Makes sense strategically in more ways than one, although I assume there’ll be a new Ron Paul communique soon claiming it’s a little too convenient that our archenemy from 9/11 is now being placed inside a country that the White House wants to bomb.
While the Islamic State group is getting the most attention now, another band of extremists in Syria — a mix of hardened jihadis from Afghanistan, Yemen, Syria and Europe — poses a more direct and imminent threat to the United States, working with Yemeni bomb-makers to target U.S. aviation, American officials say.
At the center is a cell known as the Khorasan group, a cadre of veteran al-Qaida fighters from Afghanistan and Pakistan who traveled to Syria to link up with the al-Qaida affiliate there, the Nusra Front.
But the Khorasan militants did not go to Syria principally to fight the government of President Bashar Assad, U.S. officials say. Instead, they were sent by al-Qaida leader Ayman al-Zawahiri to recruit Europeans and Americans whose passports allow them to board a U.S.-bound airliner with less scrutiny from security officials.
In addition, according to classified U.S. intelligence assessments, the Khorasan militants have been working with bomb-makers from al-Qaida’s Yemen affiliate to test new ways to slip explosives past airport security.
James Clapper mentioned the Nusra Front’s ambitions to hit the U.S. to Congress back in January, while Obama was still dozing on ISIS. The Khorasan cell is being named publicly now, I assume, in case a story hits the wires next month about U.S. bombs falling not just in ISIS’s Syrian “caliphate” but in Nusra territory as well, where the AQ unit is presumably based. That would seem inexplicable as mission creep unless the public has been reminded that the, ahem, terrorism “varsity” team is also on the field in Syria and ready to play. As for AQ’s strategy, it stands to reason that they’d like Syria as a hidey hole for plotting. We can drone them in Pakistan, we can drone them in Yemen, we can drone them in Somalia, Libya, you name it — but until now Syria has been no-go for the White House, especially after Obama’s “red line” debacle last year ended in Congress getting cold feet on hitting Assad. Syria was a warm, safe place for Al Qaeda cockroaches until ISIS went and grabbed America’s attention.
It also stands to reason that the Khorasan group might pose more of a threat right now and needs to be dealt with quickly, which would help explain why administration officials are whispering about it to the AP. With ISIS having stolen Al Qaeda’s “varsity” letters, there’s bound to be competition between the two groups for jihadi recruits going forward. At the moment, ISIS is the tip of the mujahedeen spear: It’s built a huge proto-state in a country that was occupied by the U.S. after Al Qaeda spent the better part of 10 years trying and failing to do something similar, and it’s now the subject of a major international don’t-call-it-a-war effort among the west and Sunni monarchs. The only way for AQ to top that, logically, is to knock an American passenger plane out of the sky or blow something up on the ground in North America. It would be weird, frankly, for the U.S. to start bombing in Syria but to scrupulously avoid a cell of people whose targeting, unlike ISIS’s, really is authorized under an existing AUMF. So here’s your heads up courtesy of the Associated Press: If we get a lead on any of the Khorasan operatives in Syria, they’re going to be liquidated too.
By the way, if you missed it over the weekend, Obama’s now basing the mission against ISIS not just on the 2001 AUMF against Al Qaeda but in part on the 2002 AUMF against Saddam — i.e., the one he personally opposed and his opposition to which helped get him elected president.