be:

But according to the top U.S. counterterrorism official, as well as Obama himself, there is “no credible information” that the militants of the Islamic State were planning to attack inside the United States. 

In fact

On September 25, The New York Times — just days after hyping the Khorasan threat to the homeland — wrote that “the group’s evolution from obscurity to infamy has been sudden.” And the paper of record began, for the first time, to note how little evidence actually existed for all those claims about the imminent threats posed to the homeland.

“What happened here is all-too-familiar,” Greenwald and Hussain wrote.

The Obama administration needed propagandistic and legal rationale for bombing yet another predominantly Muslim country. While emotions over the ISIS beheading videos were high, they were not enough to sustain a lengthy new war.

So after spending weeks promoting ISIS as Worse Than Al Qaeda™, they unveiled a new, never-before-heard-of group that was Worse Than ISIS™.

This can also be viewed as a strategy employed by the administration to compensate and provide cover for its early paralysis. In a July article titled Obama administration knew Islamic State was growing but did little to counter it, McClatchy’s Jonathan Landay wrote:

Like the rest of the world, the U.S. government appeared to have been taken aback last month when Mosul, Iraq’s second largest city, fell. … A review of the record shows, however, that the Obama administration wasn’t surprised at all.

In congressional testimony as far back as November, U.S. diplomats and intelligence officials made clear that the United States had been closely tracking the al Qaida spinoff since 2012, when it enlarged its operations from Iraq to civil war-torn Syria, seized an oil-rich province there and signed up thousands of foreign fighters who’d infiltrated Syria through NATO ally Turkey.

The testimony, which received little news media attention at the time, also showed that Obama administration officials were well aware of the group’s declared intention to turn its Syrian sanctuary into a springboard from which it would send men and materiel back into Iraq and unleash waves of suicide bombings there. And they knew that the Iraqi security forces couldn’t handle it

Then Landay asks, “If the Obama administration had such early warning of the Islamic State’s ambitions, why, nearly two months after the fall of Mosul, is it still assessing what steps, if any, to take to halt the advance of Islamist extremists who threaten U.S. allies in the region and have vowed to attack Americans?” After all:

“This was a very clear case in which the U.S. knew what was going on but followed a policy of deliberate neglect,” said Vali Nasr, the dean of Johns Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies and a former State Department adviser on the Middle East.

“This miscalculation essentially has helped realize the worst nightmare for this administration, an administration that prided itself on its counterterrorism strategy,” said Nasr. “It is now presiding over the resurgence of a nightmare of extremism and terrorism.”

“Administration officials,” however, “deny the charges of inaction. U.S. policy, they contend, was aimed at helping the Iraqi government deal with the growing threat.”

“That was also the desire of the Iraqi government. The Iraqi government wanted to act on its own with our assistance,” McGurk told Congress this week. He insisted that Baghdad didn’t formally request U.S. airstrikes until May.

Returning to the subject of paralysis:

… What is indisputable, [Phillip Smyth, a Middle East researcher at the University of Maryland]said, is that the White House became immobilized by the complexity of the crisis: Having declared that Assad had to go, it found that there was no opposition group that didn’t have some ties to jihadists, and actively backing the rebels would put the United States on the same side as al Qaida.

… While there are many reasons for the Obama administration’s failure to tackle the rise of the Islamic State earlier, lacking intelligence is not among them.

In support of that thesis, on Sept. 30, in the New York Times, Peter Baker and Eric Schmitt wrote that, though “Intelligence agencies were caught off guard by the speed of the extremists’ subsequent advance across northern Iraq,”

By late last year, classified American intelligence reports painted an increasingly ominous picture of a growing threat from Sunni extremists in Syria, according to senior intelligence and military officials. Just as worrisome, they said, were reports of deteriorating readiness and morale among troops next door in Iraq.

But the reports, they said, generated little attention in a White House consumed with multiple brush fires and reluctant to be drawn back into Iraq. “Some of us were pushing the reporting, but the White House just didn’t pay attention to it,” said a senior American intelligence official. “They were preoccupied with other crises,” the official added. “This just wasn’t a big priority.”

Still, “the question of how [the administration] failed to anticipate the rise of a militant force that in the space of a few months has redrawn the map of the Middle East resonates inside and outside the Obama administration” lingers. The U.S. government

… as a whole was largely focused on the group as a source of foreign fighters who might pose a terrorism threat when they returned home, not as a force intent on seizing territory.

… In interviews in recent weeks, administration officials privately agreed that they had not focused enough on the Islamic State’s territorial ambitions but said they were hamstrung in responding by an Iraqi government that was fanning the sectarian divide that helped give rise to the Sunni extremists in the first place.

One can’t help but be sympathetic with the president:

Even so, Mr. Obama was determined not to let the United States be dragged back into a war that he had opposed from the start and that he had promised during his first campaign for the White House to end. After five years in office, aides said, Mr. Obama was convinced that the United States was too quick to pull the military lever whenever it confronted a foreign crisis. He would not repeat what he considered the mistake of his predecessor President George W. Bush.

Still, write Baker and Schmitt:

To anyone watching developments in Iraq from mid-2010 and Syria from early 2011, the recovery and rise of ISIS should have been starkly clear,” said Charles Lister, a visiting fellow at the Brookings Doha Center in Qatar. “The organization itself was also carrying out an explicitly clear step-by-step strategy aimed at engendering the conditions that would feed its accelerated rise.”