What's in a name? When you're an Islamist extremist group believed to pose an existential threat to the Western world, everything. In the past few months, we've seen the strange and somewhat revealing saga of what to call the group alternatively referred to as ISIS, ISIL, the Islamic State and Daesh.
Now, within a timeframe of just days, the Islamic State has been sidelined by a new name in the world of Islamic extremism: "Khorasan." U.S. officials say that Khorasan, often referred to as "the Khorasan group, " is a small al-Qaeda linked outfit operating in Syria. They are portrayed as a more direct threat to U.S. interests than the Islamic State, which is still largely focused on operations in Syria and Iraq.
U.S. officials say that their strikes against Khorasan appear to have been a success, killing the group's leader, Mushin al-Fadhli. However, some analysts are perturbed by the lack of information about the group and why it was targeted. Even an examination of one of the most basic elements of the group – its name – paints a complicated and inconclusive picture of what the group actually is, and why it is being targeted.
A historical region
A map showing the rough position of the historic Khorasan region. (Laris Karlis/The washington Post)
As most reports on the group have noted, Khorasan refers to a historical region that encompassed northeastern Iran, southern Turkmenistan and northern Afghanistan. It was established as a region by the Sasanian dynasty, the last Iranian empire before the rise of Islam, at some point in the 3rd century. Its name literally means "The Land of the Sun, " a reference to its eastern location.
After the region was taken over in an Arab conquest in the 7th century, Khorasan became a part of the Umayyad Caliphate, and with that, part of early Islamic culture. Notably, a widely discussed (though disputed) Hadith speaks of how "black banners will come out of Khorasan" in the end times. Will McCants of the Brookings Institute notes that the prophecies derive from the 8th century Abbasid revolution, a revolution that began in Khorasan and saw the end of the privileging of Arabs over non-Arabs in the Islamic empire.
Over the years, the Khorasan region had a fractious history, and was eventually swallowed up by a variety of different states. A part of Khorasan eventually became Khorasan state in modern Iran, and "Greater Khorasan" is generally used to refer to the larger historical region.
A modern concept
In part due to its place in Islamic history, the term Khorasan is used by modern Jihadist groups, especially those based outside Arab states. The online magazine of al-Qaeda in Afghanistan is called “Vanguards of Khorasan, " for example, and J.M. Berger, an independent terror analyst, says that al-Qaeda has often signed its communiques as emanating from Khorasan over the years.
"Jihadists deny the legitimacy of most modern nation states; they prefer using historical terms, typically the ones that were used during the time of the great Caliphates (which is obviously what they want to go back to), " Peter Neumann, director of the International Centre for the Study of Radicalization, explained in an e-mail.
In particular, the hadith mention gives the reference added power. "The symbology of this has been important for jihadis since the so-called black banners being raised in Afghanistan, which is part of Khorasan, in the '80s against the Soviets until now, " Aaron Zelin of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy said, adding that Islamic apocalyptic literature has become a central theme for some jihadist groups fighting in the Middle East.
While there have been reports of groups in Pakistan taking on the Khorasan label, analysts cast doubt that the term is being widely used within Syria to refer to any distinct group. “There have been no jihadis in Syria or [Jabhat al-Nusra] to use that name when referring to themselves, " Zelin said. "Some online jihadis have even characterized it as laughable."
Pieter van Ostaeyen, a historian and blogger who follows jihadist movements, writes in an e-mail that "in all of the official Jihadi accounts I follow(ed), the name never was mentioned."
Even after the use of the phrase by U.S. officials, the Khorosan label still seemed obscure to many in Syria. The Post's Loveday Morris said that most Islamist fighters she spoke to had never heard of any Khorasan group, and those that used the word used it to refer, more broadly, to fighters from Afghanistan and Pakistan rather than a specific group.