Alex Rowell

ISIS, Nusra and “Khorasan”: What’s the difference?

NOW profiles the various jihadists now under American bombardment in both Iraq and Syria

Jabhat al-Nusra fighters at a demonstration calling for establishing an Islamic state in Aleppo, Syria, on 25 October, 2013 (AFP Photo/Karam al-Masri)

The Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS) jihadist faction – or “The Islamic State,” as it has called itself since declaring the establishment of a caliphate spanning eastern Syria and western Iraq in June – has been the target of over 190 American air strikes on the Iraqi side of the border since US President Barack Obama launched what has officially become a campaign to “degrade and ultimately destroy” the group on 7 August.


On Tuesday, that campaign expanded for the first time into Syria, where a coalition led by the US, but also including five Arab states, has since launched aerial and naval missile attacks on over 16 ISIS positions at the time of writing. In a surprise additional move, the US also carried out 8 strikes on what the military called the “Khorasan Group,” a shadowy entity said to be an external Al-Qaeda cell embedded among units of Al-Qaeda’s official Syrian subsidiary, Jabhat al-Nusra. Despite the US’s implied distinction between so-called “Khorasan” members and regular Nusra Front fighters, it’s unclear to what extent that has held up on the ground, with some reports citing Syrian rebels and activists to the effect that the sites hit were well-known Nusra bases.


In the hopes of mitigating some of the inevitable confusion between the three groups, NOW spoke to analysts and experts to clarify their various similarities and differences.


ISIS v Nusra


The broad outlines of the ISIS phenomenon have been made familiar to millions in recent months, as the group’s atrocities and dramatic territorial advances have dominated headlines around the world. With just a few hundred men, they chased an estimated 30,000 troops out of Iraq’s northwestern Ninawa Province in a matter of hours in June. They’ve released gruesome footage of their fighters casually beheading Western civilian hostages, each time revealing another captive next in line to be murdered. Other broadcasts include graphic videos of wild killing sprees carried out on the streets of Iraq, and mass executions of prisoners of war. As a result of their excommunication from Al-Qaeda by Ayman al-Zawahiri, in February, they are often described as the jihadists “too extreme” even for the masterminds of the 9/11 attacks.


But is Nusra any different? Strange as the notion of ‘moderate’ jihadism may seem, it is sometimes argued that the Al-Qaeda franchise is at least comparatively pragmatic, and there is ostensibly some evidence to support the case. In contrast to ISIS’s beheading of journalists James Foley and Steven Sotloff, in August Nusra freed an American journalist, Peter Curtis, whom they had held for nearly two years. In early September, the group also freed 45 Fijian UN peacekeepers taken hostage in the Syrian Golan Heights.


And in Lebanon, whereas ISIS beheaded two Lebanese soldiers captured in recent clashes with the Lebanese Army in the border town of Arsal, Nusra freed five captives it had itself taken during the battle, though it has since shot one dead and threatened to kill a second.


Analysts told NOW the key distinction between the two factions was one of method – as opposed to ideology or long-term objectives – with Nusra seeking to maintain positive relations with other rebel groups and local actors, whereas ISIS seems almost to relish conflict with them.


“In Syria, they have had two very different approaches,” said Daveed Gartenstein-Ross, Senior Fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and author of Bin Laden’s Legacy: Why We’re Still Losing the War on Terror. “ISIS has never played well with others. Prior to its dramatic advance into Iraq in June, it basically exclusively took territory from other rebel groups, as opposed to from Assad. Whereas, on the other hand, Nusra was very well embedded with other rebel groups.”


In part, Gartenstein-Ross told NOW, this was a result of “lessons learned” from Al-Qaeda’s prior experience in Iraq, where it lost ground after 2007 by “alienating” its erstwhile allies. While Al-Qaeda concluded it “needed to work better with other people […] ISIS drew a very different lesson.”


As far as ideology goes, “there’s not an enormous amount of difference,” said Gartenstein-Ross. “They’re different tactically and strategically, but ideologically Nusra is part of Al-Qaeda, and Al-Qaeda is dedicated to reestablishing the caliphate. They reject the legitimacy of ISIS’s caliphate declaration, but if you look at their goals and eschatology, they’re really on the same page.”


The Khorasan wildcard


The general perception of ISIS as the world’s most dangerous jihadist outfit has been complicated recently by US intelligence claims of the existence of an external, elite Al-Qaeda cell sent personally by Zawahiri to join Nusra militants inside Syria, not to fight the Bashar al-Assad regime, but to plot spectacular, mass-casualty attacks on civilian targets in the West. This cell, dubbed the “Khorasan Group” in reference to the antiquated name used by Al-Qaeda for the region in which its members were previously based (including Iran, where the cell’s Kuwaiti leader, Muhsin al-Fadhli, was quietly hosted by the ruling regime) was said by Washington to pose a more “direct” threat to the West than ISIS. Or, rather, it was, until the “individuals plotting and planning” the attacks were “eliminated” Tuesday by US air strikes, in the words of Pentagon spokesman Rear Admiral John Kirby.


While American claims about the “Khorasan Group” are impossible to verify independently, Gartenstein-Ross told NOW they tallied with previous activities undertaken elsewhere by Al-Qaeda, such as in Yemen, where the Saudi bomb maker and Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) member Ibrahim al-Asiri is believed to have developed the explosives used in numerous operations, such as the attempted Christmas Day 2009 blowing up of a passenger jet in Detroit.


At the same time, there is skepticism about the veracity of the US’s claims regarding “Khorasan” among some within the Syrian opposition, who see them as a pretext to weaken Nusra itself, which was designated a “terrorist” entity by the US in 2012.


“We have no idea who these people are,” said Qurai Zakarya, an opposition activist and survivor of the Assad regime’s August 2013 chemical weapons attack outside Damascus. “Throughout all my work in Syria, I never heard about them. And other activists are saying the same.”


“Ever since we heard about them in the news, we’ve been trying to find out who they are and so far we have no answer. Nobody knows anything about them.”


Myra Abdallah contributed reporting.

While they differ in tactics and strategy, both ISIS and Jabhat al-Nusra seek to establish a caliphate, or Islamic state. (AFP Photo/Karam al-Masri)

Strange as the notion of ‘moderate’ jihadism may seem, it is sometimes argued that the Al-Qaeda franchise is at least comparatively pragmatic, and there is ostensibly some evidence to support the case.”