Afghanistan is no longer the US’ top concern among international terrorist threats to the American homeland, the nation’s top spy said at an intelligence and national security conference in Washington on Monday, even amid ongoing fears from some critics who argue that the country could become a haven for terrorist organizations like ISIS and al Qaeda to regroup following the US withdrawal.
Terror threats emanating from Somalia, Yemen, Syria and Iraq – in particular ISIS – pose a greater danger than those that might emerge from Afghanistan, Director of National Intelligence Avril Haines told the annual Intelligence and National Security Summit.
“In terms of the homeland, the threat right now from terrorist groups, we don’t prioritize at the top of the list Afghanistan,” she said, speaking by videoconference. “What we look at is Yemen, Somalia, Syria and Iraq for ISIS. That’s where we see the greatest threat.”
Haines acknowledged that intelligence gathering in Afghanistan has been “diminished” without US troops there and without the US-backed government in power in Kabul, but she insisted that the intelligence community has prepared for this reality “for quite some time.”
Officials have said publicly that the Islamic State’s branch in Afghanistan, ISIS-K, does pose a potential threat to the United States. The group staged a suicide bombing on August 26, in the midst of the American evacuation from Kabul, that killed 13 US service members and dozens of Afghans.
Haines said that a primary focus for the intelligence community now is monitoring “any possible reconstitution of terrorist organizations” in Afghanistan.
ISIS still operates in Syria and Iraq, although the group has been tamped down by the US military presence in both countries. In Yemen, an al Qaeda offshoot based there has attempted attacks on the United States. And in Somalia, the US has regularly conducted counterterrorism strikes against Al-Shabaab, which in early 2020 launched an attack on a US facility in Kenya that killed a US soldier and two US contractors.
But 20 years after the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, Haines also argued that the threat to the US homeland from international terrorist groups has broadly “diminished over time,” crediting “enormous effort” from across the US government to degrade the ability of groups like al Qaeda and ISIS to carry out attacks inside the United States.
CNN has previously reported that it has become infinitely harder for the US intelligence community and military to gather information needed to carry out counterterrorism strikes against ISIS and other targets inside Afghanistan without US troops on the ground.
The Biden administration and military commanders have insisted that they have what the military terms “over the horizon” capabilities – the ability to conduct surveillance and carry out counterterrorism strikes from afar – that they need to uncover and prevent terrorist planning in Afghanistan. But former officials, lawmakers and others have raised doubts about the administration’s plan, saying they have seen few details to support it.
Haines said Monday that the intelligence community is developing “indicators so that we can understand what are the things that we would be likely to see in the event that there were reconstitution” of terror groups in Afghanistan.
That means ensuring that “we have sufficient collection to monitor against those indicators, so that we can provide a warning to the policy community, to the operators, so that they’re able to take action in the event that we do see that,” she said.