Intelligence Chief: U.S. Has Bigger Terror Threats than Al Qaeda
The threat of terrorism, which had been concentrated in Afghanistan prior to 9/11, had “metastasized,” with active Islamist movements spread across the Middle East, Africa, and western Asia.
Director of National Intelligence Avril Haines warned on Monday that terror groups operating in unstable regions of Yemen, Somalia, Syria, and Iraq posed a greater threat to U.S. national security than those in Afghanistan.
Speaking at the annual Intelligence and National Security Summit, Haines suggested that the U.S. government did not “prioritize at the top of the list Afghanistan,” citing a handful of other places that terror movements were known to operate – “What we look at is Yemen, Somalia, Syria, and Iraq for ISIS. And that’s where we see the greatest threat."
In President Joe Biden’s April 2021 speech announcing the withdrawal of U.S. military forces from Afghanistan, one of his justifications was the fact that the threat of terrorism, which had been concentrated in Afghanistan prior to 9/11, had “metastasized,” with active Islamist movements spread across the Middle East, Africa, and western Asia. Trying to combat these geographically diverse movements by pouring further effort into the war in Afghanistan, Biden argued, was foolish and counterproductive; he, therefore, advocated a withdrawal from Afghanistan so that the U.S. could redeploy its capabilities in a more strategic way.
The Taliban takeover of Afghanistan, which concluded on August 15 after the group seized control of Kabul, has prompted warnings from intelligence experts, who have underlined that the Taliban continues to enjoy close relations and cooperation with the remnants of Al Qaeda. Haines warned, however, that other terror groups—Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) in Yemen and al-Shabaab in Somalia, as well as underground Islamic State (ISIS) cells in Iraq and Syria—posed a far greater danger to the U.S. homeland and were regarded as a priority by counterterrorism officials.
One unfortunate piece of evidence for the danger posed by other, newer groups was the August 2021 suicide attack on the Kabul airport. That attack was not conducted by Al Qaeda, but by the Islamic State’s regional “Khorasan province,” or ISIS-K. (Khorasan is the historical name for the region containing eastern Iran and Afghanistan.) The attack killed more than a dozen U.S. service members and more than 150 Afghan civilians and prompted retaliatory strikes from President Biden.
Haines stressed that the U.S. would “monitor any possible reconstitution of terrorist organizations” in Afghanistan. She noted that the Taliban’s resurgence and capture of the country would make it more difficult to gather intelligence and conduct counterterror operations there. She observed, however, that diminishing capacity in Afghanistan was a possibility that the U.S. had prepared for “for, frankly, quite some time.”
Trevor Filseth is a current and foreign affairs writer for the National Interest.