Khorasan a worse threat than ISIL? What’s next? Terrorists with superpowers, led by General Zod?

When it comes to foreign affairs and matters of national and collective security, Americans are notorious about not paying attention, or not paying attention for long — and then being totally shocked and surprised by subsequent developments.

If network news starts showing starving people in Somalia, we’re all, “Let’s send in the troops and feed those people!” Then, after the Battle of Mogadishu, we’re like, “What! We still have people over there and they’re getting killed? Let’s get out of there!”

The fact that the NSA was collecting and sifting metadata to counter terrorism was known by people who paid attention for years, and uncontroversial. Then Edward Snowden makes a fuss and we’re all like, “What!?!? I didn’t know we were doing that! Let’s stop it!”

And so forth.

Although I used the pronoun “we” above, I like to think of myself as not really one of those Americans. I like to think I follow things less fitfully, and am less surprised at developments.

But today, I feel like one of those people.

Here I had just gotten used to the idea that ISIS, which the organization itself calls Islamic State, and the in-the-know people inside the Beltway call ISIL, was this shocking new animal, a self-financing terrorist army, with capabilities that made those old Mustache Petes in al Qaeda look pathetic, with the power to capture and hold territory and carve out new countries at will. So I felt like I was hip and up-to-date and had a good grasp on things.

But then we started bombing targets in Syria last night — no surprise there, of course, to those of us paying attention — and all of a sudden there’s a shocking new wrinkle. Not only were we hitting ISIL targets, but… well, read this from The Washington Post:

In addition to a broader campaign of airstrikes against Islamic State targets across Syria on Monday night, the United States also pounded a little-known but well-resourced al-Qaeda cell that some American officials fear could pose a direct threat to the United States.

The Pentagon said in a statement early Tuesday that the United States conducted eight strikes west of Aleppo against the cell, called the Khorasan Group, targeting its “training camps, an explosives and munitions production facility, a communications building and command and control facilities.”

Army Lt. Gen. William C. Mayville Jr., director of operations for the Joint Chiefs of Staff, later told reporters that the group was in the “final stages of plans to execute major attacks against Western targets and potentially the U.S. homeland.” He added, “We believe the Khorasan Group was nearing the execution phase of an attack either in Europe” or the United States, having attempted to recruit Westerners who can more easily enter the target countries….

The Independent termed Khorasan “a terror group more feared by US officials than Isis.”

And I’m all like, “WHAT!?! We’re just beginning to deal with ISIL, which I’ve come to understand is way worse than al Qaeda, and now you tell me there’s something out there even worse — which I don’t think I had ever even heard of before now? WTF?”

“What am I going to learn about tomorrow? A terrorist army with superpowers, led by General Zod?”

But then I calmed down, and realized that Khorasan is only worse than al Qaeda in that it was planning attacks here at home. Which is certainly one sense of “worse,” from an American perspective. But they don’t seem to be a rampaging terrorist army like ISIL. They’re more old-school. In fact, Muhsin al-Fadhli learned the terror trade at Osama bin Laden’s knee.

Khorasan is a serious new threat, apparently pursuing an unusually sophisticated strategy:

Khorasan hasn’t arrived to overthrow Bashar al-Assad. It’s not interested laying claim to great swaths of land and resources, as is the Islamic State. Rather, American officials told the Associated Press, its members have come from Pakistan, Yemen and Afghanistan to exploit the flood of Western jihadists who now have skin in the fight — and possess very valuable passports. According to the AP, al-Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri dispatched this deputy to recruit those Western fighters, who have a better chance of escaping scrutiny at airports and could place bombs onto planes.

But so far, they don’t seem to have superpowers. Which is reassuring…

18 thoughts on “Khorasan a worse threat than ISIL? What’s next? Terrorists with superpowers, led by General Zod?

  1. bud

    It’s impossible to keep up with all the players in Syria/Iraq/Libya or wherever. What is clear though is how these folks came into existence. The west has stirred up the hornets nest from the vestiges of the Ottoman empire since WW I. At various times a strongman like Saddam or Ghaddafi brought some semblance of normalcy to one particular nation through excessive heavy-handed tactics. It wasn’t pretty and it certainly caught the attention of western leaders starting with Winston Churchill, but the results were pretty benign to American security. Sadly the Soviets stirred things up in Afghanistan at a time when events were settling into a sort of political equilibrium. But American intervention to arm the “moderates” in that conflict would come back to haunt us. And let’s not forget the roll the Saudis and their oil wealth have played in this deadly game of imperialism.

    Of course this all came to a head on 9-11 and in other ways in late 90s early 00s. That was a wake up call that could have had a silver lining. We had the sympathy and respect from all the world, including Iran, to restore order in Afghanistan. But the window was short and the American leader very foolish. So instead of restoring some semblance of equilibrium Bush proved capable of obliterating all the goodwill of the world in one fell swoop with an ill-advised invasion of a country that could have served to constrain the worst of the terrorist ambitions. The result was the establishment of a regime that had no intentions of following American dictates yet had no sway over an army that was shattered with elements re-established as ISIL, Khorasan and heaven knows who else.

    And that is the situation Obama faces today. Sadly he continues the failed efforts of the past century to try and establish some sort of American friendly state in an area teaming with people who feel aggrieved by western invaders, many of whom have suffered loses of family members to American bombs. It is a situation that cannot be addressed with military measures but only through time and humanitarian measures. Obama will pass this failed military legacy on to the next president who is likely to continue with a policy that can never succeed. At the end of the day all Obama’s successes at home with healthcare and restoring the economy will be lost to his foolish attempt to follow in his predecessor’s doomed war-mongering policies. And my grandchildren will be paying the tab well into their senior years.

    1. Brad Warthen

      I don’t recall us trying to arm “moderates” against the Soviets in Afghanistan. Seems to me we were looking for anyone who would fight, a set that included jihadis. We weren’t so worried about Islamists at the time. I don’t think we had even coined the term.

      Am I remembering it wrong?

  2. Doug Ross

    “The fact that the NSA was collecting and sifting metadata to counter terrorism was known by people who paid attention for years, and uncontroversial.”

    Repeating a statement doesn’t make it true. It is blatantly false that everyone who was paying attention knew the extent of the data collection processes. If it wasn’t a big deal, Snowden isn’t a traitor. He exposed the details of a policy that goes far beyond what most Americans want their government to do.

    1. Brad Warthen

      We knew that such sifting of communications was going on. I wrote about it years ago. (I’ll add a link when I’m on my laptop rather than the iPad.)

      What Snowden did was leak specific, classified details that none of us needed to know.

      And whether you disagree with that or not, it doesn’t change the fact that he revealed specific classified information that he was not authorized to disclose. Period.

      1. Brad Warthen

        This morning while working out, I watched the episode of “West Wing” when — SPOILERT ALERT — Toby revealed that he had leaked classified information. The scope of what he revealed was much, much smaller in scope and detail than what Snowden reveals. (That would have been too outrageous, too incredible. That would have constituted jumping the shark — something that one of my friends here warned me would happen in the later episodes, but which I have not yet seen, and I’m in the last season.)

        Nevertheless, his punishment is swift and sure. Within an hour of his confession, the president fires him. And the usually warm and jovial Bartlet is coldly brutal in doing so. He says he was shocked, yet not surprised, because Toby always thought he was smarter than everyone else.

        Toby objects than he didn’t think he was smarter than everyone else. The president says that’s true — you just thought you were smarter than I.

        Thereby driving home the point that whether to disclose that information was the president’s decision, as the duly elected, constituted authority under our system of laws. It was an act of supreme arrogance and usurpation of authority for Toby to go over the president’s head and take that decision upon himself.

        But not nearly as towering as the presumption of Snowden, a nobody who took it upon himself to act contrary to the best judgment of all three branches of our government.

        I can’t think of another case in our history in which an American ever usurped legal authority to that extent, and in such a sweeping way. I suppose that’s because until very recently, it was technically impossible for someone like Snowden to gain access to such a wide variety of classified information…

          1. Dave Crockett

            I enjoyed the West Wing very much when it aired originally. And I’m glad that you are enjoying it now, Brad. But I draw the line at using its plots as parallels to current politics. The West Wing was FICTION. Good fiction, mind you, just like almost everything else that Aaron Sorkin has penned. But hardly fiction to live by or to explain the current muddles we face nationally.

          1. T.J. Harrington

            Brad, the issue is that the program that “people who paid attention for years” thought was going on, was in fact, NOT the program that was actually going on. The program that was actually going on was broader in scope and depth and had co-opted the controls in place (FISA Court) so as to be unchecked.

            1. Doug Ross

              But would negate your claim that everyone who was paying attention knew what was going on.

              Yes, we all knew the NSA was doing some sort of data collection. Very, very, very few people knew what that meant. You absolutely did not not the details – you just assume that everything the NSA does is right and just and if someone isn’t doing anything wrong, well, they shouldn’t care how much data is collected and stored. Because the government would never misuse that information either intentionally or accidentally.

            2. Brad Warthen Post author

              No, it doesn’t negate anything.

              You and I have a real failure to communicate on this point, and I’m sorry about that.

              I knew what I needed to know. I had no need to know more. I was not cleared to know more, and that is fine.

              I knew enough to reach the conclusion that I reached, and that conclusion is unchanged by what I learned subsequently.

              Is that clearer?

          2. Silence

            Here you go: “Flowing through its servers and routers and stored in near-bottomless databases will be all forms of communication, including the complete contents of private emails, cell phone calls, and Google searches, as well as all sorts of personal data trails—parking receipts, travel itineraries, bookstore purchases, and other digital “pocket litter.” It is, in some measure, the realization of the “total information awareness” program created during the first term of the Bush administration

  3. Bart

    “So instead of restoring some semblance of equilibrium Bush proved capable of obliterating all the goodwill of the world in one fell swoop with an ill-advised invasion of a country that could have served to constrain the worst of the terrorist ambitions.”…bud

    bud, that is pure speculation that Saddam Hussein could have served to constrain the worst of the terrorist ambitions. Their ambitions were demonstrated when the first attack on the Twin Towers took place in the early 90s. The head of security for Morgan-Stanley (I think that is the right company) knew they would try again and he was right. He made sure the employees were well prepared for the 9/11 attack and if not for him, at least 2,800 others would have died on 9/11.

  4. JesseS

    “The fact that the NSA was collecting and sifting metadata to counter terrorism was known by people who paid attention for years, and uncontroversial.”

    “uncontroversial” isn’t the same as “it wasn’t shocking”. No one was surprised, but it doesn’t mean there were plenty of people who weren’t uncomfortable by it early on.


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