When the United States launched airstrikes in Syria this week, they targeted not only the extremists of the Islamic State, but positions manned by a shadowy organization with al-Qaeda links dubbed the "Khorasan Group." Though our understanding of the group remains murky, it joins a whole constellation of al-Qaeda offshoots in the Middle East.
What is striking about many of these groups is their recent emergence. Some were founded to adapt to the challenge of pro-democracy protesters in the Arab Spring (such as Ansar al-Sharia in Yemen), while others are a reaction to the intensifying competition among terror groups in the Middle East (one example would be the Khorasan group).
If we included other regions, such as further east in South Asia or in Africa, the number of organizations would rise significantly. Here is a selection of Middle Eastern groups.
The group (translated name: "Victory Front") emerged in 2011 as an offshoot of al-Qaeda in Iraq, which is now known as the Islamic State. Donations from abroad and al-Qaeda in Iraq helped the group gain momentum very quickly — but it has since distanced itself from the Islamic State and pledged its allegiance to the central al-Qaeda network. Al-Nusra was among the groups targeted by U.S. airstrikes in Syria on Tuesday morning.
The group is an offshoot of al-Qaeda in various locations of the Middle East. According to the U.S. Department of State, the group operates in Lebanon and the Arabian Peninsula, and was formed in 2009. In 2014, it claimed it had fired several rockets into Israeli territory from Gaza. Two years earlier, it had warned Shiites in Lebanon not to join Assad's fight against the Syrian opposition and threatened those who would not comply.
Ansar al-Sharia in Yemen — an offshoot of al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula —has been targeted by U.S. drone strikes in recent years. According to the BBC, al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula's religious leader views Ansar al-Sharia as a way to attract people to Sharia rule in areas occupied by the militants. In Yemen, various factions belonging to the government in Sanaa, tribes, the Houthis, or al-Qaeda are competing. Ansar al-Sharia puts a strong emphasis on building local support — a model that makes it distinct from other offshoots.
This group is considered a new al-Qaeda franchise and was described by President Obama as consisting of "seasoned al-Qaeda operatives." Many Western terrorism analysts were taken by surprise when U.S. Director of National Intelligence James Clapper recently compared the U.S. national security threat posed by the Khorasan Group to the one of the Islamic State. According to CNN, the Khorasan Group is planning attacks against the United States. Early Tuesday, the Pentagon said the group had "established a safe haven in Syria to develop external attacks, construct and test improvised explosive devices and recruit Westerners to conduct operations." Its objectives are distinct from other groups: Instead of aiming at overthrowing Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and accumulating land like the Islamic State, the Khorasan group is believed to focus on attacks against Western nations. Other experts contest that the group is just a wing of Jabhat al-Nusra.