For all the barbarity of ISIL and the focus on the military campaign against them, security analysts say the group doesn’t have the capability to directly attack the US—its threat is regional disruption. But US intelligence officials have spent the last week dropping hints about another al Qaeda off-shoot that does aim to attack Western countries at home, and it operates in ISIL’s backyard.
The organization is known as “the Khorasan group,” a reference to a historic territory encompassing modern Afghanistan and Iran. Like ISIL, it has has roots in al Qaeda, but unlike the militants attempting to seize territory in Iraq and Syria, the Khorasan group is still within al Qaeda’s hierarchy and focused on terror attacks in the West.
Last week, the US director of national intelligence, James Clapper, said this group could be a more direct threat than ISIL and mentioned the leader’s name publicly for the first time: Muhsin al-Fadhli, a Kuwaiti who was a 20-year-old member of Osama bin Laden’s inner circle at the time of the 9/11 attacks. By 2012, he was al Qaeda’s top man in Iran, financing terror operations in Iraq as a go-between for Gulf state donors, and earning a $7-million price on his head from the US.
According to CIA source who spoke with the New York Times (paywall) following Clapper’s revelation, the now-33-year-old al-Fadhli is working with a cell of Afghan and Pakistani fighters in Syria to recruit Muslim extremists with US and European passports for attacks in their home countries. His organization is collaborating with al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, the Yemeni offshoot of the extremist movement that has a reputation for attempts at sophisticated bomb-making designed to slip explosives past airport security procedures. Three have made it onto airplanes, but none of the plots have succeeded.
It’s not clear why intelligence officials chose to reveal their concerns about the Khorasan group now. Some in the US government have been accused of exaggerating the threat of ISIL to the United States, but these revelations are a reminder that some of its ideological siblings are still focused on attacks in the West.
It remains to be seen how an offensive against ISIL will affect that threat. The relationship between rival Islamist groups is hard to measure, especially in the roiling cauldron of Syria’s civil war: Weakening ISIL could empower the Nusra Front, a rival Islamist militia in Syria that maintains good relations with the Khorasan group.