The Daily Beast’s Eli Lake is one of the best national-security reporters there is. Late this week, he made an important contribution to the “Khorasan” debate
—the controversy over President Obama’s commencement of an aerial bombing campaign, in the absence of congressional authorization, based on what the administration has portrayed as an “imminent” threat to the United States. The source of the threat was said to be the “Khorasan Group,” a virtually unknown terrorist entity.
The upshot of Mr. Lake’s report is that back in June, U.S. military and intelligence officials assessed that “a shadowy network of al Qaeda veterans in Syria were planning to attack airliners flying to the United States.” The officials thus formulated combat plans for strikes against this terror cell’s key locations. These “targeting packages,” however, were not submitted to the president because, according to an unidentified senior intelligence official, military brass knew Mr. Obama would not authorize the strikes. They did not want to ask if the answer was certain to be “no.”
I have no doubt that this is the case. My focus, however, is on Mr. Lake’s description of the Khorasan controversy. As he frames it,
Some critics on the left and right have questioned whether the White House invented the threat from the so-called “Khorasan Group” in order to justify airstrikes that began in September against al Qaeda and ISIS targets in Syria.
“ISIS,” of course, refers to the Islamic State, formerly, the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (meaning Iraq and Greater Syria or the Levant). It is the al-Qaeda spin-off currently rampaging across that region. ISIS is distinguished from al-Qaeda because the two — at least for the moment — are rivals. Al-Qaeda’s Syrian franchise is Jabhat al-Nusra. Mr. Lake further asserts that this franchise “has been focused on its fight inside [Syria],” in apparent distinction from the so-called Khorasan Group’s focus on attacking the United States.
This is all worth teasing out because there is confusion about what the Khorasan controversy is over. The Lake report, moreover, is a valuable demonstration of how the government’s conscious avoidance of Islamic-supremacist ideology leads to wayward analysis and policy.
It is true that Obama critics have questioned whether the White House invented the threat from the “Khorasan Group.” Still, this conflates two things that should be scrutinized separately: (a) whether there really was a threat, and (b) whether there really is a “Khorasan Group” as represented by administration officials. Many of us who reject the latter are less skeptical about the former.