The Risk of Terrorism at Home and Abroad
As information emerges about the Islamic State of Khorasan, or ISIS-K – the terrorist group that claimed responsibility for last week’s suicide bombing that killed 13 U.S. servicemen and more than 160 Afghans – there is an increased effort to predict how Afghanistan, under Taliban rule, could once again become fertile ground for terrorist groups.
A United Nations report released in June estimates that thousands of fighters from the region have already flocked to Afghanistan. Many of them are said to be affiliated with either the Taliban – still considered 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 are a range of thoughts among experts as to what their ability to successfully carry out a terrorist attack in a Taliban-ruled area means for the terrorist threat in the future.
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 at home and abroad.
Bruce hoffmann, terrorism expert and professor, Georgetown University
Encryption expert in brief Bruce hoffmann is a professor at Georgetown University and was commissioner of the Independent Commission to Review the FBI’s Response to Terrorism and Radicalization After 9/11. He is also a CIA Counterterrorism Researcher in Residence.
Mitch silber, former chief analyst, NYPD
Encryption expert in brief Mitch silber served as Director of Intelligence Analysis at the New York City Police Department and Senior Advisor to the Deputy Intelligence Commissioner on Counterterrorism Policy and Analysis. He is now the Executive Director of the Community Safety 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 national and transnational terrorism, international security, and geopolitics. He is also a principal investigator at the Soufan Center.
The encryption brief: If the United Nations report released in June is correct, and there are thousands of fighters from the region who have flocked to Afghanistan – many of whom are associated with known terrorist groups – is there a way to the administration to say “mission accomplished” in terms of degrading the presence of terrorism in Afghanistan?
Hoffmann: No. As these figures from the report released by the United Nations Support and Sanctions Monitoring Team underscore, Afghanistan is once again becoming a jihadist magnet and will likely continue to be so in the future. The suicide attacks outside the gates of Kabul international airport last Thursday underline the multiplicity of terrorist groups already present in this 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 that terrorists hope to spread to other countries and eventually across regions.
Just as Salafi-jihadist terrorists migrated from existing battlefields in South Asia to the Middle East, North Africa and the Caucasus in the 1990s; spread in East and West Africa in the early 2000s; flourished during the Arab Spring to wage civil wars in Syria, Libya and the Sahel in the early 1920s; the same phenomenon is taking place in Afghanistan.
Money: Frankly, I don’t think any of the four administrations can claim that the political goal of making Afghanistan inhospitable as a safe haven for Al Qaeda or other like-minded jihadist groups has been achieved. Certainly, on several occasions over the past twenty years, the threat that jihadist groups, foremost among which Al-Qaeda, have presented, in terms of their ability to project a threat on the United States has been diminished, the degradation of the threat was only temporary.
The encryption brief: How convinced are you that Al Qaeda and ISIS are incapable of planning and executing attacks against the United States at the national level?
Hoffmann: The gullible Doha negotiations with the Taliban that led to the withdrawal of US military forces from Afghanistan and subsequently the Taliban’s lightning war across Afghanistan, and then the chaotic evacuation of our diplomats and citizens, painted a huge target on America’s back. Like sharks in water, terrorists will smell blood. As my colleague from the Council on Foreign Relations, Jacob Ware, and I wrote in War on the rocks, in May, whenever terrorism forced the United States to withdraw from a conflict zone to which it had committed ground forces, whether in Lebanon in 1984; Somalia in 1993; and Iraq in 2011, it led to more terrorism in the world, not less, and thus made the United States less secure.
At a time when our country continues to fight against the COVID pandemic; when climate change pulverizes the Gulf States with Hurricane Ida and California with worsening wildfires; when January 6e the insurgency on the United States Capitol continues to smolder with incidents such as the bomb threat that crippled the area near the Library of Congress and the Cannon House office building earlier this month; coupled with ongoing cyber attacks and peer competition from China and Russia and concerns about Iran’s nuclear aspirations; our terrorist adversaries may well conclude that the United States is sufficiently concerned or distracted by any or all of the above and therefore conclude that the time to strike the homeland is opportune. It would be very unlikely to repeat the catastrophic 9/11e 2001 attacks. But a terrorist attack in the style of the 2019 shooting at the naval air base of Pensacola; the 2017 suicide bombing of a concert hall in Manchester, England; the coordinated suicide bombings against London transport in 2005; the 2004 Madrid commuter train bombings; or any type of significant lone wolf incident carried out in the name of an existing terrorist movement would likely recreate the widespread fear and anxiety that is the basis of terrorism. Twice in the past three years, it’s also worth noting that members of al-Shabaab – perhaps the least technologically competent al-Qaeda franchise – have been arrested in both the Philippines and in an undisclosed African country participating in the same flight training as four of the 9/11 hijackers undertook their fateful and history-changing coordinated attack.
Money: At this very moment, it is unlikely that Al-Qaeda or ISIS-K will have the infrastructure, resources, recruits, and external planning capacity to strike the United States based on the statements of the IC and senior DoD officials in Congress. However, without any or only limited external pressure from the US military in the wake of the withdrawal from Afghanistan, these networks and capabilities may be replenished in the months to come and groups like Al Qaeda certainly have not. never gave up on their desire to strike Americans. country.
Clarke: I think it is unlikely that AQ or ISIS could attack the homeland of the United States. We have spent most of the past two decades strengthening the defense of the homeland. We now have computed tomography tools that we didn’t have twenty years ago. Having said that, the picture could be very different in 6, 12, 18 months. These two organizations are able to regenerate an external capacity for planning operations. There is also the concern for inspired attacks.
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The encryption brief: Some analysts have said that the morale of terrorist or Islamic extremist groups is extremely high due to the circumstances surrounding the US withdrawal from Afghanistan, do you agree and if so, what does this mean?
Hoffmann: Yes. Sure. Sunni and Shiite terrorist movements around the world have applauded the Taliban’s reconquest of Afghanistan and the rout of the US military. For Sunni Salafist-jihadist terrorists, the events of the past month validate the strategy articulated by Osama bin Laden just before the 2004 US presidential election, when he described the ease with which al-Qaeda was able to “bleed Russia for 10 years, until she went bankrupt and was forced to withdraw from Afghanistan in 1989, and predicted that the same fate would eventually befall the United States. And, for example, Sayed Hassan Nasrallah, the secretary general of Hezbollah, a Shiite terrorist organization, delivered a sermon last week in which he described America’s “historic and humiliating defeat in Afghanistan as representing” the moral downfall. from America “.
Money: Jihadist chat rooms and extremist online networks seem to be on the rise. It took twenty years, but before the 20th anniversary of the September 11 attacks, an Islamic emirate was reestablished in Afghanistan. Suddenly what seemed impossible has become possible and Islamist insurgencies across the Middle East and South Asia can draw inspiration from the resolve of the Taliban in their efforts to overthrow a secular democratic government and replace it with an Islamist government. .
Clarke: I expect morale to be high among terrorists and especially Islamic extremists given the turn of events we have seen in Afghanistan. We are a week and a half away from the 20th anniversary of September 11, and Al Qaeda leaders are returning to Afghanistan (this is displayed in AQ propaganda). We have seen al Qaeda affiliates around the world congratulate the Taliban on their victory. I don’t want to overstate the case here, but I think what happened in Afghanistan will be a big boost for the global jihadist movement just as the United States and its allies move from counterterrorism to terrorism. competition of the great powers. There will be less resources and energy to deal with terrorists, just as we have major threats metastasizing in Afghanistan, potentially with both a reinvigorated al Qaeda and a stubbornly resilient ISKP.
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