As information emerges about Islamic State of Khorasan, or ISIS-K – the terrorist group that claimed responsibility for last week’s suicide attack that killed 13 US service members and more than 160 Afghans – there is an increased effort to predict how Afghanistan, under Taliban rule, may emerge once again as a breeding ground for terrorist groups.
A United Nations report released in June estimates that thousands of fighters from the region had already poured into Afghanistan. Many of them are believed to be affiliated with either the Taliban – still seen as a terrorist organization – or al Qaeda or ISIS-K.
The New York Times reports that ISIS-K was created six years ago by members of the Pakistani branch of the Taliban. There is a range of thought among experts as to what their ability to successfully carry out a terrorist attack in a Taliban-ruled area means for the terrorist threat moving forward.
The Cipher Brief spoke with respected terrorism experts Bruce Hoffman, Mitch Silber and Colin Clarke to get their thoughts on the current risk of terrorist attacks against Americans both home and abroad.
Bruce Hoffman, Terrorism Expert and Professor, Georgetown University
Cipher Brief Expert Bruce Hoffman is a professor at Georgetown University and served as a commissioner on the Independent Commission to Review the FBI’s Post-9/11 Response to Terrorism and Radicalization. He is also a Scholar-in-Residence for Counterterrorism at CIA.
Mitch Silber, Former Director of Analysis, NYPD
Cipher Brief Expert Mitch Silber served as Director of Intelligence Analysis at the New York City Police Department and served as principal advisor to the Deputy Commissioner of Intelligence on counterterrorism policy and analysis. He is now executive director of the Community Security Initiative.
Colin Clarke, Director of Policy and Research, The Soufan Group
Colin P. Clarke, Ph.D., is the Director of Policy and Research at The Soufan Group. Clarke’s research focuses on domestic and transnational terrorism, international security, and geopolitics. He is also a senior research fellow at The Soufan Center.
The Cipher Brief: If the United Nations Report issued in June is accurate, and there are thousands of fighters from the region who have poured into Afghanistan – many associated with known terrorist groups – is there any way that the administration can say ‘mission accomplished’ in terms of degrading terrorism’s presence in Afghanistan?
Hoffman: No. As those numbers from the report released by the United Nations Support and Sanctions Monitoring Team highlight, Afghanistan is again becoming a jihadi magnet and will likely continue to be so into the future. The suicide bomb attacks outside the gates of Kabul International Airport last Thursday underscore the multiplicity of terrorist groups already present in that country.
In addition to ISIS-K, there is the Haqqani Network, al Qaeda and, of course, the Taliban. Terrorism thrives in conditions of chaos and instability which the terrorists hope to spread to other countries and eventually across regions.
Much as Salafi-Jihadi terrorists migrated from existing battlefields in South Asia back to the Middle East, North Africa, and the Caucasus in the 1990s; spread to East and West Africa in the early 2000s; blossomed during the Arab Spring to wage civil wars in Syria, Libya, and the Sahel, in the early twenty-teens; the same phenomenon is unfolding in Afghanistan.
Silber: Frankly, I don’t think any of the four administrations can make the claim that the policy goal of making Afghanistan inhospitable to serve as a safe haven for Al Qaeda or other similarly oriented jihadist groups has been accomplished. Certainly, at a number of times during the last twenty years, the threat that jihadist groups, most importantly — Al Qaeda — has presented, in terms of their ability to project a threat to the United States has been diminished, the degradation of the threat was only temporary.
The Cipher Brief: How confident are you that Al Qaeda and ISIS are unable to plan and execute attacks against the U.S. domestically?
Hoffman: The credulous Doha negotiations with the Taliban that led to the withdrawal of U.S. military forces from Afghanistan and subsequently to the Taliban’s blitzkrieg across Afghanistan and then to the shambolic evacuation of our diplomats and citizens, has painted a huge target on America’s back. Like sharks in the water, terrorists will smell blood. As my Council on Foreign Relations colleague, Jacob Ware, and I wrote in War on the Rocks, in May, every time terrorism has forced the U.S. to withdraw from a conflict zone where it had committed ground forces, whether in Lebanon in 1984; Somalia in 1993; and Iraq in 2011, it has led to more terrorism worldwide, not less, and thus made the U.S. less safe.
At a time when our country continues to grapple with the COVID pandemic; when climate change is pulverizing the Gulf States with Hurricane Ida and California with worsening wildfires; when the January 6th insurrection at the U.S. Capitol building continues to smolder with incidents such as the bomb threat that paralyzed the area near the Library of Congress and Cannon House Office Building earlier this month; coupled with ongoing cyberattacks and peer competition from China and Russia and concerns over Iran’s nuclear aspirations; our terrorist adversaries may well conclude that the U.S. is sufficiently preoccupied or distracted by any or all of the preceding and therefore conclude that the time to strike the homeland is opportune. It would very unlikely entail a repeat of the catastrophic September 11th 2001 attacks. But a terrorist strike along the lines of the 2019 shootings at Naval Air Station Pensacola; the 2017 suicide bombing of a concert venue in Manchester, England; the coordinated suicide attacks on London transport in 2005; the 2004 Madrid commuter train bombings; or any kind of significant lone wolf incident perpetrated in the name of some existing terrorist movement would likely re-create the widespread fear and anxiety that are terrorism’s stock-in-trade. Twice in the past three years, it should also be noted, members of al-Shabaab – perhaps al Qaeda’s least technologically proficient franchise – have been arrested both in the Philippines and in an undisclosed African country engaging in the same flight training that four of the 9/11 hijackers undertook before their fateful, history-changing coordinated attack.
Silber: At this very moment, it is unlikely that Al Qaeda or ISIS-K have the infrastructure, resources, recruits and external planning ability to strike the United States based on statements by the IC and senior DoD officials to Congress. However, without any, or only limited external pressure by the U.S. military as a result of the retreat from Afghanistan, these networks and capabilities can be reconstituted in the coming months and certainly groups like Al Qaeda have never given up their desire to strike the American homeland.
Clarke: I think it is unlikely that AQ or ISIS will be able to attack the U.S. homeland. We’ve spent the better part of the past two decades shoring up homeland defense. We’ve got CT tools now that we didn’t have twenty years ago. That said, the picture could look quite different 6, 12, 18 months from now. Both of those organizations are capable of regenerating an external operations planning capability. There is also the worry of inspired attacks.
The Cipher Brief: Some analysts have said that morale among terrorist or Islamic extremist groups is extremely high due to the circumstances surrounding the US pullout in Afghanistan, do you agree and if so what does that mean?
Hoffman: Yes. Of course. Both Sunni and Shi’a terrorist movements around the globe have applauded the Taliban’s re-conquest of Afghanistan and routing of the U.S. military. For Sunni Salafi-Jihadi terrorists, the events there this past month validate the strategy articulated by Usama bin Laden just before the 2004 U.S. presidential election, when he described the ease with which al-Qaeda had been able to “bled Russia for 10 years, until it went bankrupt and was forced to withdraw in defeat” from Afghanistan in 1989, and predicted that the same fate would eventually befall the U.S. And, Sayed Hassan Nasrallah, the Secretary-General of Hezbollah, a Shi’a terrorist organization, for instance, last week delivered a sermon where he described America’s “historic and humiliating defeat in Afghanistan as representing, “the moral downfall of America.”
Silber: Jihadi chat rooms and online extremist networks are feeling like they have the wind behind them. It took twenty years, but before the 20th anniversary of the attacks of 9/11 an Islamic emirate has been re-established in Afghanistan. Suddenly, what seemed impossible has become possible and Islamist insurgencies all throughout the Middle East and South Asia can take inspiration by the determination of the Taliban in their efforts to overthrow a secular democratic government and replace it with an Islamist one.
Clarke: I do expect morale to be high among terrorist and especially Islamic extremists given the turn of events we’ve seen in Afghanistan. We’re a week and a half out from the 20-year anniversary of 9/11, and Al Qaeda leaders are returning to Afghanistan (this is being displayed in AQ propaganda). We’ve seen al-Qaeda affiliates all over the globe congratulating the Taliban for their victory. I don’t want to overstate the case here, but I do believe that what has occurred in Afghanistan will be a serious boost for the global jihadist movement right at the same time the U.S. and its allies are shifting from counterterrorism to great power competition. There will be fewer resources and energy to deal with terrorists, right at the time we have major threats metastasizing in Afghanistan, potentially with both a reinvigorated al-Qaeda and a stubbornly resilient ISKP.
Read also Mike Leiter’s Why We’re Much Safer from Terrorism Now, Than We Were After 9/11 in The Cipher Brief
Read also Why We Need a New National Defense Strategy (for terrorism) exclusively in The Cipher Brief