Analysis: CENTCOM draws misleading line between Al Nusrah Front and Khorasan Group

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.

Bill Roggio is a Senior Fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and the Editor of FDD's Long War Journal. Thomas Joscelyn is a Senior Fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and the Senior Editor for FDD's Long War Journal.

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  • Kevin Cooney says:

    This is a direct result of the confused leadership from the Obama administration which seems to be unable or unwilling to identify who we are really fighting in this Long War. I would expect these sort of word games from the politicians but it’s disappointing to see that it is seeping down to the uniformed services in their statements. How many times have we mocked the Pakistanis for their Good Taliban / Bad Taliban labels, but now our own government is beginning to do the same with Good Al Qaeda / Bad Al Qaeda when it comes to Syria.

  • Gj says:

    Nothing like abunch of political hacks in CETCOM also, we as a nation are Infected with them

  • irebukeu says:

    @kevin cooney,
    IMO this speaks more to the goals of winning what the admin has determined to be its strategic vision for Syria. What that is I have no idea but there are clues in the media,. Enough that we can discern some of their reasoning.
    Let us recall that the FSA seems very upset that the Obama admin is more concerned with fighting the IS and al qaeda then in fighting Assad. They have expressed this concern publicly.
    IMO the moderates are no moderates but I digress.
    According to the site intel group from an article (nov 5) titled ‘hearts, minds and missiles’-
    (Perhaps the most notable blunder of ill-coordination, as claimed by FSA spokesman Hussam Al Marie, was the coalition airstrike aimed at an al-Nusra Front base located in rural Idlib that landed “only 200 meters from the Free Syrian Army.” Such mishaps have been detrimental to the coalition’s stance among rebel groups in Syria)
    The article also claims the FSA is folding up under al qaeda with some groups joining with their us supplied weapons.
    It looks as if we are dropping bombs on al qaeda while at the same time trying to keep the FSA on board with our plans whatever they may be.
    The good news is that even though they are complaining we are still dropping the bombs. Thats a good sign.
    That the FSA are folding up yet again is not a major concern IMO. There is still time for making lemonade out of this pile of free syrian lemons.
    I hope the obama admin is working on a deal with Iran whereby they will give concessions on their nuclear program in exchange for the ending of support for rebel groups in Syria, ending of sanctions, some spare parts for the aged F-14s from our boneyards and various other scrap implements of war to help them battle the islamic state.
    That is the only real value I see in the FSA. A chip to be bargained away that gives away nothing.
    Article mentioned in comment-,-minds,-and-missiles-the-us-led-coalition-s-crisis-for-support-in-syria

  • J. U. says:

    I fully agree with the article and Kevin Cooney post.
    “”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.”
    Because the Nusrah Front is helping the Syrian People ? Is this a (bad) joke from the CENTCOM ??
    The US policy these last months seems like : “as long as you attack the Syrian governement, army, or people defending it (NDF for example), or that you stay in non-strategic regions (Al-Anbar in Iraq), we are ok with you, whoever you are (AlQaeda, ISIS included), but when u start attacking or threatening our interests in the region (In Iraq), or become openly too much bellicose against us by planing something, then we attack you.
    So what, if ISIS had stayed to al-Anbar in Iraq but would be controling the whole Syria and adopting a low profile toward West there would have been no airstrikes ? Suicidal policy..

  • O says:

    If the distinctions aren’t made then the only viable force fighting the Assad regime must be targeted as well. No one wants to go down that road. Lets just keep it all hazy and let the years go by. After all Lebanon settled down eventually, right?

  • Michael says:

    I think this article and some of the resultant comments are taking the CENTCOM statement too literally. The US has put together a coalition against IS. Many of the countries signed on are Sunni majority countries that have been supporting the opposition to Assad. Their media is full of reports of Alawite/Shia atrocities and some of their citizens donate to and/or volunteer for Al Nusra. Therefore it makes sense for the the US to do what we have to do — take out the part of Al Nusra that has the biggest international ambitions (terrorist plots outside the war zone) while providing a fig leaf to some of the Sunni allies. The statement is not like Pakistani confusion regarding good Taliban and bad Taliban and much more like Pakistani statements for media consumption condemning US drone strikes even on those strikes when Pakistan supplies the US with the coordinates.

  • Ben Dere says:

    CENTCOM draws a misleading line? That could be the greatest understatement of US military strategy, since September 11th 2001.
    CENTCOM is an extension of the misleading line, that tracks directly back to the Oval Office.
    All of this recent False Flag nonsense, about whether or not al Nushra is or isn’t, a Terrorist Organization. With it’s membership pledged to al Qaeda and who is working directly to kill Americans, at home and abroad. Is nothing more than intentional Product Mislabeling, on the part of Obama’s administration. This nonsense has been created specifically to suborn the perjury Obama and his minions have inflicted on America and the west. We killed Osama and al Qaeda is in retreat!
    The simple fact is, al Nushra is al Qaeda, ISIS is al Qaeda, al Qaeda is an enemy of all of western democracy. To suggest that somehow one group has any other motive, but, global domination of the Umma over the west is asinine. Syria is at present an apostate nation with little difference in Targeting than NYC save for Range to Target!
    The reverse would be that somewhere in an al Qaeda field TOC. The Egyptian Physician and his generals are wasting their time, checking right shoulder patches or camo-patterns of the boots on the ground. To determine what US Troops are good troops and what US Troops are bad troops…
    The misleading line? This began when the US military’s role against terrorism, became lead by a passive aggressive president. One who’s Hell bent on being nothing more then Commander of the muslim brotherhood’s, caliphate construction battalion.
    One would hope that on today of all days, somebody at CENTCOM would understand that simple fact, of Islamic Terrorism.


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