Some of the most dire predictions of the rise of terrorist groups in Afghanistan that would result from a sudden US withdrawal have not come true, with recent assessments showing that organizations such as al-Qaida and the Islamic State have yet to rebuild massive external attack capabilities.
The new assessments, shared by US officials and contained in newly released government reports, show that both terrorist groups still want to strike the United States and its Western allies, but so far their reach is insufficient.
“Terrorist organizations like ISIS and Al Qaeda remain determined to attack in the United States,” Christine Abizaid, director of the National Counterterrorism Center, told lawmakers Thursday, using an acronym for the Islamic State group.
“Al Qaeda’s ability to threaten the United States 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 in Afghanistan are really not focused on external operations as far as we can tell.”
As for IS-Khorasan, Abizaid said the Afghan branch of IS is one of Islamic State’s most effective organizations, although it has yet to demonstrate the ability to carry out strikes outside the region.
“The threat today is more likely to be an individual attacker inspired by these groups than a networked and hierarchically driven plot,” she said.
The conclusions of Abizaid and others stand in stark contrast to the warnings of some key US officials in the months after the last US troops left Afghanistan in August 2021, when they suggested both al-Qaida and IS-Khorasan would renew their ability to attack Afghanistan. West within a year, if not sooner.
But the latest assessments are supported by recent intelligence findings that neither al-Qaida nor IS-Khorasan have found a way to thrive without US troops.
According to a recently released Defense Department Inspector General report, the Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA) estimates that al-Qaida’s presence in Afghanistan is limited to about a dozen members of the main group, along with about 200 members from one of its affiliates, al-Qaida. -Qaida in the Indian Subcontinent (AQIS).
And while the DIA believes Afghanistan’s ruling Taliban will continue to provide shelter and cover for al-Qaida, it and other U.S. intelligence agencies say power is now with al-Qaida affiliates, rather than the core leadership that is currently absent from Afghanistan.
“We continue to monitor whether al Qaeda has chosen a successor to Zawahiri, now three months since his death,” Abizaid told lawmakers on Thursday. “We are particularly focused on the role that Iran-based legacy leaders like Saif al-Adel could play in the organization’s future.”
Several Western intelligence agencies have long considered al-Adel the most likely successor to al-Zawahiri, but al-Adel still has not left Iran for Afghanistan, according to the inspector general’s report.
And even when he does, his ability to influence 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 that it has grown slightly over the past six months, maintaining a force of around 2,000 fighters while failing to secure control of any territory.
However, the inspector general’s report warns that IS-Khorasan remains a “significant terrorist threat in Afghanistan” fighting the country’s Taliban rulers.
“Its suicide bombings, ambushes and assassinations typically target Taliban officials, religious minorities and foreign interests,” the report said, noting that the group claimed responsibility for at least 41 attacks in eight Afghan provinces in the three months ending in September.
IS-Khorasan also appears to be looking to expand its reach, although for now its efforts are limited to Central Asia and attacks in countries such as Pakistan and Uzbekistan.
However, some US officials remain cautious about predicting how the threat from Afghanistan will evolve.
“The threat that foreign terrorist organizations like al-Qaida will try to re-establish themselves in Afghanistan after we withdraw is very real, and our ability to gather valuable intelligence on the ground in Afghanistan has been reduced. That’s just a reality,” said FBI Director Christopher Way. 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 there.”