Do Khorasan militants represent a real threat?

The important point regarding KG is that the group is part of many “brigades” or “militias” of al-Nusra

Dr. Theodore Karasik
Dr. Theodore Karasik
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The Khorasan Group (KG) burst on the scene lately and was struck unilaterally by the United States in the very first strike against ISIS and Jabhat al-Nusra Front (hereafter al-Nusra) in Syria. Nicholas Rasmussen of the National Counterterrorism Center said Khorasan has focused on developing explosives that it can use to destroy aircraft in high-profile attacks against the West and specifically America. The group is “establishing routes in Syria in order to advance attacks against the West,” Lt. General William Mayville, the Joint Chiefs of Staff’s director of operations, said at a Pentagon briefing recently. Many are asking questions about the KG. Who are the KG? Where did the KG come from? Did the KG represent a real threat to the United States? These questions are important to answer in a coherent way in order to understand what is unfolding in the Levant and the Near East.

There is no doubt that KG is an affiliate of al-Nusra. The important point regarding KG is that the group is part of many “brigades” or “militias” of al-Nusra. Nothing extraordinary here. It is typical of al-Qaeda groups to be subdivided into different “divisions” with territorial responsibility and missions. KG is centered around Aleppo where the topography is favorable for terrorist groups to operate from and to remain protected. Before the airstrikes, an Arab official called KG’s base “another Tora Bora; in other words there is a requirement to attack al-Nusra’s web of armed groups.” Also, note-worthy is that the KG is named for the original region from which key members united together—that is in Afghanistan and Pakistan. Other brigades and militias are named after the home countries- France, Belgium, and Chechnya—because of “like-mindedness” and communication requirements in native tongues since their Arabic is not useful.

In addition, the leader of the KG was easily identifiable. Muhsin al-Fadhli, reportedly killed in the American-only airstrike, had a long history in the al-Qaeda organization including stints in Chechnya and Afghanistan. Thus, the group is not new; any professional watching the evolution of jihadist groups knows the truth of the matter. In Afghanistan, five years ago, KG’s subsidiary specialty group Lashkar al-Zil was seen as planning attacks in the West. During the past year, the KG had internal discord where earlier in the year part of KG pledged bayat or allegiance to the ISIS. This fact does not sound like an all-powerful brigade but a faction in deep trouble.

The important point regarding KG is that the group is part of many “brigades” or “militias” of al-Nusra

Dr. Theodore Karasik

Importantly, airstrikes on KG/al-Nusra and ISIS targets is creating a new reality on the ground. First, by attacking KG/al-Nusra and ramping up the information campaign boosting their imminent threat potential, the al-Qaeda affiliate is being squeezed into “boxes” in Syria specifically in rural Aleppo and in the Golan where the Syrian army, in the future, can eradicate the al-Qaeda extremists. Second, ISIS is now stirring towards camouflaging their equipment—an old Saddam trick to protect assets from airstrikes—and also moving back into Iraq.

Breaking up support networks

For ISIS, attempts to move in on Jordan are now off the table because of the airstrikes. The Hashimite Kingdom has mitigated ISIS threats in Zarqa and in Aqaba where in the latter case ISIS supporters were interrupted with the transfer of explosives from the Sinai Peninsula. According to a Jordanian official, “We were under attack so naturally we joined the coalition with eight jet fighters. We are in this effort for the long-haul.”

Clearly, the unexpected rush to airstrikes in Syria, and specifically the targeting of KG, had multiple purposes reflecting the complexity of the situation in Syria but also the requirement to break the support networks for Sunni extremists. Moreover, let’s be clear about an important point: Damascus is providing detailed information regarding targeting and battle damage assessments to the coalition. An Arab official asserted that “the targeting of KG was based on actionable Syrian information. It’s good and useful.” Syria’s cooperation is critical. Even if not publically admitted, there is little doubt of coordination by Damascus and the United States and allies against Sunni extremists in Syria. This coordination, of course, raises questions about the future of Syrian government of President Bashar Assad but there is little doubt that airstrikes do embolden the Alawite government.

The problem now of course is retribution. With America presenting the case of an “imminent” threat of KG against Western interests, specifically aviation, there is a good probability of revenge against coalition partners by Sunni extremist sympathizers in one form or another. We have already seen arrests in a number of different countries and the recruitment and support for both al-Nusra and ISIS is rising. One Arab official stated that “for every leader killed by airstrikes, 1000 more recruits join the Sunni extremists throughout the region.” Therefore, along with the airstrikes, the additional requirements for countering radical extremism and counter-narratives plus strong police and intelligence cooperation to mitigate threats is now more important than ever especially with key religious holiday throughout the remainder of 2014.

Dr. Theodore Karasik is the Director of Research and Consultancy at the Institute for Near East and Gulf Military Analysis (INEGMA) in Dubai, UAE. He is also a Lecturer at University of Wollongong Dubai. Dr. Karasik received his Ph.D in History from the University of California Los Angles.

Disclaimer: Views expressed by writers in this section are their own and do not reflect Al Arabiya English's point-of-view.
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