Khorasan: the group that isn’t

Something about the name Khorasan, which the US says is a group of al-Qaeda veterans, doesn’t feel right.

A few days ago I began to see news reports quoting US ‎military and government officials talking up a group called Khorasan. This piqued my interest. In 14 years of covering this region this was a new name for me. Then the reports began to paint them as a shadowy super group of hardcore terrorists that are experimenting with technology and new, ever more fiendish ways of attacking civilians in the US.  Then the group became the target of US airstrikes in Syria and suddenly the name was on every news outlet’s lips. 

Except something, to me, wasn’t right.

I began to make some calls to contacts across the Middle East and South Asia. To say I drew a blank would be an understatement. Reactions ranged from a hearty laugh to confusion. The name was new. 

In Pakistan I spoke to Ahmed, not his real name, and asked him who the group was. Ahmed is an occasional blogger and activist who openly supports ISIL. He is a veteran of Jihad in Afghanistan and resides in Rawalpindi, surrounded by pamphlets urging Muslims to rise up against the West. “Khorasan? I don’t know that name. I don’t know who they are.” 

In the US, I spoke to analysts and here in Baghdad watched pundits on TV who are seemingly convinced of the group’s danger to the US. Attorney General Eric Holder told US news outlets after the US airstrikes on Syria, that they  had known about the group for 2 years saying:  “We hit them last night  out of a concern that they ‎were getting close to an execution date of some of the plans that we have seen.” On the phone I spoke to Robert Ford, the former US Ambassador ‎to Syria who told me: “We used the term inside the government, we don’t know where it came from. It certainly didn’t originate inside the State Department. All I know is that they don’t call themselves that.” 

Khorasan is almost certainly a term that the US government has coined. It’s suitably exotic. Geographically, it’s a historical region in the north east of Iran and includes Afghanistan and what is now Pakistan. This tallies with what I’ve been ‎told by my sources, and who the Americans claim, make up the group: a hardcore of former al-Qeada fighters who come from Pakistan, Afghanistan and Iran. 

Khorasan doesn’t have a flag, it doesn’t have a media operation, or a brand name which people recognise. In short, it doesn’t have the things that ISIL and other groups ‎have, that turn them into a rallying call for others. 

My guess, and this comes from talking to people across the spectrum, is that Khorasan is a term that may well have been coined by intelligence analysts that has been picked up by politicians and then an unquestioning US Media that has turned it into a group that should be feared. It’s classic self-fulfilling prophecy theory. Call something a problem and eventually it will become a problem. 

What it clearly isn’t is a name that Jihadists know or use. To that end, why would the US government put the name out there? Clearly, it’s a short-hand that they see as being media friendly, and it pushes the idea that there are groups out there that operate in a shadowy manner and use ancient names to hark back to an ancient time. 

Khorasan: A name worthy of a James Bond villain and more than likely equally fictional. 

Follow Imran Khan on twitter: ‎@Ajimran

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