Some of the more dire predictions about the boost terror groups in Afghanistan would get from the sudden U.S. withdrawal have not come to pass, with recent assessments suggesting organizations such as al-Qaida and Islamic State have yet to regenerate formidable external attack capabilities.
The new assessments, shared by U.S. officials and contained in just-released government reports, find that both terror groups remain intent on striking the United States and its Western allies, but their reach, for now, falls short.
“Terrorist organizations such as ISIS and al-Qaida remain committed to attacking inside the United States,” National Counterterrorism Center Director Christine Abizaid told U.S. lawmakers Thursday, using an acronym for the Islamic State group.
“Al-Qaida’s capability to threaten the United States homeland from Afghanistan is quite limited, in part thanks 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 really not focused on external operations as far as we can tell.”
As for IS-Khorasan, Abizaid said the IS Afghan affiliate is one of the Islamic State’s most effective, though it has not yet demonstrated an ability to strike outside the region.
“The threat today is more likely to take the form of an individual attacker inspired by these groups rather than a networked and hierarchically directed plot,” she said.
The conclusions by Abizaid and others are far different from the warnings issued by some key U.S. officials in the months after the last U.S. troops left Afghanistan in August 2021, when they suggested both al-Qaida and IS-Khorasan could reconstitute their ability to attack the West within a year, if not sooner.
But the newer assessments are backed by recent intelligence findings that neither al-Qaida nor IS-Khorasan has found a way to flourish in the absence of U.S. troops.
According to a newly released report by the Defense Department’s inspector general, the Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA) estimates al-Qaida’s presence in Afghanistan is limited to about a dozen members of the core group along with about 200 members of one of its affiliates, al-Qaida in the Indian Subcontinent (AQIS).
And while the DIA believes Afghanistan’s ruling Taliban will continue to provide sanctuary and cover for al-Qaida, it and other U.S. intelligence agencies argue that power now rests with al-Qaida’s affiliates rather than core leadership, which is for now absent from Afghanistan.
“We continue to monitor for signs al-Qaida has chosen a successor to Zawahiri, now three months since his death,” Abizaid told lawmakers Thursday. “We are particularly focused on the role that Iran-based legacy leaders such as Saif al-Adel may play in the future of the organization.”
Multiple Western intelligence agencies have long seen al-Adel as the most likely heir to al-Zawahiri, but according to the inspector general’s report, al-Adel still has not yet left Iran for Afghanistan.
And even when he does, his ability to affect the terror group’s trajectory may be limited.
“The decentralized organizational structure is likely to impede 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, retaining a force of about 2,000 fighters while failing to assert control over any territory.
Still, the inspector general report warns that IS-Khorasan remains “a significant terrorist threat in Afghanistan” as it battles with the country’s Taliban rulers.
“Its suicide bombings, ambushes and assassinations routinely target Taliban officials, religious minorities and foreign interests,” the report said, noting the group claimed at least 41 attacks in eight Afghan provinces in the three months ending in September.
IS-Khorasan also appears bent on expanding its reach, though for now its efforts have been limited to Central Asia and attacks against countries such as Pakistan and Uzbekistan.
Still, some U.S. officials remain cautious about predicting how the threat from Afghanistan will evolve.
“The threat of foreign terrorist organizations like al-Qaida attempting to reconstitute in Afghanistan following our withdrawal is very real, and our ability to gather valuable intelligence on the ground inside Afghanistan has been reduced. That’s just a reality,” FBI Director Christopher Wray said Thursday.
“As time progresses, I am concerned that we will have fewer and fewer good sources of information about what al-Qaida is or isn’t doing in Afghanistan,” he said. “We are very concerned about al-Qaida and ISIS’s ability to inspire attacks even from over there.”