The Guardian reports: In Idlib province, they are known as “the strangers with the horses”. Among the senior ranks of Jabhat al-Nusra, they are referred to as “our friends”. In Europe and the US, the small band of jihadis is known by the contentious name “Khorasan” and blamed for hatching plots to attack the west.
All seem to agree on one thing: just what the highly secretive group is up to in northern Syria remains one of the civil war’s enduring mysteries. This week, the leader of Jabhat al-Nusra claimed there was no such group as Khorasan and said he had been directed by al-Qaida’s central leadership to concentrate his group’s energies on Syria.
Abu Mohamed al-Jolani’s remarks, in an interview with al-Jazeera, were the first time that al-Nusra – a jihadi organisation with links to al-Qaida and a formidable player in the Syrian war – had addressed the issue of Khorasan, which the US accuses of collaborating with al-Nusra to target western interests outside of Syria.
The remarks were immediately rejected by western officials and residents of Idlib. Two senior Islamists with close links to al-Nusra have also outlined to the Guardian in recent weeks their understanding of Khorasan’s intent and its close ties to homegrown jihadi groups.
“Until recently they wanted nothing to do with the Syrian war,” said one ranking official. “They only wanted to use Syria as a stadium for whatever they were up to elsewhere.
“But that’s different now. In the attack on Idlib city they played a direct role. They co-ordinated most of the dangerous attacks. Without them, Idlib would not have fallen.”
The claim that Khorasan had played a direct role in helping jihadi and mainstream elements of the Syrian opposition seize a major city marks the first time that any official has been prepared to acknowledge working alongside the group. “They are a very big secret, you know,” the official said. “They work directly for [al-Qaida leader Ayman] al-Zawahiri.”
Until recently, all residents and jihadis interviewed by the Guardian had painted a picture of a remote and impenetrable outfit that kept entirely to itself and whose members regularly moved to avoid US air strikes. [Continue reading…]