From Iran to Khorasan

CEP Research Analyst


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In September 2014, American military officials disclosed that they were targeting “the Khorasan Group,” a Syria-based al-Qaeda cell plotting terror attacks against targets in the U.S. and Europe. Since then, U.S. and European officials have released the names of six Khorasan members. Notably, half of the named Khorasan members – including its two leaders and a deputy – have received past support from the Iranian government.

The widely reported leader of Khorasan is Muhsin al-Fadhli. Al-Fadhli had a history of terror financing and facilitation before moving to Syria in 2013. In 2002, al-Fadhli funded an al-Qaeda attack on a French oil tanker in Yemen that killed one crewman. He was implicated in an attack two days later that killed one U.S. Marine on Kuwait’s Faylaka Island. By the time al-Fadhli began working for an al-Qaeda facilitation network in Iran in 2009, he had already been placed on Saudi Arabia’s list of 36 wanted terrorists. 

Nonetheless, Iran is believed to have provided protection and sanctuary for al-Fadhli and other figures as part of an agreement with al-Qaeda. According to the U.S. State and Treasury Departments, al-Fadhli led al-Qaeda’s “core facilitation pipeline” through Iran, moving funds and fighters for al-Qaeda throughout the Middle East. Meanwhile, the Iranian government gave the network “freedom of operation and uninhibited ability to travel for extremists and their families.”

Iran has also aided al-Fadhli’s deputy, Sanafi al-Nasr. Al-Nasr assumed leadership of the Iran network in 2012. According to the U.S. Department of the Treasury, both al-Fadhli and al-Nasr were temporarily arrested by Iranian authorities, but later enjoyed freedom of movement. Al-Nasr relocated to Syria in April 2013.

The other reported leader of Khorasan is al-Qaeda veteran Mohammed Islambouli. Like al-Fadhli and al-Nasr, Islambouli benefited from the Iran-al-Qaeda agreement. In 2011, Islambouli was released from an Iranian jail under the terms of “a clandestine agreement between al-Qaeda and Iran,” according to Saudi news outlet, Al Arabiya.

The term “Khorasan” traditionally refers to the area of Afghanistan and Pakistan, where al-Qaeda has its roots. Historically, the area also includes Iran and Syria, as well as Turkey. Iran’s systematic protection of Khorasan’s leaders has rendered the name and purview of the group particularly apt.

According to the hadith on Khorasan, “If you see the black banners coming from Khorasan, join that army, even if you have to crawl over ice; no power will be able to stop them.”

Iran has made it clear it has no intention of trying.