London and Riyadh, Asharq Al-Awsat—Other extremist groups operating in Syria may pose a greater threat to US national security than the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), a number of US government and intelligence officials have said.
Speaking to the New York Times, the officials highlighted one group, called “Khorasan,” that is reportedly made up of former Al-Qaeda members previously involved in, or currently intent on, carrying out attacks on US soil using concealed explosives.
The group is said to be led by Mohsin Al-Fadhli, a 33-year-old Kuwaiti national who as well as being wanted in his native homeland has been on US terror lists for at least a decade, and is the fourth most-wanted man on Saudi Arabia’s list of wanted terrorist suspects.
According to the US State Department, Fadhli entered Syria via Iran in 2013, having lived in the country with a small group of Al-Qaeda operatives.
A number of informed sources in the British capital London said Fadhli was now effectively the leader of Al-Qaeda in Syria, acting as the main representative of the group’s global leader, Ayman Al-Zawahiri. They said Fadhli had played a pivotal role in convincing Zawahiri to declare the Al-Nusra Front as Al-Qaeda’s official branch in Syria, at the expense of ISIS.
Details on Fadhli and Khorasan are sketchy, with the officials saying the picture on the ground in Syria remained highly opaque due to the “growing body of extremists from around the world who are coming in and taking advantage of the ungoverned areas and creating informal ad hoc groups that are not directly aligned with ISIS or Nusra,” according to one of the officials who spoke to the New York Times.
Many of these groups, especially the Al-Nusra Front, have been weakened by ISIS’s recent successes, losing not only territory but also fighters to the group, whose sophisticated propaganda machine and recent stunning successes, including unilaterally declaring a caliphate, have proved a magnet for many recruits that would otherwise have fought for Al-Nusra and others.
The officials warned it was this complicated state of affairs, where weakening one group may strengthen a more dangerous rival, that meant the latest US-led efforts against ISIS could backfire drastically. The weakening of ISIS—which has thus far confined its operations to Syria and Iraq and not targeted Western countries—could therefore result in other groups, such as the Al-Nusra Front, Khorasan, and still others bent on attacking Western states, coming to the fore.
Hani Al-Sebaee, an expert on extremist groups, and head of the Al-Maqrizi Center for Historical Studies in London, told Asharq Al-Awsat via telephone the US officials were possibly “blowing things out of proportion regarding Khorasan, a new enemy we don’t know much about in terms of facts on the ground.”
He said he believed the goal of the latest “leaks” from the US regarding the group could be a kind of smokescreen to encourage an attack on the Al-Nusra Front, which, unlike ISIS is part of a group, Al-Qaeda, that has already attacked the US.