Afghan Terror Groups Pose Limited Threat to US, Assessments Find

Some of the most dire predictions about the boost that terrorist groups in Afghanistan would receive from the sudden withdrawal of the United States have not ended, with recent assessments suggesting that organizations such as al- Qaida and Islamic State have revived formidable external attack capabilities again.

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The new assessments, shared by US officials and contained in newly released government reports, find that both terrorist groups remain determined to strike the US and its allies Western, but their reach, for now, is rare.

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“Terrorist organizations like ISIS and al-Qaida remain committed to attacking inside the United States,” National Counterterrorism Center Director Christine Abizaid told US lawmakers on Thursday, using an acronym for the Islamic State group.

FILE - National Counterterrorism Center Director Christine Abizaid testifies before a Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee hearing to discuss security threats, September 21, 2021 on Capitol Hill.

FILE – National Counterterrorism Center Director Christine Abizaid testifies before a Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee hearing to discuss security threats, September 21, 2021 on Capitol Hill.

“Al-Qaida’s ability to threaten the US homeland from Afghanistan is quite limited, thanks in part to the operation that killed Ayman al-Zawahiri in Kabul,” Abizaid said. “But also because the al-Qaida elements that are still present in Afghanistan are not really focused on external operations as far as we can tell.”

As for IS-Khorasan, Abizaid said IS’s Afghan affiliate is one of the Islamic State’s most effective, although it has yet to demonstrate an ability to strike outside the region.

“The threat today is more likely to be a lone attacker inspired by these groups rather than a networked and hierarchically directed conspiracy,” he said.

The conclusions of Abizaid and others stand in sharp contrast to the warnings issued by some key US officials in the months after the last US troops left Afghanistan in August 2021, when it was suggested that al-Qaida and IS- Khorasan reconstituted their ability to attack the West within a year, if not sooner.

But the newer assessments are supported by recent intelligence findings that neither al-Qaida nor IS-Khorasan have found a way to thrive in the absence of US troops.

According to a newly released report by the Department of Defense inspector general, the Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA) estimates that al-Qaida’s presence in Afghanistan is limited to about a dozen members of the core group along with approx. 200 members of one of its affiliates, al -Qaida in the Indian Subcontinent (AQIS).

And while the DIA believes that Afghanistan’s Taliban rule will continue to provide sanctuary and cover for al-Qaida, it and other US intelligence agencies argue that power now rests with al-Qaida’s affiliates. rather than core leadership, which is currently absent from Afghanistan.

“We continue to monitor for signs that al-Qaida has chosen a successor to Zawahiri, who is now three months since his death,” Abizaid told lawmakers on Thursday. “We are particularly focused on the role that Iranian legacy leaders like Saif al-Adel can play in the future of the organization.”

Multiple Western intelligence agencies have long seen al-Adel as al-Zawahiri’s most likely successor, but according to the inspector general’s report, al-Adel has not yet left Iran for Afghanistan.

And even when it does, its ability to affect the terrorist group’s trajectory may be limited.

“The decentralized organizational structure is likely to hinder his ability to make rapid changes,” the report said.

As for IS-Khorasan, the DIA estimates it has grown little over the past six months, maintaining a force of around 2,000 fighters while failing to assert control over any territory.

Still, the inspector general’s report warns that IS-Khorasan remains a “significant terrorist threat in Afghanistan” as it battles the country’s Taliban rulers.

“Its suicide bombings, ambushes and assassinations routinely target Taliban officials, religious minorities and foreign interests,” the report said, noting that the group had claimed at least 41 attacks in eight provinces. in Afghanistan in the three months ending in September.

IS-Khorasan also appears determined to expand its reach, but for now its efforts are limited to Central Asia and attacks against countries such as Pakistan and Uzbekistan.

Still, some US officials remain cautious about predicting how the threat from Afghanistan will evolve.

“The threat of foreign terrorist organizations like al-Qaida trying to reconstitute in Afghanistan after we withdraw is very real, and our ability to gather valuable information on the ground inside Afghanistan has been reduced. That’s a reality ,” FBI Director Christopher Wray said Thursday.

“As time goes on, I am concerned that we will have fewer and fewer good sources of information about what al-Qaida is doing or not doing in Afghanistan,” he said. “We are very concerned about the ability of al-Qaida and ISIS to inspire attacks even from over.”

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