The Khorasan Group: Anatomy of a Fake Terror Threat to Justify Bombing Syria
By Glenn Greenwald and Murtaza Hussain, The Intercept
As the Obama administration prepared to bomb Syria without Congressional or U.N. authorization, it faced two problems. The first was the difficulty of sustaining public support for a new years-long war against ISIS, a group that clearly posed no imminent threat to the “homeland.” A second was the lack of legal justification for launching a new bombing campaign with no viable claim of self-defense or U.N. approval.
The solution to both problems was found in the wholesale concoction of a brand new terror threat that was branded “The Khorasan Group.” After spending weeks depicting ISIS as an unprecedented threat – too radical even for Al Qaeda! – administration officials suddenly began spoon-feeding their favorite media organizations and national security journalists tales of a secret group that was even scarier and more threatening than ISIS, one that posed a direct and immediate threat to the American Homeland. Seemingly out of nowhere, a new terror group was created in media lore.
The genesis of the name was itself scary: “Khorasan refers to a province under the Islamic caliphate, or religious empire, of old that included parts of Afghanistan.” AP depicted the U.S. officials who were feeding them the narrative as engaging in some sort of act of brave, unauthorized truth-telling: “many U.S. officials interviewed for this story would not be quoted by name talking about what they said was highly classified intelligence.”
On the morning of September 18, CBS News broadcast a segment that is as pure war propaganda as it gets: directly linking the soon-to-arrive U.S. bombing campaign in Syria to the need to protect Americans from being exploded in civilian jets by Khorasan.
Orr then announced that while ISIS is “dominating headlines and terrorist propaganda,” Orr’s “sources” warn of “a more immediate threat to the U.S. Homeland.” As Orr spoke, CBS flashed alternating video showing scary Muslims in Syria and innocent westerners waiting in line at airports, as he intoned that U.S. officials have ordered “enhanced screening” for “hidden explosives.” This is all coming, Orr explained, from “an emerging threat in Syria” where “hardened terrorists” are building “hard to detect bombs.”
The U.S. government, Orr explained, is trying to keep this all a secret; they won’t even mention the group’s name in public out of security concerns! But, Orr was there to reveal the truth, as his “sources confirm the Al Qaeda cell goes by the name Khorasan.” And they’re “developing fresh plots to attack U.S. aviation.”
Later that day, Obama administration officials began publicly touting the group, when Director of National Intelligence James Clapper warned starkly: “in terms of threat to the homeland, Khorasan may pose as much of a danger as the Islamic State.” Then followed an avalanche of uncritical media reports detailing this Supreme Threat, excitingly citing anonymous officials as though they had uncovered a big secret the government was trying to conceal.
Once the bombing campaign was underway, ISIS – the original theme of the attack – largely faded into the background, as Obama officials and media allies aggressively touted attacks on Khorasan leaders and the disruption of its American-targeting plots.
(W)hat was clear was that this group had to be bombed in Syria to save American lives, as the terrorist group even planned to conceal explosive devices in toothpaste or flammable clothing as a means to target U.S. airliners. The day following the first bombings, Attorney General Eric Holder claimed: “We hit them last night out of a concern that they were getting close to an execution date of some of the plans that we have seen.”
CNN’s supremely stenographic Pentagon reporter, Barbara Starr, went on air as videos of shiny new American fighter jets and the Syria bombing were shown and explained that this was all necessary to stop a Khorasan attack very close to being carried out against the west.
But once it served its purpose of justifying the start of the bombing campaign in Syria, the Khorasan narrative simply evaporated as quickly as it materialized.
On September 25, the New York Times – just days after hyping the Khorasan threat to the homeland – wrote that “the group’s evolution from obscurity to infamy has been sudden.” And the Paper of Record began, for the first time, to note how little evidence actually existed for all those claims about the imminent threats posed to the homeland.
Late last week, Associated Press’ Ken Dilanian – the first to unveil the new Khorasan Product in mid-September – published a new story explaining that just days after bombing “Khorasan” targets in Syria, high-ranking U.S. officials seemingly backed off all their previous claims of an “imminent” threat from the group. Headlined “U.S. Officials Offer More Nuanced Take on Khorasan Threat,” it noted that “several U.S. officials told reporters this week that the group was in the final stages of planning an attack on the West, leaving the impression that such an attack was about to happen.”
There are serious questions about whether the Khorasan Group even exists in any meaningful or identifiable manner. Aki Peritz, a CIA counterterrorism official until 2009, told Time: “I’d certainly never heard of this group while working at the agency,” while Obama’s former U.S. ambassador to Syria Robert Ford said: “We used the term (Khorasan) inside the government, we don’t know where it came from….All I know is that they don’t call themselves that.” As the Intercept was finalizing this article, former terrorism federal prosecutor Andrew McCarthy wrote in National Review that the group was a scam: “You haven’t heard of the Khorosan Group because there isn’t one. It is a name the administration came up with, calculating that Khorosan … had sufficient connection to jihadist lore that no one would call the president on it.”
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.