Imminent Threat?

In September, the administration said the Khorasan Group was about to attack America. But the terrorist group seems to have fallen off the radar.

Photo by Mark Wilson / Getty Images News
Photo by Mark Wilson / Getty Images News

As the United States launched the first airstrikes on the self-proclaimed Islamic State in Syria in September, officials drew the public’s attention to another group of extremists that they said posed a graver, "imminent" threat to the American homeland and needed to be destroyed — a division of al Qaeda known as the Khorasan Group.

It was likely the first time most Americans had ever heard of the shadowy unit, which was purportedly on the verge of smuggling undetectable bombs onto civilian airliners. And Americans have heard curiously little from U.S. officials about Khorasan ever since.

Perhaps that’s because the initial round of airstrikes, which included 47 Tomahawk missiles aimed at Khorasan hideouts and a bomb-making facility, failed to deal the group a crippling blow. A senior Defense Department official told Foreign Policy that an assessment of the strikes yielded no conclusive evidence that the Khorasan Group’s leader and his followers were killed. Officials and terrorism experts now think that Khorasan may have been alerted to the impending strike by news reports citing anonymous U.S. officials, who leaked details of the group’s plans to attack airliners.

The group poses a "real threat," a second senior U.S. official said, in large part because of its suspected ties to Ibrahim al-Asiri, the chief bomb-maker for al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, whose designs for hard-to-detect airplane bombs Khorasan reportedly uses. Yet in Syria, where Khorasan is based, more U.S. attention and military resources are being poured into fighting the Islamic State, particularly in the town of Kobani along Syria’s border with Turkey. The town is of little strategic value in the broader fight against the Sunni militant group, but its capture would demonstrate the fecklessness of U.S. airstrikes, which so far haven’t stemmed the group’s advances or stanched the flow of more terrorist fighters into Syria.

Repelling the advances of the Islamic State, which the United States’ top counterterrorism official said poses no "credible" domestic threat, now seems a bigger priority than destroying the homeland-threatening Khorasan. The United States hasn’t trumpeted any new bombing against Khorasan, even though it meticulously publicizes the number of Islamic State targets destroyed, down to individual pickup trucks.

Administration officials "made a big deal about what these strikes were about on Sept. 23, and then essentially they assumed a defensive posture just to explain to the press why they did it, and then didn’t really have any interest beyond that," said Thomas Joscelyn, senior editor of the Long War Journal, which focuses on U.S. counterterrorism efforts. Joscelyn added that leaking about Khorasan in advance undermined the attack against it. "I doubt [the airstrikes] had much of an effect at all because the dumbest thing here was advertising you were going to hit them beforehand," he said.

A spokesperson for the National Security Council said: "We continue to be very concerned about all threats emanating from Syria, including threats from the Khorasan Group. And as we continue to carry out airstrikes with our coalition partners in Syria, they’ll be focused principally on denying a safe haven for extremist groups that are attempting to operate there."

That, of course, applies to the Islamic State, as well. The senior Defense Department official said that the fight against Khorasan could take time and is analogous to the approach that the CIA has taken in Pakistan, where it targets individual al Qaeda members with drone strikes. In hindsight, the attempt to wipe out all Khorasan members at once may have been a lost opportunity.

Ever since airstrikes began, senior U.S. officials have been vague about when or if a Khorasan attack might be coming and have strayed from calling the threat "imminent."

"Khorasan was working and may still be working on an effort to attack the United States or our allies, and looking to do it very, very soon," FBI Director James Comey told 60 Minutes in an interview that aired Oct. 5. But how soon? "I can’t sit here and tell you whether … their plan is tomorrow or three weeks or three months from now," Comey said.

Last week, the recently retired director of the National Counterterrorism Center, Matthew Olsen, told CNN that Khorasan "is still in the same place as it was before" the airstrikes — preparing to launch a terrorist attack inside the United States, but with no definitive plan to do so.

The United States has also taken no visible steps to heighten domestic security in light of the purported Khorasan threat. Airport security checks were tightened this past July because of Khorasan’s interest in blowing up airplanes. Physical security was raised at federal buildings this week, but that was out of "an abundance of caution" following a shooting in Canada on Oct. 22 by a man who may have been inspired by the Islamic State. According to a senior U.S. counterterrorism official, there have been no new terrorist threat warnings that have led to heightened security measures in the United States this week.

The apparent lack of urgency for attacking Khorasan, compared with the Islamic State, raises questions about how big a threat the group was in the first place. Shortly after the airstrikes, a senior U.S. counterterrorism official told Foreign Policy, "Khorasan has the desire to attack, though we’re not sure their capabilities match their desire."

To be sure, eliminating a small band of terrorists — the group may only comprise 100 to 200 people, experts say — who have gone into hiding is a more difficult task than targeting and killing members of the Islamic State. Its ranks have swelled to 30,000, thanks to an influx of volunteers, intelligence officials say. And those fighters are moving in formations and vehicle convoys, and they have captured tanks and artillery that can be spotted from the air.

But U.S. officials have also said that the Islamic State doesn’t pose the same kind of danger to Americans as Khorasan does. Olsen, the former counterterrorism director, said when he was still in office in September that there was "no credible information" that the militants of the Islamic State were planning to attack the U.S. homeland. And though the group could pose a threat to the United States if left unchecked, any plot it tried launching today would be "limited in scope" and "nothing like a 9/11-scale attack," Olsen said in a speech at the Brookings Institution.

That assessment hasn’t changed. What has is the official rhetoric around the Khorasan Group. Once deemed an imminent threat to the United States, it now seems to be fading in importance as the fight against the Islamic State consumes the administration’s and the world’s attention.

Kate Brannen and Gopal Ratnam contributed reporting.

 Twitter: @shaneharris