Just how big a threat exactly is the Khorasan group, the previously unknown terrorist organization that intelligence officials unveiled – conveniently enough, many critics note – on the eve of the US military bombings in Syria?
The group was first mentioned in an Associated Press article published Sept. 13, just days before the US military began its bombing campaign in Syria. One of the intended objectives of the bombing, US officials said, was to disrupt an “imminent” Khorasan group attack on the United States.
The AP article, citing unnamed sources, described this “band of extremists” as a “mix of hardened jihadis from Afghanistan, Yemen, Syria, and Europe,” which pose “a more direct and imminent threat to the United States."
Perhaps most important, US officials have been quick to emphasize the group’s links to Al Qaeda.
Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel noted that the US military “took action in Syria against the network of Al Qaeda veterans known as the Khorasan group,” in a Pentagon press briefing Friday, for example.
Secretary Hagel described this as “a critical operation,” because “members of this group were actively plotting attacks against the United States and our friends’ allies.”
Last week, some reporters had asked US military officials to explain why they were claiming the Khorasan group was so dangerous, since they certainly hadn’t mentioned the group before.
“What was the imminent threat they posed?” one reporter asked.
Pentagon officials claimed that the intelligence was too sensitive to share with the American people.
“I’m going to need to be careful here about the depth of information I get into from an intelligence perspective,” said Rear Adm. John Kirby, Pentagon press secretary.
“What I’ll tell you is, they were in the advanced stages – near the end stages – of planning an attack on a Western target. We don’t know whether it was Europe or the US homeland, but we know that they were getting close.”
So just how “imminent” was the purported attack, then?
“I don’t know that we, you know, can pin that down to a day or month or week or sixth months,” Admiral Kirby said. “It doesn’t matter.”
But linking the US bombing campaign in Syria to Al Qaeda, rather than, say, simply the Islamic State, does matter. While the War Powers Act requires the president to seek congressional approval within 60 days of launching military action, the White House has invoked the 2001 Authorization for the Use of Military Force (AUMF) against Al Qaeda as the basis for its actions.
By relying on the 2001 authorization to justify its use of force, the White House can claim that it does not need to return to Congress in 60 days for authorization, because it already has it.
Like the Bush administration, the Obama White House has argued that the AUMF allows the commander-in-chief to pursue Al Qaeda in order to protect national security. As a result, the White House has repeatedly emphasized the links between this newest named terrorist group, Khorasan, to Al Qaeda. Such links were not as clear in the case of the Islamic State, because Al Qaeda and IS are seen as rivals, said some regional experts and lawmakers on Capitol Hill.
While he can recognize the skepticism that many Americans bring to US officials’ claims of an “imminent threat,” particularly given the weapons of mass destruction warnings in the run-up the Iraq War that turned out to be false, retired Lt. Gen. David Barno says that he believes the threats about a group with lingering Al Qaeda ties are “accurate.”
He cites a comment from outgoing Attorney General Eric Holder, who told NBC on Friday, “We’d been following them for two years.”
Officials also point to a ban that the Transportation Security Administration put in place on uncharged laptops and cell phones back in July, after reportedly hearing that the Khorasan group was speculating that this might be a way to sneak explosives past security.
Having said that, Mr. Barno, now a senior fellow at the Center for a New American Security in Washington, adds, “I can understand how some people would think it’s pretty convenient that we’re going to talk about this group just as we’re kicking off these strikes in Syria.”