It was six days after the Sept. 11 attacks, and with dark smoke still rising from lower Manhattan, Ali Soufan was face to face with the most senior al Qaeda leader in American custody.
Soufan, an FBI counterterrorism agent, was inside a Yemen prison, interrogating a captured al Qaeda operative named Abu Jandal, a former bodyguard and confidante to Osama bin Laden.
Jandal was far from intimidated by his American interlocutor. To the contrary, he sought to menace him. “You can’t stop the mujahideen. We will be victorious,” he smugly told Soufan. “You want to know why?”
He continued with a grin: “The hadith says… ‘If you see the black banners coming from Khurasan, join that army, even if you have to crawl over ice; no power will be able to stop them.”
Soufan recognized this Islamic saying immediately, and interrupted Jandal to complete it: “’And they will finally reach Baitul Maqdis [Jerusalem], where they will erect their flags,’” he said.
The grin was gone. “‘You know the hadith?” Jandal asked with surprise. “Do you really work for the FBI?’”
Jandal had failed to appreciate that knowing the Khorasan hadith was part of the job of an Islamic terrorism expert like Soufan. As the former FBI agent explains in his 2013 book The Black Banners, the hadith of Khorasan — sometimes also spelled Khurasan — is fundamental to radical Islamist ideology. A prophecy describing a Muslim army from Central Asia storming across the Middle East and into Jerusalem has long inspired violent jihadists.
The hadith of Khorasan is newly relevant thanks to the disclosure by U.S. officials of a terrorist group by that name operating in Syria. The Khorasan group was a surprise target of American air strikes in Syria Monday night mostly aimed at the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria.
While America obsessed over ISIS in recent weeks, Khorasan remained unknown to the public until this month. President Obama had never publicly mentioned its name before Tuesday morning. But U.S. officials say they have tracked the group for two years.
Khorasan, they explain, consists of about two dozen members of al Qaeda’s core leadership. Previously based in Afghanistan, Pakistan and Iran, the men recently relocated to Syria. Unlike al Qaeda operatives who fight the Syrian regime under the name of Jabhat al Nusra, the members of Khorasan reportedly took advantage of the country’s lawlessness exclusively to plot terror attacks against the west. (Officials are trying to confirm whether the group’s leader, Muhsin Al-Fadhli, was killed in Monday night’s strikes.)
Even as Americans try to understand this new threat, many terrorism analysts are skeptical of the moniker. They question whether Khorasan truly constitutes an independent group, or simply a clique within al Qaeda.
Click here to read more.