WASHINGTON (AP) – The lightning-fast changes in Afghanistan are forcing the Biden administration to face the prospect of a resurgence of al-Qaeda, the group that attacked America on September 11, 2001, while the US is trying to stop it violent extremism at home and cyberattacks from Russia and China.
With the rapid withdrawal of US forces and the rise of the Taliban in Afghanistan, “I believe al-Qaeda has an opportunity and they will seize it,” said Chris Costa, who is the Trump administration’s chief anti-terrorism director .
“This is a galvanizing event for jihadists everywhere.”
The ranks of al-Qaeda have shrunk significantly as a result of the 20 year war in Afghanistan, and it is far from clear that in the near future the group has the ability to carry out catastrophic attacks on America like the 11th attacks strengthened over the past two decades through surveillance and other protective measures.
However, a June report by the UN Security Council said that the group’s high-level leadership remains present in Afghanistan along with hundreds of armed activists. It stated that the Taliban, who protected al-Qaeda fighters from the 9/11 attacks, “remain close based on friendship, a history of common struggle, ideological sympathy and intermarriage.”
Pentagon spokesman John Kirby admitted Friday that al-Qaeda is still present in Afghanistan, although it is difficult to quantify because the country has limited information-gathering capabilities and “because it is not as if they are Carry ID cards with you and register somewhere ”.
Even within the country, al-Qaeda and the Taliban are just two of the most pressing terrorism concerns, as evidenced by concerns over the possible attacks by the Islamic State on Americans in Afghanistan, which forced the US military to find new ways over the weekend to get evacuees to the airport in Kabul. The Taliban and IS have fought each other in the past, but now there is concern that Afghanistan could once again be a safe haven for several extremists determined to attack the US or other countries.
President Joe Biden has repeatedly spoken of an “over-the-horizon capability” that will enable the US to remotely track terrorist threats. His national security adviser Jake Sullivan told reporters Monday that Biden made it clear that counter-terrorism capabilities have advanced to the point where the threat can be suppressed without a strong presence on the ground. He said the intelligence services do not believe al-Qaeda is currently in a position to attack the US
The USA presumably also assumes that increased airport controls and more sophisticated surveillance can ward off an attack more effectively than it was 20 years ago. However, experts fear that the information gathering capabilities, which are required as an early warning system against an attack, will be adversely affected by the withdrawal of troops.
An added complication is the sheer volume of urgent national security threats that dwarf what the US government faced prior to the 9/11 attacks. These include sophisticated cyber operations from China and Russia that can paralyze critical infrastructures or steal sensitive secrets, nuclear ambitions in Iran and a growing threat from domestic terrorism exposed in the January 6 uprising in the U.S. Capitol.
FBI Director Chris Wray has described this domestic threat as “metastatic,” with the arrests of white racists and racially motivated extremists nearly tripling since his first year at work.
“My concern is that 2001 is not like today,” said Bruce Hoffman, a terrorism expert at Georgetown University. There is a “much larger and better organized bureaucracy,” he said, but it is burdened with demands that are not specifically linked to terrorism.
Hoffman said that while al-Qaeda did not believe it could quickly use Afghanistan as a launch pad to launch attacks against the US, it could restore “its coordinating role” in the region to work with its affiliates and encourage strikes – a patient strategy, which can still be confirmed.
“Terrorist groups don’t stick to train or flight schedules,” Hoffman said. “They do things when it suits them, and like al-Qaeda, they quietly lay the foundation in the hope that that foundation will eventually influence or determine their success.”
Concern is big enough that Biden administration officials told Congress last week that because of the evolving situation, they now believe that terrorist groups like al-Qaeda may grow much faster than expected. In June, Pentagon top leaders said an extremist group like al-Qaeda could potentially regenerate itself in Afghanistan and pose a threat to the US homeland within two years of the American military’s withdrawal.
The 9/11 attacks made al-Qaeda the world’s most famous terrorist group, but for at least the past decade, the greatest threat within the United States has come from people inspired by Islamic State, leading to deadly massacres like those in San. led Bernardino, California and Orlando.
But al-Qaeda hardly went away. US authorities alleged last year that a Saudi armed man who killed three US sailors at a Florida military base in 2019 had communicated with al-Qaeda agents about planning and tactics. In December last year, the Justice Department accused a Kenyan of attempting to orchestrate a September 11, 2001-style attack on the United States on behalf of al-Shabab-related terrorist organization.
Now it is possible for other extremists to take inspiration from al-Qaeda even if they are not led by it.
“Until recently, I would have said that the threat posed by core al Qaeda is fairly modest. They did not have a safe haven in Afghanistan and their leadership was dispersed, ”said Nathan Sales, a former counter-terrorism coordinator at the State Department.
But now that the Taliban are back in control, “all of this could and could change very quickly”.
Follow Eric Tucker on Twitter at http://www.twitter.com/etuckerAP