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Home / World / What’s the difference between ISIS, al Nusra and the Khorasan Group? – CNN International
What’s the difference between ISIS, al Nusra and the Khorasan Group? – CNN International

What’s the difference between ISIS, al Nusra and the Khorasan Group? – CNN International

  • ISIS, al-Nusra Front and the Khorasan Group all spawned from al Qaeda
  • The U.S. launched airstrikes against ISIS and the Khorasan Group this week
  • Al-Nusra says its leader was killed in the strikes; the U.S. has not confirmed

(CNN) — Not long ago, the threat of terrorist attacks against the United States boiled down to two words: al Qaeda.

But this week’s U.S. airstrikes against al Qaeda offshoots show the president is playing whack-a-mole against a new generation of terrorists.

The attacks Tuesday inside Syria came in three waves and targeted ISIS, the Khorasan Group and, apparently, the al-Nusra Front.

Activist: Airstrikes won’t eliminate ISIS

The groups share a similar ideology. But there are key differences. Here’s how each stack up:

Airstrikes target al Qaeda-linked group

America’s battle against Khorasan

President Obama’s ‘War on Terror 2.0’

The Arab coalition against ISIS

‘The cat has a lot of lives’


What its name means:

The Islamic State in Syria and Iraq. Some world leaders use the acronym ISIL, or the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant.

But the group now calls itself just the Islamic State, believing it has already established a caliphate across parts of Syria and Iraq.

How it started:

Back in 2004, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi launched al Qaeda in Iraq and later tried to ignite a sectarian war against Iraq’s Shiite majority.

The new al Qaeda was re-branded in 2006 as the Islamic State in Iraq (ISI). It would add “and Syria” to its name later.

The group exploited a growing perception among many Sunnis that they were being persecuted by the Shia-dominated government led by Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki, starved of resources and excluded from a share of power.

What its goal is:

ISIS has been trying to create an Islamic state across Sunni areas of Iraq and in Syria.

But it doesn’t stop there, one former ISIS militant told CNN.

“The main and principal goal of the Islamic State that they tell their new members is to establish an Islamic state that will encompass the Arab world,” the man said in Turkey. “And after that, we go to other countries.”

The group also claims its leader has authority over 1.5 billion Muslims around the world.

Who leads it:

At age 39, Abu Bakr al Baghdadi became the leader of ISIS in 2010 after Abu Omar al Baghdadi was killed in a joint U.S.-Iraqi operation.

Prior to taking over ISIS, al Baghdadi joined al Qaeda in Iraq. He served four years in a U.S. prison camp for insurgents, at Bucca in southern Iraq, where he almost certainly developed a network of contacts and honed his ideology.

He was released in 2009 and went to work.

Why the U.S. is targeting it:

ISIS has been pretty vocal about wanting to attack Americans and other Westerners — even though U.S. officials say ISIS fighters aren’t a direct threat to the U.S. homeland right now.

“At this point, we have no information that ISIL is plotting an attack inside the United States,” Matthew Olsen, director of the National Counterterrorism Center, said last week in testimony to Congress.

The dangers, officials say, are to U.S. personnel and infrastructure in Iraq. There’s also a risk of militants with U.S. or other Western passports potentially possibly returning home and staging attacks.

A senior ISIS leader recently called for lone-wolf attacks in the United States and France — two countries that have been conducting airstrikes against ISIS in Iraq.

“The best thing you can do is to strive to your best and kill any disbeliever, whether he be French, American or from any of their allies,” the ISIS official said.

“Rig the roads with explosives for them. Attack their bases. Raid their homes. Cut off their heads. Do not let them feel secure. Hunt them wherever they may be.”

Inside the mind of an ISIS fighter


What its name means:

“Al-Nusra Front” is translated from “Jabhat al-Nusra,” which means “Victory Front.”

How it started:

Al-Nusra was formed during the ongoing Syrian civil war. It has emerged as one of the most effective groups in the Syrian resistance, drawing on foreign fighters with combat experience in Iraq and elsewhere.

“A number of separate rebel groups have emerged and preparations are being made for a post-Assad Syria as these groups vie for dominance and international support,” the Quilliam Foundation said.

What its goal is:

Unlike most Syrian rebel groups, which are seeking political change, al-Nusra Front is fighting on ideological and jihadist grounds.

Like ISIS, al-Nusra Front is trying to establish an Islamic state — though primarily in Syria.

It’s been a formidable force against President Bashar al-Assad’s regime. But even though it has helped the Syrian opposition by taking out regime fighters, it has also hurt the moderate opposition by making world leaders hesitant to help rebels.

The group had claimed hundreds of attacks in several cities, including suicide bombings, and was responsible for the deaths of “numerous innocent Syrians,” the State Department says.

Who leads it:

Al-Nusra posted a statement saying its leader, Abu Yousef al-Turki, was killed in the U.S.-led airstrikes Tuesday in Syria.

The statement was accompanied by a so-called proof-of-death — a photograph — of the former fighter.

CNN cannot independently verify al-Nusra’s claims, but the monitoring group the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights reported the terror group was among those targeted during the airstrikes.

Why the U.S. is targeting it:

The United States has not identified al-Nusra as a group targeted in the strikes.

But it is a rebel group that the U.S. has blacklisted as a foreign terror organization linked to al Qaeda in Iraq.

Al-Nusra “has sought to portray itself as part of the legitimate Syrian opposition while it is, in fact, an attempt by AQI to hijack the struggles of the Syrian people for its own malign purposes,” according to the State Department.


What its name means:

Calling the group “Khorasan” doesn’t actually make sense in Arabic or any other language, according to the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

“Khorasan is not an organizational name or even some exotic acronym, but an ancient Islamic historical term from the far east of the Muslim world,” the think tank said. “It is used today by al-Qaeda (and others who are fond of archaic Islamic terminology) to describe the Afghanistan-Pakistan-Iran region.”

How it started:

It’s a collection of senior al Qaeda members who have moved into Syria. President Barack Obama called them “seasoned al Qaeda operatives.”

Khorasan’s existence was publicly acknowledged only last week, when U.S. Director of National Intelligence James Clapper said it was operating in Iraq and Syria with a focus on exporting terror to the West.

Sources say it is trying to emulate the success of ISIS in using social media to recruit Westerners — people who could be trained and then sent home to launch terror attacks.

What its goal is:

For al Qaeda, locked in a battle with ISIS for the crown of leading global jihad, the creation of Khorasan makes perfect sense.

The Khorasan Group’s mission is to find new ways to attack the United States and Europe.

Who leads it:

A short and slight 33-year-old named Muhsin al Fadhli, according to intelligence sources in the United States and the Middle East. He arrived in Syria in April 2013 and began working with the al-Nusra Front. At some point, he parted company with al-Nusra.

Why the U.S. is targeting it:

The Khorasan Group was actively plotting against a U.S. homeland target and Western targets, a senior U.S. official told CNN on Tuesday. The United States hoped to surprise the group by mixing strikes against it with strikes against ISIS targets.

The official said the group posed an “imminent” threat. Another U.S. official later said the threat was not imminent in the sense that there were no known targets or attacks expected in the next few weeks.

CNN’s Tim Lister, Paul Cruickshank, Michael Martinez and Jim Acosta contributed to this report.

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