The Khorasan hustle

The first day of the great Operation to Degrade and Ultimately Destroy ISIS saw American bombs falling on an unexpected location in Syria.  The target was not ISIS at all, but one of their rivals in the terrorist-infested Syrian resistance – a gang nobody ever heard of before, called the “Khorasan Group.”  We were told this relatively small crew was on the verge of staging a major terror attack against the Western world, so it had to be taken out pronto.  The initial reaction among Americans supportive of the attack on ISIS, and even some of the critics, ran along the lines of, “Well, okay, if they’re that bad, better give ’em the works.”  We were told the bombing strike all but eliminated the threat.

Then the story started changing.  Suddenly the Khorasan Group wasn’t an “imminent” threat at all.  Then the Obama Administration admitted that maybe they didn’t get wiped out in those bombing attacks… it’s been reported that the group leader was killed, and one of their headquarters buildings was leveled, but the overall condition of the unit remains in question.  (It’s been very slowly leaking out that our airstrikes in Syria have wiped out more buildings than terrorists, because the terrorists knew we were coming and skedaddled out of the buildings.)

On Saturday, Andrew McCarthy – who led the prosecution against the “Blind Sheikh” after the first World Trade Center bombing in 1993 – dropped a bomb of his own, writing at National Review that the “Khorasan Group” was a political fiction invented by the Obama Administration.  This was done to cover the highly inconvenient fact that a very much not-decimated, not-on-the-run al-Qaeda was the true target.  The President couldn’t bring himself to admit that all of his 2012 campaign rhetoric about terrorism was hogwash, so a new enemy was conjured:

There is a reason that no one had heard of such a group until a nanosecond ago, when the ???Khorosan Group??? suddenly went from anonymity to the ???imminent threat??? that became the rationale for an emergency air war there was supposedly no time to ask Congress to authorize.

You haven???t heard of the Khorosan Group because there isn???t one. It is a name the administration came up with, calculating that Khorosan ??? the Iranian??????Afghan border region ??? had sufficient connection to jihadist lore that no one would call the president on it.

The ???Khorosan Group??? is al-Qaeda. It is simply a faction within the global terror network???s Syrian franchise, ???Jabhat al-Nusra.??? Its leader, Mushin al-Fadhli (believed to have been killed in this week???s U.S.-led air strikes), was an intimate of Ayman al-Zawahiri, the emir of al-Qaeda who dispatched him to the jihad in Syria. Except that if you listen to administration officials long enough, you come away thinking that Zawahiri is not really al-Qaeda, either. Instead, he???s something the administration is at pains to call ???core al-Qaeda.???

This little hustle is consistent with the Administration’s perpetual efforts to re-brand the terrorist menace, a tornado of political spin that will probably continue until the next President is sworn in, whose purpose is to make it seem at least faintly plausible that Obama told something vaguely resembling the truth at least once during his re-election campaign.  McCarthy added a warning that looks to have been quite prescient:

The president has been telling us for years that he handled al-Qaeda by killing bin Laden. He has been telling us for weeks that the Islamic State ??? an al-Qaeda renegade that will soon reconcile with the mother ship for the greater good of unity in the anti-American jihad ??? is a regional nuisance that posed no threat to the United States. In recent days, however, reality intruded on this fiction. Suddenly, tens of thousands of terrorists, armed to the teeth, were demolishing American-trained armies, beheading American journalists, and threatening American targets.

Obama is not the manner of man who can say, ???I was wrong: It turns out that al-Qaeda is actually on the rise, its Islamic State faction is overwhelming the region, and American interests ??? perhaps even American territory ??? are profoundly threatened.??? So instead . . . you got ???the Khorosan Group.???

Even as the room full of monkeys and typewriters George Soros funds at Media Matters was cranking out the obligatory “mean old conservatives make up a story about Obama inventing the Khorasan Group” post, McCarthy’s point was buttressed by Glenn Greenwald and Murtaza Hussain at The Intercept.  If Greenwald was at the last few meetings of the Vast Right-Wing Conspiracy, I must have missed him, although admittedly I don’t range very far from the appetizer table until the last of the bacon-wrapped scallops have been consumed.

As the Obama Administration prepared to bomb Syria without congressional or U.N. authorization, it faced two problems. The first was the difficulty of sustaining public support for a new years-long war against ISIS, a group that clearly posed no imminent threat to the ???homeland.??? A second was the lack of legal justification for launching a new bombing campaign with no viable claim of self-defense or U.N. approval.

The solution to both problems was found in the wholesale concoction of a brand new terror threat that was branded ???The Khorasan Group.??? After spending weeks depicting ISIS as an unprecedented threat ??? too radical even for Al Qaeda! ??? administration officials suddenly began spoon-feeding their favorite media organizations and national security journalists tales of a secret group that was even scarier and more threatening than ISIS, one that posed a direct and immediate threat to the American Homeland. Seemingly out of nowhere, a new terror group was created in media lore.

If anything, the Intercept piece is even more skeptical than McCarthy, extensively charting the sudden flourishing of the Khorasan Group in U.S. media under the Administration’s skillful propaganda gardeners.  After noting that Syrian activists told NBC News they never heard of the Khorasans before, Greenwald and Hussain write:

Indeed, a Nexis search for the group found almost no mentions of its name prior to the September 13 AP article based on anonymous officials. There was one oblique reference to it in a July 31 CNN op-ed by Peter Bergen. The other mention was an article in the LA Times from two weeks earlier about Pakistan which mentioned the group???s name as something quite different than how it???s being used now: as ???the intelligence wing of the powerful Pakistani Taliban faction led by Hafiz Gul Bahadur.??? Tim Shorrock notedthat the name appears in a 2011 hacked Stratfor email published by WikiLeaks, referencing a Dawn article that depicts them as a Pakistan-based group which was fighting against and ???expelled by??? (not ???led by???) Bahadur.

There are serious questions about whether the Khorasan Group even exists in any meaningful or identifiable manner. Aki Peritz, a CIA counterterrorism official until 2009, told Time: ???I???d certainly never heard of this group while working at the agency,??? while Obama???s former U.S. ambassador to Syria Robert Ford said: ???We used the term [Khorasan] inside the government, we don???t know where it came from???.All I know is that they don???t call themselves that.???

The few defenses offered for the Khorasan Hustle consist of trumpeting for some mention of the name in U.S. government correspondence that’s more than three weeks old.  But there’s a big difference between finding sporadic references to the word, deep in the bowels of the intelligence community, and supporting the fiction of a malevolent super-terrorist Legion of Doom, wholly distinct from al-Qaeda.  The imminence of the threat they posed is still a matter of debate, but there’s really no question that we bombed al-Qaeda in Syria, period.

By the middle of this week, the whole thing had deteriorated into the usual Obama Administration circus act, with various spokespeople openly contradicting each other.  From Fox News:

State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki claimed Tuesday that the Khorasan Group is merely an “affiliate” with “ties to core Al Qaeda, but is not a part of core Al Qaeda.”

But that was after the State Department, on Monday, put out a written clarification on the relationship. In that statement, the department said: “The ‘Khorasan Group’ is a term sometimes used to refer to a network of al-Nusrah Front and al-Qai’da core violent extremists who share a history of training operatives, facilitating fighters and money, and planning attacks against U.S. and Western targets.”

And Pentagon spokesman Rear Adm. John Kirby did not mince words when asked Tuesday about the difference between Khorasan and Al Qaeda.

He said they are an Al Qaeda “offshoot” and “we consider these groups one and the same.”

Even Secretary of State John Kerry told CNN last week that the group includes “remnants” of “core Al Qaeda.”

Despite Psaki’s latest claims that the group is merely an affiliate, the statements from elsewhere in the administration that they are more closely tied could challenge claims that Al Qaeda core is “decimated.”

White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest has restated that claim since airstrikes in Syria began.

Psaki tried to clarify Tuesday that what has been decimated is “core Al Qaeda based in Afghanistan and Pakistan.”

This, she said, “doesn’t mean we’re not concerned about this group, we’re not concerned about offshoots and affiliates of Al Qaeda.”

You can almost hear the whimsical organ music as these clowns race around the big top, entertaining the crowd with their hilarious pratfalls.  Adding to the festivities, documents recovered from the ruins of “Khorasan Group” headquarters revealed that the former occupants referred to themselves as “Wolf Unit of Jabhat al-Nusra.”  In other words, they were an elite unit of al-Qaeda.

As for the prescience of McCarthy’s warning about American bombs bringing rival terror groups together, there’s this discouraging news from the UK Guardian:

Air strikes continued to target Islamic State (Isis) positions near the Kurdish town of Kobani and hubs across north-east Syria on Sunday, as the terror group moved towards a new alliance with Syria???s largest al-Qaida group that could help offset the threat from the air.

Jabhat al-Nusra, which has been at odds with Isis for much of the past year, vowed retaliation for the US-led strikes, the first wave of which a week ago killed scores of its members. Many al-Nusra units in northern Syria appeared to have reconciled with the group, with which it had fought bitterly early this year.

A senior source confirmed that al-Nusra and Isis leaders were now holding war planning meetings. While no deal has yet been formalised, the addition of at least some al-Nusra numbers to Isis would strengthen the group???s ranks and extend its reach at a time when air strikes are crippling its funding sources and slowing its advances in both Syria and Iraq.

Al-Nusra, which has direct ties to al-Qaida???s leader, Ayman al-Zawahiri, called the attacks a ???war on Islam??? in an audio statement posted over the weekend. A senior al-Nusra figure told the Guardian that 73 members had defected to Isis last Friday alone and that scores more were planning to do so in coming days.

???We are in a long war,??? al-Nusra???s spokesman, Abu Firas al-Suri, said on social media platforms. ???This war will not end in months nor years, this war could last for decades.???

Funny, that’s the same thing President Obama said.  It sure doesn’t look like Jabhat al-Nusra is buying any of this “Khorasan Group” stuff.

Meanwhile ISIS appears to be doing quite well in Iraq, overrunning an Iraqi military base and seizing a fresh cache of weapons.  Turkey is moving armor to the Syrian border to keep the Islamic State at bay, and Lebanese Christians are gearing up for battle too, in response to ISIS threats to crucify them.  There doesn’t seem to be a lot of Degrading and Ultimately Destroying going on as of yet.  Let me ask a highly impolitic question: if we saw the ISIS leadership acting as erratically as the Obama Administration has been – the top guy telling ridiculous lies and getting called out by his intelligence officers, blustery language inconsistent with the realities on the ground, mouthpieces tripping over each other as they told conflicting stories – wouldn’t we consider it encouraging news?