Media Criticism

Khorasan: Not Quite Out of Nowhere

By Cody M. Poplin
Monday, September 29, 2014, 9:31 PM

In a post this weekend, to which both Jack and Ben have already written responses, Glenn Greenwald suggests the Khorasan group is a "wholesale concoction" that appeared "seemingly out of nowhere" in the press in the run-up to the current campaign.

In contrast to Greenwald's claim, the Long War Journal has a series of posts dating back to mid-2013 detailing the existence of the cell now labeled the Khorasan Group, naming its key operative, and describing its ambitions. In fact, everything about the group is there except the name Khorasan.

LWJ's coverage of the group began when the State Department noted that an Al Qaeda cell inside Iran had begun funneling fighters to the battlefields of Syria. Importantly, Muhsin Al Fadhli, now identified as the leader of Khorasan, was then that group's leader in Iran. LWJ's posts explain that Al Fadhli took over operations in Iran from Yasin Al Suri after the Iranian government, under pressure following a US Treasury Department report detailing his activities, detained Al Suri. Once released, Al Suri moved operations to Syria, "assisting in the movement of Al Qaeda external operatives to the West." In March of this year, LWJ reported that Al Fadhli had also moved to Syria sometime in mid-2013, and there began "recruit[ing] European Muslims to join the jihad in Syria" and "train[ing] them on how to execute terror operations in the western countries, focusing mostly on means of public transportation such as trains and airplanes." In the same report, LWJ continued, "Al Fadhli's presence inside Syria, where he is training recruits to attack the West, is a significant cause for concern among counterterrorism authorities."

All of this was written and published as of March 2014, more than six months ago.

Article links and relevant excerpts from the posts are below:

"State Department Highlights Iran's 'Marked Resurgence' of State-sponsored Terrorism," May 31, 2013:

With respect to Syria, there is an interesting twist in the State Department's report. The al Qaeda network inside Iran, which operates as part of an agreement between al Qaeda and the Iranian regime, is sending fighters to Syria. It is not clear why Iran has allowed al Qaeda to facilitate these fighters' travel to Syria, where al Qaeda's Al Nusrah Front opposes the Assad regime, Iran, and Hezbollah.

. . .

The report continues:

"Iran allowed AQ facilitators Muhsin al Fadhli and Adel Radi Saqr al Wahabi al Harbi to operate a core facilitation pipeline through Iran, enabling AQ to move funds and fighters to South Asia and to Syria."

"Al Fadhli is a veteran AQ operative who has been active for years," State explains, and "began working with the Iran-based AQ facilitation network in 2009 and was later arrested by Iranian authorities." Al Fadhli "was released in 2011 and assumed leadership of the Iran-based AQ facilitation network."

"Senior al Qaeda facilitator 'back on the street' in Iran," January 13, 2014:

Yasin al Suri's role as al Qaeda's point man inside Iran was first exposed by the US Treasury and State Departments in 2011. In December of that year, the US government began offering a $10 million reward for information leading to al Suri's capture.

After the US government's revelations, the Iranian government detained al Suri. This led al Qaeda to replace him with another seasoned terrorist, Muhsin al Fadhli, who took over as leader of the Iran-based network.

But now, according to US government officials who spoke with Al Jazeera, al Suri is back in the game and even facilitating al Qaeda's operations inside Syria.

"As head al Qaeda facilitator in Iran, al Suri is responsible for overseeing al Qaeda efforts to transfer experienced operatives and leaders from Pakistan to Syria, organizing and maintaining routes by which new recruits can travel to Syria via Turkey and assisting in the movement of al Qaeda external operatives to the West," an unnamed State Department official told Al Jazeera.

A US Treasury Department official confirmed the revelation, according to Al Jazeera. "He's an al Qaeda operative, Al Nusrah is an al Qaeda affiliate, and we know he's moving money and extremists into Syria for al Qaeda elements there, so I think you can draw that conclusion," the Treasury official said.

"Former head of al Qaeda's network in Iran now operates in Syria," March 25, 2014

Muhsin al Fadhli, a senior al Qaeda leader who once headed the organization's network in Iran, relocated to Syria in mid-2013, according to a report in The Arab Times on March 21. Citing anonymous sources, the publication reports that al Fadhli has joined the Al Nusrah Front, al Qaeda's official branch in Syria. He was apparently sent to the country after a dispute broke out between Al Nusrah and the Islamic State of Iraq and the Sham (ISIS).

Al Fadhli was one of the trusted operatives who reported back to Ayman al Zawahiri on the dispute, according to the Arab Times, and he influenced al Qaeda's decision to eventually disown ISIS.

Today, al Fadhli reportedly recruits European Muslims to join the jihad in Syria and "trains them on how to execute terror operations in the western countries, focusing mostly on means of public transportation such as trains and airplanes."

Later, the story notes: "Al Fadhli's presence inside Syria, where he is training recruits to attack the West, is a significant cause for concern among counterterrorism authorities."

"Senior al Qaeda Strategist part of so-called 'Khorasan Group,'" September 24, 2014

One member of the group, a veteran al Qaeda operative named Muhsin al Fadhli, has been publicly identified.

But several US intelligence officials contacted by The Long War Journal have confirmed that another well-known al Qaeda bigwig, a Saudi known as Sanafi al Nasr, is also a leader in the group. And, like al Fadhli, Nasr once served as the head of al Qaeda's Iran-based network.

In tweets posted since early 2013, Nasr has revealed a number of details concerning al Qaeda's operations. In one tweet, for instance, he explained that al Qaeda's senior leadership decided to deploy trusted veterans to Syria, where they were embedded within both the Al Nusrah Front and Ahrar al Sham.