Glenn Greenwald’s Khorasan conspiracy theory misses the point

Washington is often — and justifiably — criticized for viewing the world through a U.S.-centric prism. But many of the U.S. government’s fiercest critics are guilty of the same narrow orientation.

A case in point is an analysis provided by Glenn Greenwald and Murtaza Hussain in The Intercept yesterday: “The Khorasan Group: Anatomy of a Fake Terror Threat to Justify Bombing Syria.”

Up until last week, hardly anyone, including seasoned Syria watchers and Syrians themselves, had heard of an outfit called the Khorasan Group and so sober warnings from high officials in the U.S. government that this group poses a greater threat to the U.S. than ISIS, were received by some observers with a measure of skepticism.

The Intercept analysis traces the recent evolution of the Khorasan narrative as presented by the servile American media and reaches this conclusion:

What happened here is all-too-familiar. The Obama administration needed propagandistic and legal rationale for bombing yet another predominantly Muslim country. While emotions over the ISIS beheading videos were high, they were not enough to sustain a lengthy new war.

So after spending weeks promoting ISIS as Worse Than Al Qaeda™, they unveiled a new, never-before-heard-of group that was Worse Than ISIS™. Overnight, as the first bombs on Syria fell, the endlessly helpful U.S. media mindlessly circulated the script they were given: this new group was composed of “hardened terrorists,” posed an “imminent” threat to the U.S. homeland, was in the “final stages” of plots to take down U.S. civilian aircraft, and could “launch more-coordinated and larger attacks on the West in the style of the 9/11 attacks from 2001.””

As usual, anonymity was granted to U.S. officials to make these claims. As usual, there was almost no evidence for any of this. Nonetheless, American media outlets – eager, as always, to justify American wars – spewed all of this with very little skepticism. Worse, they did it by pretending that the U.S. Government was trying not to talk about all of this – too secret! – but they, as intrepid, digging journalists, managed to unearth it from their courageous “sources.” Once the damage was done, the evidence quickly emerged about what a sham this all was. But, as always with these government/media propaganda campaigns, the truth emerged only when it’s impotent.

The first problem with this conspiracy theory — its claim that the Khorasan Group was invented for domestic propaganda purposes — is that such an invention would largely be redundant.

Having successfully presented ISIS as worse than al Qaeda, why muddy the narrative by introducing into the picture a previously unheard of group? If a pretext for bombing Syria was being fabricated, why not posit an “imminent” threat to the U.S. coming from ISIS itself?

The actual story here is one that is somewhat more complex than appeals to conspiracy theorists like Glenn Greenwald and Alex Jones and it requires giving as much attention to what is happening in Syria as to what is happening behind closed doors in the capital of the Evil Empire.

The invention of the Khorasan Group — which is to say, the creation of the name — seems to have been necessitated not by the desire to find a pretext for bombing another Muslim country, but instead the desire to avoid headlines which would identify the target of a cluster of airstrikes by its real name: Jabhat al-Nusra (JN).

I dare say that the average American is no more familiar with the name Jabhat al-Nusra than they are with the Khorasan Group, so why construct a distinction between the two?

This actually has little to do with how expanding the airstrike targeting beyond ISIS would be perceived in the U.S. and everything to do with how it would be seen in Syria.

As was noted in a 2013 report “Jihadist Terrorism: A Threat Assessment,” by the Bipartisan Policy Center’s Homeland Security Project chaired by Lee Hamilton and Thomas Kean, Jabhat al-Nusra is “widely acknowledged as the most effective fighting force in the war against Bashar al-Assad’s regime.”

Unlike ISIS, JN has pursued a strategy designed to avoid alienating Syrians who oppose the Assad regime yet do not support JN’s Islamist ideology. The Syrian fighters at its core, having learned from the mistake of alienating the local population while they were fighting in Iraq as members of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi’s Al Qaeda in Iraq (the precursor of ISIS), made some strategic adjustments for JN.

As a Quilliam Foundation report notes, JN opted for:

  • predominantly military rather than civic targets, with no bombing of shrines and careful use of suicide bombs to minimise civilian casualties,
  • downplaying JN’s rhetoric concerning sectarianism and kuffar (labelling Alawites, Shiites and Sufis as non-Muslims)
  • the decision to use a different name to avoid preconceptions associated with Al Qaeda.

If the Obama administration chose for debatable reasons to target a unit inside JN and wanted to explain itself to the American public, it didn’t need to concoct a new name for this unit. It could simply present the same assertions about plots to attack the homeland and say that they emanate from Syria’s al Qaeda affiliate, Jabhat al-Nusra.

After all, Mohsin Al-Fadhli who in recent reports has been described as the leader of the Khorasan Group has also been referred to as the de facto leader of al Qaeda in Syria.

An Arab Times report in March this year said:

Al-Fadhli lives in north of Syria, where he is in control of al-Qaeda. He entices and recruits jihadists from among the European Muslim youths, or from those who embrace Islam. After choosing the youths, he trains them on how to execute terror operations in the western countries, focusing mostly on means of public transportation such as trains and airplanes. His activities were also focused on directing the al-Qaeda elements to execute operations against four main targets, which are Assad’s military, the Free Syrian Army, the ‘Islamic Front’ and ‘Da’esh’ [ISIS]. Sources revealed that Al-Fadhli supports ‘Al-Nusra Front’ against ‘Da’esh’, especially after the Al-Nusra leader Abu Mohammad Al-Joulani declared his loyalty to al- Qaeda group in April last year.

The decision taken by [Al Qaeda leader] Al-Zawahri to support ‘Al-Nusra Front’ to face ‘Da’esh’ was made after Al-Fadhli provided information about what is happening in Syria. Sources stressed that such a decision indicates the confidence al-Qaeda leadership has in Al-Fadhli. It also confirms that Al-Fadhli is the de facto leader of al-Qaeda in Syria, even though it has not been officially announced over fear of exposing him.

If the leader of the so-called Khorasan Group had such a central position in JN, why should the Obama administration see fit to try and educate the American public about some finer details in the organization’s internal structure?

It didn’t. The distinction between the Khorasan Group and Jabhat al-Nusra appears to have been contrived in a vain effort by Washington to fool Syrians rather than Americans. The U.S. hoped it could chop off one of JN’s limbs without appearing to strike its body.

The problem with a frontal attack on Jabhat al-Nusra is that this would inevitably be perceived in Syria as an attack on part of the opposition which has been on the frontline of the fight against ISIS and the regime — an attack that can thus only provide additional help to Bashar al-Assad.

President Obama says that the fight against ISIS will require ground forces drawn from the Syrian opposition, but by attacking JN the U.S. has swiftly alienated itself from the very fighters — the so-called moderates — on whose support the U.S. supposedly depends.

The ploy of inventing the Khorasan Group didn’t succeed in deceiving Syrians who knew that the men being killed in airstrikes in north-west Syria all belonged to Jabhat al-Nusra. Thus, by the end of last week instead of there being popular rallies welcoming a campaign to destroy the much-despised ISIS, ordinary Syrians were taking to the streets to protest against the U.S. airstrikes.

They already had reason to question American motives, given that Assad can be blamed for far more carnage and destruction than ISIS has wrought, and now it seems their worst fears have been confirmed — whether by design or sheer incompetence, the U.S. despite its oft-stated desire to hasten Assad’s departure seems to be doing more to ensure that he remains in power.

As for whether the U.S. truly has the desire to destroy ISIS remains far from clear. So far it has demonstrated a greater interest in destroying empty buildings than responding to desperate calls to block the ISIS assault on Kobane, the Kurdish city in northern Syria that truly faces an imminent threat to its survival.

Least of all is there any evidence that Obama has anything that barely resembles a coherent strategy.

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  1. Louis Proyect says:

    Excellent analysis, Paul. Not only are they going after al-Nusra, apparently they are also bombing the Islamic Front. The Islamic Front is not even ISIS or Nusra Front. Obama is clearly striking blows against the Syrian rebels. Who’s next? The FSA for yelling “Alluah Akbar” after taking down a helicopter?

  2. Remarkable contrast between the kind of informed analysis you provide and the hoarse-throated ‘they’re bad/we’re bad’ memes of the contending mythographers.

    The bottom line appears to be your last line: “Least of all is there any evidence that Obama has anything that barely resembles a coherent strategy.” Worth noting, however, that the US team seems to have a collection of targets already gathered on a hit-list. So somebody is planning something, even if in a herky-jerky scattered fashion. But who? But what?

  3. Paul Woodward says:

    As far as I can tell, the U.S. has a strong preference for aiming at stationary targets — buildings that lend themselves to good before and after photographs. But pride in the ability to destroy buildings should be reserved for demolition companies. After all, as much as officials may emphasize the importance of destroying the “terrorist infrastructure,” we all know these attacks are aimed at killing people, not simply destroying their places of residence.

  4. David Thorstad says:

    It seems pretty clear that the reason Obama cooked up this allegedly new threat and portrayed it as worse than Al Qaeda is because he used it to claim a special imminent threat to the U.S. “homeland,” something ISIS has never been portrayed as planning. The aim obviously is to get the American sheeple to go along with his new state of permanent war and possibly lay the groundwork for expansion of his violations of international law, by setting up a no-fly zone in northern Syria and perhaps sending his assassins to take out Assad. A repeat of the disastrous NATO/U.S. policy on Libya in the offing? It is absurd to dismiss Greenwald’s analysis as a conspiracy theory, let alone to lump him together with jerks like Alex Jones. A question: Why has the American “left” gone tits up and can’t even mount an antiwar protest against this latest imperialist aggression? A sad state of affairs when even some on the dwindled left support imperialist aggression and, as bad, confuse Islamist fundamentalism with revolution.

  5. Excellent piece, it prompted me to leave this comment to the Intercept article:
    It seems to me that Greenwald and Co. are still to a large extent participating in the cover up. While this article makes for a fine catalog of all the statements made by gov’t and media about Khorasan, Greenwald never says who was being bombed it their name. It was al Nursa that the US is calling Khorasan and and al Nursa has been in alliance with the FSA and IS and fighting both Assad and ISIS. I don’t think this oversight accidental because if Greenwald is forced to admit that the US has entered the Syrian civil war on the side of Assad he will have to admit that he has been wrong about Syria all along. Khorasan was a fiction created to cover up the real target of US air strikes and Greenwald & Co. continues this cover-up.

  6. Your analysis begins by referring to Greenwald and Hussain as conspiracy theorists, “The actual story here is one that is somewhat more complex than appeals to conspiracy ,theorists like Glenn Greenwald and Alex Jones and … ” and using the term ‘conspiracy theorist’ in its common purjoritive way. You then propose a different theory of government conspiring which is more complicated and seemingly, to me anyway, harder to believe partly because I don’t think our military tactics, much less over-all strategy, concerns itself with the thoughts and beliefs of the common people of the nations we choose to attack.
    Along the way in your analysis a very significant part of the article in question is ignored. That part which is ignored is the complicity of so many media outlets in passing on the government’s story uncritically or even with enhancement of their own. Combining Greenwald’s claims with what we know of history, there can be little doubt that the claim that the government is feeding selected information to selected journalists so as to create a selected narrative which they see as a way of justifying bombing which the U.S. citizenry might otherwise object to, is correct, 0r, IMO, most likely to be true. That is, to be the way to bet. , .
    Also given no weight in your analysis is the claim the claim by our government that the group was planning an attack on and within the ‘Homeland [I hate that term] and so a self defense attack was justified.

    ” What we are hearing from a senior US official is the reason they struck Khorasan right now is they had intelligence that the group — of Al Qaeda veterans — was in the stages of planning an attack against the US homeland and/or an attack against a target in Europe, and the information indicated Khorasan was well on its way — perhaps in its final stages — of planning that attack.”

    “All of that laid the fear-producing groundwork for President Obama to claim self-defense when he announced the bombing campaign on September 23 with this boast: “Once again, it must be clear to anyone who would plot against America and try to do Americans harm that we will not tolerate safe havens for terrorists who threaten our people.

  7. Paul Woodward says:

    Greenwald and Hussain refer to “the wholesale concoction of a brand new terror threat that was branded ‘The Khorasan Group.'”

    They are saying this group is an invention, while I maintain that it is the name that’s the invention.

    Anyone who starts talking about invented terrorist organizations seems to be venturing into the same rhetorical territory as the 9/11 Truthers who insist that 9/11 was an “inside job.”

    All the claims that were made by the administration about the Khorasan Group had previously been reported and ascribed to elements in Jabhat al-Nusra, so the question is: why this reluctance to refer to Nusra? Why concoct a name for a new group when Nusra is already widely recognized as the Syrian branch of al Qaeda?

    I have no argument with those who believe that based on very little hard evidence, warnings were made about an “imminent” attack on the U.S. and that these warnings were cynically used to justify the new round of airstrikes. What I’m disputing is the simplistic and conspiratorial view that this exercise involved the U.S. creating a fictitious terrorist group.

    As I argued, I think the administration wants to avoid being perceived as starting an open war on jihadists in Syria. It also has to deal with the problem of explaining why having long been aware of the al Qaeda presence in Syria it decided to attack now — another reason why the introduction of a seemingly new entity, the Khorasan Group, was convenient.

  8. Paul Woodward says:

    Sending his assassins to take out Assad? That sounds like something Alex Jones would say.

  9. My comment above was moderated off of the Intercept site so apparently they believe in censorship when it suits them.