US Central Command [CENTCOM] attempted to distinguish between the Al Nusrah Front, al Qaeda’s official branch in Syria, and the so-called Khorasan Group in yesterday’s press release that detailed airstrikes in Syria.
CENTCOM, which directs the US and coalition air campaign against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, denied that the five airstrikes targeted “the Nusrah Front as a whole” due to its infighting with the Syrian Revolutionaries’ Front, but instead claimed the attacks were directed at the Khorasan Group.
“These strikes were not in response to the Nusrah Front’s clashes with the Syrian moderate opposition, and they did not target the Nusrah Front as a whole,” CENTCOM noted in its press release.
The CENTCOM statement goes a step further by implying that the Al Nusrah Front is fighting against the Syrian government while the Khorasan Group is hijacking the Syrian revolution to conduct attacks against the West.
“They [the US airstrikes] were directed at the Khorasan Group whose focus is not on overthrowing the Asad regime or helping the Syrian people,” CENTCOM continues. “These al Qaeda operatives are taking advantage of the Syrian conflict to advance attacks against Western interests.”
Before stating this, CENTCOM noted that members of Al Nusrah are part of the Khorasan Group.
“The Khorasan Group is a term used to refer to a network of Nusrah Front and al Qaeda core extremists who share a history of training operatives, facilitating fighters and money, and planning attacks against U.S. and Western targets,” CENTCOM said.
However the Al Nusrah Front disagrees with CENTCOM’s attempt to draw distinctions between the Khorasan Group and “the Nusrah Front as a whole.” In a series of tweets from its media branch in Idlib, where the strikes took place, Al Nusrah decried the attacks as being directed against the group. Al Nusrah released photographs purporting to show a headquarters and some of its infrastructure that were destroyed in the airstrikes. [See LWJ report, Al Nusrah Front tweets photos allegedly showing aftermath of coalition airstrikes.]
CENTCOM’s attempt to distinguish between the Al Nusrah Front and the Khorasan Group is curious given that some of Nusrah’s top leaders are seasoned al Qaeda leaders who are also top officials in the Khorasan Group. Among them are Muhsin al Fadhli, a Kuwaiti who started working with Al Nusrah in 2013, and an al Qaeda leader known as Sanafi al Nasr.
Fadhli was a target of the first wave of US airstrikes in Syria, which killed Abu Yusuf al Turki, a senior jihadist who was suspected of taking part in an al Qaeda plot to assassinate President George W. Bush at a NATO summit in 2004. Al Turki trained snipers for the Al Nusrah Front, but his career began years before Al Nusrah was even established.
Sanafi al Nasr is a good example of just how integrated the Al Nusrah Front is with other parts of al Qaeda’s international network. Nasr leads a strategic planning committee for al Qaeda’s senior leadership and also serves at the highest levels of Al Nusrah. The US Treasury Department has described Nasr as one of the Al Nusrah Front’s “top strategists” and a “senior” leader in the group. Nasr is involved in both Al Nusrah’s fight against the Assad regime and the planning of mass casualty attacks in the West. [For more on Sanafi al Nasr, see LWJ reports: Treasury designates 2 ‘key’ al Qaeda financiers, Head of al Qaeda’s ‘Victory Committee’ in Syria and Senior al Qaeda strategist part of so-called ‘Khorasan group’.]
The Al Nusrah Front itself is an official al Qaeda branch. Abu Mohammed al Julani, Nusrah’s emir, has sworn allegiance to al Qaeda’s leader, Ayman al Zawahiri. And when Zawahiri sided with Nusrah in its dispute with the rival Islamic State, Zawahiri assigned Syria to the Al Nusrah Front.
The US recognizes the Al Nusrah Front as an official terrorist group. In December 2012, the State Department listed it as a Foreign Terrorist Organization [FTO]. Additionally, two Al Nusrah operatives were listed as Specially Designated Global Terrorists.
In the 2012 FTO designation, State noted that the Al Nusrah Front itself was “an attempt” by al Qaeda “to hijack” the Syrian revolution.
“Al Nusrah has sought to portray itself as part of the legitimate Syrian opposition while it is, in fact, an attempt by AQI [al Qaeda in Iraq, the founder of the Al Nusrah Front] to hijack the struggles of the Syrian people for its own malign purposes,” State continued.
Today, CENTCOM implied that the Al Nusrah Front was fighting the Assad regime whereas the Khorasan group is attempting to hijack the Syrian civil war. The truth is that there is no firm dividing line between Al Nusrah’s role in the anti-Assad fight and its anti-Western designs. The Khorasan group is merely a group of senior al Qaeda leaders who are embedded within Al Nusrah, and they have been attempting to identify Western recruits who joined the fight in Syria but can be repurposed for attacks in their home countries or elsewhere abroad.
This is entirely consistent with al Qaeda’s modus operandi elsewhere. Al Qaeda is principally an insurgency organization, which seeks to challenge and supplant various governments throughout the Muslim-majority world. Its regional branches, such as Al Nusrah and al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), will continue to devote some part of their resources to attacking the West.
That is, al Qaeda is devoted to both guerrilla warfare and plotting spectacular terrorist attacks in the Western world. It does not make sense to pretend that there is some wide gulf between these two objectives. After all, al Qaeda’s so-called Khorasan group is pursuing both aims at the same time. CENTCOM is wrong to suggest, therefore, that the Khorasan group is substantively different from Al Nusrah. Both are simply al Qaeda.