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.
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. Foreign Policy‘s Shane Harris, with two other writers, was one of the first to question whether the “threat” was anywhere near what it had been depicted to be:
But according to the top U.S. counterterrorism official, as well as Obama himself, there is “no credible information” that the militants of the Islamic State were planning to attack inside the United States. Although the group could pose a domestic terrorism threat if left unchecked, any plot it tried launching today would be “limited in scope” and “nothing like a 9/11-scale attack,” Matthew Olsen, the director of the National Counterterrorism Center, said in remarks at the Brookings Institution earlier this month. That would suggest that Khorasan doesn’t have the capability either, even if it’s working to develop it.
“Khorasan has the desire to attack, though we’re not sure their capabilities match their desire,” a senior U.S. counterterrorism official told Foreign Policy.
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:
American officials have given differing accounts about just how close the group was to mounting an attack, and about what chance any plot had of success. One senior American official on Wednesday described the Khorasan plotting as “aspirational” and said that there did not yet seem to be a concrete plan in the works.
Literally within a matter of days, we went from “perhaps in its final stages of planning its attack” (CNN) to “plotting as ‘aspirational’” and “there did not yet seem to be a concrete plan in the works” (NYT).
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.
James Comey, the FBI director, and Rear Adm. John Kirby, the Pentagon spokesman, each acknowledged that the U.S. did not have precise intelligence about where or when the cell, known as the Khorasan Group, would attempt to strike a Western target. . . .
Kirby, briefing reporters at the Pentagon, said, “I don’t know that we can pin that down to a day or month or week or six months….We can have this debate about whether it was valid to hit them or not, or whether it was too soon or too late…We hit them. And I don’t think we need to throw up a dossier here to prove that these are bad dudes.”
Regarding claims that an attack was “imminent,” Comey said: “I don’t know exactly what that word means…’imminent’” — a rather consequential admission given that said imminence was used as the justification for launching military action in the first place.
Even more remarkable, it turns out the very existence of an actual “Khorasan Group” was to some degree an invention of the American government. NBC’s Engel, the day after he reported on the U.S. Government’s claims about the group for Nightly News, seemed to have serious second thoughts about the group’s existence, tweeting, “Syrian activists telling us they’ve never heard of Khorasan or its leader.”
Indeed, a NEXIS search for the group found almost no mentions of its name prior to the September 13 AP article based on anonymous officials. There was one oblique reference to it in a July 31 CNN op-ed by Peter Bergen. The other mention was an article in the LA Times from two weeks earlier about Pakistan which mentioned the group’s name as something quite different than how it’s being used now: as “the intelligence wing of the powerful Pakistani Taliban faction led by Hafiz Gul Bahadur.” Tim Shorrock noted that the name appears in a 2011 hacked Stratfor email published by WikiLeaks, referencing a Dawn article that depicts them as a Pakistan-based group which was fighting against and “expelled by” (not “led by”) Bahadur.
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 (1/2/3/4) 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.