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The strange story behind the ‘Khorasan’ group’s name

Army Lt. Gen. William Mayville Jr., director of operations for the Joint Chiefs of Staff, speaks about U.S. military operations in Syria on Sept. 23 during a news conference at the Pentagon. (Cliff Owen/AP)

What's in a name? When you're an Islamist extremist group believed to pose an existential threat to the Western world, everything. In the past few months, we've seen the strange and somewhat revealing saga of what to call the group alternatively referred to as ISIS, ISIL, the Islamic State and Daesh.

Now, within a timeframe of just days, the Islamic State has been sidelined by a new name in the world of Islamic extremism: "Khorasan." U.S. officials say that Khorasan, often referred to as "the Khorasan group," is a small al-Qaeda linked outfit operating in Syria. They are portrayed as a more direct threat to U.S. interests than the Islamic State, which is still largely focused on operations in Syria and Iraq.

U.S. officials say that their strikes against Khorasan appear to have been a success, killing the group's leader, Mushin al-Fadhli. However, some analysts are perturbed by the lack of information about the group and why it was targeted. Even an examination of one of the most basic elements of the group – its name – paints a complicated and inconclusive picture of what the group actually is, and why it is being targeted.

A historical region

As most reports on the group have noted, Khorasan refers to a historical region that encompassed northeastern Iran, southern Turkmenistan and northern Afghanistan. It was established as a region by the Sasanian dynasty, the last Iranian empire before the rise of Islam, at some point in the 3rd century. Its name literally means "The Land of the Sun," a reference to its eastern location.

After the region was taken over in an Arab conquest in the 7th century, Khorasan became a part of the Umayyad Caliphate, and with that, part of early Islamic culture. Notably, a widely discussed (though disputed) Hadith speaks of how "black banners will come out of Khorasan" in the end times. Will McCants of the Brookings Institute notes that the prophecies derive from the 8th century Abbasid revolution, a revolution that began in Khorasan and saw the end of the privileging of Arabs over non-Arabs in the Islamic empire.

Over the years, the Khorasan region had a fractious history, and was eventually swallowed up by a variety of different states. A part of Khorasan eventually became Khorasan state in modern Iran, and "Greater Khorasan" is generally used to refer to the larger historical region.

A modern concept

In part due to its place in Islamic history, the term Khorasan is used by modern Jihadist groups, especially those based outside Arab states. The online magazine of al-Qaeda in Afghanistan is called “Vanguards of Khorasan," for example, and J.M. Berger, an independent terror analyst, says that al-Qaeda has often signed its communiques as emanating from Khorasan over the years.

"Jihadists deny the legitimacy of most modern nation states; they prefer using historical terms, typically the ones that were used during the time of the great Caliphates (which is obviously what they want to go back to)," Peter Neumann, director of the International Centre for the Study of Radicalization, explained in an e-mail.

In particular, the hadith mention gives the reference added power. "The symbology of this has been important for jihadis since the so-called black banners being raised in Afghanistan, which is part of Khorasan, in the '80s against the Soviets until now," Aaron Zelin of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy said, adding that Islamic apocalyptic literature has become a central theme for some jihadist groups fighting in the Middle East.

While there have been reports of groups in Pakistan taking on the Khorasan label, analysts cast doubt that the term is being widely used within Syria to refer to any distinct group. “There have been no jihadis in Syria or [Jabhat al-Nusra] to use that name when referring to themselves,"  Zelin said.  "Some online jihadis have even characterized it as laughable."

Pieter van Ostaeyen, a historian and blogger who follows jihadist movements, writes in an e-mail that "in all of the official Jihadi accounts I follow(ed), the name never was mentioned."

Even after the use of the phrase by U.S. officials, the Khorosan label still seemed obscure to many in Syria. The Post's Loveday Morris said that most Islamist fighters she spoke to had never heard of any Khorasan group, and those that used the word used it to refer, more broadly, to fighters from Afghanistan and Pakistan rather than a specific group.

A target

There seems little doubt that experienced al Qaeda operatives from the "Khorasan" region are now operating with the group's official proxy in Syria, Jabhat al-Nusra. Fadhli, who is believed to have been killed by U.S. strikes this weeks, was a Kuwaiti national who had been based in Iran. He is believed to have been sent to Syria by al-Qaeda's core leadership to help it in a fight in which it had been sidelined.

What's disputed is whether the Khorasan group is really any different from Jabhat al-Nusra, or whether it can even constitute a distinct entity at all. U.S. intelligence is reported to not see it so much as a rival group to Jabhat al-Nusra but as a group of foreign fighters “nested” with Jabhat al-Nusra and other groups.

Analysts agree this seems most likely. "The [Khorasan group] is al-Qaeda, and there are no indications that they have split from al-Qaeda," Neumann explains. "Jabhat al-Nusra is al-Qaeda's official affiliate in Syria, and this means — de facto — that they would be part of Nusra."

The lack of information about Khorasan means that there is speculation about the nature of its relationships with other al-Qaeda groups. Neumann suggests that Khorosan might be "like a state within a state," while Berger thinks it could be an internal label pointing toward an operational unit, designed to show where the "unit originated or to whom it answers."

Among some analysts, there's anger at what they see as a misleading use of the term. "[The name] is clearly U.S.-originated," van Ostaeyen said, later adding that he believed that the United States "blew up this story" to justify its attacks on Jabhat al-Nusra. "It’s cute Pentagon is literally making up new group called ‘Khurasan’ when it’s just AQ AfPak/Iran guys in [Jabhat al-Nusra]," Zelin tweeted after the strikes against the group were announced.

That sense of distrust is amplified by conflicting reports about the threat posed by the group. While Army Lt. Gen. William C. Mayville Jr., director of operations for the Joint Chiefs of Staff, initially told reporters this week that the group was in the “final stages of plans to execute major attacks against Western targets and potentially the U.S. homeland," exactly what that plan was remains unclear. One senior U.S. official told the New York Times this week that the plot was “aspirational.”

No matter where the name "Khorasan" came from, its easy to see why it could be a positive for U.S. officials to use it. For one thing, by avoiding using the name al-Qaeda, the U.S. doesn't remind the world that after more than a decade of the "War on Terror," al-Qaeda is still an operational force. It also allows the U.S. to avoid mention of strikes on Jabhat al-Nusra, the al-Qaeda group that enjoys a large amount of support in Syria and opposes both the Islamic State and Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. Finally, there's the simple fact that Khorasan is a new and evocative name. Frankly, it's something for the U.S. public to latch onto.

However, the lack of specificity is concerning – and there are signs that those in Syria are not buying it.

“If they hit Daesh and the regime, it’s okay,” Ali Bakran, commander of a moderate Free Syrian Army-linked brigade based in Idlib, told The Post on Wednesday, using the Arabic name for the Islamic State. “But why are they striking Nusra? Nusra are from the people — they are the people.”