[ by Charles Cameron — first in a series in which the language makes a difference ]
Can we just call this grouping what it is… Al Qaeda. Pure and simple and not fricking new.
— Leah Farrall (@allthingsct) September 23, 2014
There is this business of the so-called “Khorasan Group”.
Two paragraphs of CENTCOM’s news release, Sept. 23: U.S. Military, Partner Nations Conduct Airstrikes Against ISIL in Syria, mention the phrase “Khorasan group”. The first of these reads:
Separately, the United States has also taken action to disrupt the imminent attack plotting against the United States and Western interests conducted by a network of seasoned al-Qa’ida veterans – sometimes referred to as the Khorasan Group – who have established a safe haven in Syria to develop external attacks, construct and test improvised explosive devices and recruit Westerners to conduct operations. These strikes were undertaken only by U.S. assets.
Notice the use of the passive voice: the group is “sometimes referred to as” the Khorasan Group. This is either skillful linguistic obfuscation or bureaucratic linguistic ineptitude, and I tend to vote for the latter, because so few people know how to write decent Ebglish any more, while those that do can easily be paid to forget.
The passive voice doesn’t tell us who does the referring — who refers to the group as the Khorasan Group. It might be Americans in intelligence circles, in the Department, in the media — it might be other Syrians, intercepts from Jabhat Nusra communications or AQC — or the “group” themselves.
As recipients of the CENTCOM news release, however, and by means of that passive voice construction, we just don’t know.
And perhaps it matters.
Perhaps it matters because the place named “Khorasan” has a distinctive meaning in Islamic eschatology. It is the place of origin of the army with black banners that will sweep victoriously down to Jerusalem, either led by the Mahdi or coming to his aid. While there is a province in Iran still called Khorasan, a far greater area including parts of Iran (Masshad, eg), Afghanistan (Herat, Balkh), Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan was designated Khorasan in earlier times, and both AQ and Iran have used the hadith about the army from Khorasan in support of their own activities.
Plenty of water has passed under the bridge since that CENTCOM press release two weeks ago, and I’m not going to link to all the wise and foolish articles that have explored the nature of the group — but journalist Jenan Moussa has seen internal memos of the group that was attacked under the name “Khorasan Group”, and the name is not one they have viven themselves:
U.S calls them “Khorasan” but document we spotted btwn rubble shows Khorasan is in fact “Wolf Unit of Jabhat AlNusra” http://t.co/bcy8KRoXO2
— Jenan Moussa (@jenanmoussa) September 30, 2014
So why is the Administration using a loaded apocalyptic term to describe what seems in effect to be a group of AQC fighters sent to fight under the aegis of Jabhat al-Nusra?
Language matters, place-names matter, and the use of the passive voice only confuses what should be clearly understood.