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Is Islamic Terrorism Coming to the U.S. Again?

After the deadly Kabul attack, the CIA pins its hopes on an unconventional counterterrorism strategy.

By , a senior correspondent at Foreign Policy.
Medical and hospital staff bring an injured man on a stretcher for treatment after two powerful explosions outside the airport in Kabul on Aug. 26.
Medical and hospital staff bring an injured man on a stretcher for treatment after two powerful explosions outside the airport in Kabul on Aug. 26. WAKIL KOHSAR/AFP via Getty Images

Leaving Afghanistan

The deaths of Americans in attacks near the Kabul airport on Thursday, allegedly at the hands of the Islamic State’s branch in Afghanistan, have heightened fears that Washington is back to square one after the humiliating Taliban takeover of Afghanistan and facing a threat similar to 9/11 20 years later.

The Biden administration has denied that the threat is as dire now as it was two decades ago, saying the U.S. defense and intelligence apparatus maintains an “over the horizon” capability for detecting and taking out future terrorist threats to the U.S. homeland and other U.S. interests. On Monday, U.S. National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan said that “the president has been clear that, from his perspective, American counterterrorism capabilities have evolved to the point where we can suppress that terrorism threat without keeping thousands or tens of thousands of troops on the ground in a country.”

The truth is murkier. Though the U.S. military had some forewarning of Thursday’s devastating attacks and shooed American evacuees away immediately beforehand, U.S. intelligence assets are, as yet, nowhere near where they need to be to achieve that capability in Afghanistan, experts and informed U.S. government sources say. Nor does the United States now possess the military bases or platforms from which to efficiently take out future terrorist threats in Afghanistan. 

The deaths of Americans in attacks near the Kabul airport on Thursday, allegedly at the hands of the Islamic State’s branch in Afghanistan, have heightened fears that Washington is back to square one after the humiliating Taliban takeover of Afghanistan and facing a threat similar to 9/11 20 years later.

The Biden administration has denied that the threat is as dire now as it was two decades ago, saying the U.S. defense and intelligence apparatus maintains an “over the horizon” capability for detecting and taking out future terrorist threats to the U.S. homeland and other U.S. interests. On Monday, U.S. National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan said that “the president has been clear that, from his perspective, American counterterrorism capabilities have evolved to the point where we can suppress that terrorism threat without keeping thousands or tens of thousands of troops on the ground in a country.”

The truth is murkier. Though the U.S. military had some forewarning of Thursday’s devastating attacks and shooed American evacuees away immediately beforehand, U.S. intelligence assets are, as yet, nowhere near where they need to be to achieve that capability in Afghanistan, experts and informed U.S. government sources say. Nor does the United States now possess the military bases or platforms from which to efficiently take out future terrorist threats in Afghanistan. 

Even some Democratic allies of President Joe Biden say he has been overstating U.S. counterterrorism capabilities since all U.S. forces left Afghanistan, thus robbing Washington of most of its eyes and ears on the ground. “We’re all kind of scratching our heads over what he’s been saying,” said one senior Democratic official who has been briefed on the issue but spoke on condition of anonymity.

But U.S. officials and people familiar with the thinking inside the U.S. intelligence community say the CIA and Defense Department have been working hard on this very problem since Biden announced the Aug. 31 withdrawal deadline in April. 

“Anticipating a reduced U.S. government presence, the CIA has been working with partners to build intelligence capabilities in the region,” a U.S. official who is privy to the effort told Foreign Policy this week. Among these new potential partnerships is an asset that would surely constitute one of the strangest bedfellows in U.S. intelligence history: the Taliban, America’s sworn enemy for the last two decades. 

U.S. officials are actively pursuing a dialogue with the Taliban on many levels—most immediately, of course, in ensuring the safe departure of Americans and U.S.-allied Afghans from the country in the coming weeks. But the discussions are going further than that, informed sources say. On Monday, CIA Director William Burns met in Kabul with the Taliban’s presumptive leader, Abdul Ghani Baradar, whom the CIA once helped detain, landing him in prison for eight years. While the administration has been silent on what the two talked about, U.S. officials are hoping that they can develop an ongoing relationship by exploiting the Taliban’s enmity with the Islamic State inside Afghanistan and the Taliban’s professed aim—part of its signed pact with Washington—to prevent attacks on the United States and other countries from Afghan soil. But transnational attacks are just what the local branch of the Islamic State, known as the Islamic State-Khorasan, is working toward.

“It’s going to be hard but not impossible,” said Earl Anthony Wayne, a former U.S. ambassador with deep experience in Afghanistan. “That’s the job of intelligence agencies. We try to build relationships even with your rivals and past enemies.” Wayne noted that in at least one instance, in Kunar province in 2020, “there were coordinated attacks against ISIS bases, when the United States attacked from the air and the Taliban went in afterwards. At the time, people were saying maybe this will be a basis for establishing a dialogue with the Taliban going forward.” 

That time may have come. Still, experts and intelligence and defense sources say much has still to be accomplished to establish an effective counterterrorism operation. Success will also depend on whether Washington can muster intelligence help from Pakistan and other nations that surround the landlocked country, as well as basing rights that will allow the United States to strike swiftly with sophisticated new drones, cruise missiles, and fixed-wing aircraft. Much will depend, too, on whether the Taliban will be willing even to partially fulfill their promise that they will not again allow Afghanistan to be a base for attacks on other countries.

Considerable skepticism remains about the Taliban’s intentions, especially since the militants still maintain a relationship with al Qaeda. But in the weeks since the Taliban takeover, it has become clear that the group’s leadership is wary of again becoming an international pariah. The Taliban have cooperated with Washington in acceding to the evacuation of some 100,000 people in the nearly two weeks since it took Kabul on Aug. 15. And there is a long history of U.S. intelligence working closely with hostile nations against a common threat; for example, the CIA cooperated with Syrian intelligence against al Qaeda after 9/11, and U.S. and Iranian assets were sometimes allied against the Islamic State in Iraq.

One potential problem for maintaining U.S. counterterrorism capabilities in Afghanistan is the shift in focus away from fighting terrorists and back toward rivalries with great powers, especially China.

“Do I believe the U.S. can have a successful over-the-horizon capability in Afghanistan? Yes, absolutely, but it will not be easy and it will require resources and focus,” former acting CIA Director Michael Morell said in an email. “Do I think this and future administrations will provide those resources and that focus? I’m worried about that in a world in which we are focused on great-power competition.”

U.S. and foreign officials say the current focus in U.S.-Taliban talks is almost entirely centered on the ongoing evacuation. According to one government source, the Biden administration hasn’t even raised the issue of reestablishing military basing or overflight with Pakistan since the Taliban took over. For much of the last two decades, Pakistan and the United States have had a tense relationship stemming from Islamabad’s covert support for the Taliban. But for the first time in many years, U.S. and Pakistani interests might coincide in suppressing terrorist threats inside Afghanistan, since Islamabad seeks to forestall attacks within its own borders by Taliban-inspired groups and has quietly expressed interest in sharing intelligence with Washington. 

“Pakistan has said that it will not allow U.S.-operated bases or detection facilities, but if the two countries can put past recriminations behind, there may be room for joint monitoring of terrorist groups,” said Husain Haqqani, a former Pakistani ambassador to the United States. “America’s problem is that, given the geography, it has few options for over-the-horizon monitoring of terrorist activity in Afghanistan.” He noted that though Pakistan is still the best option for Washington geographically, “there are a lot of political issues that need sifting through.”

A consensus exists among many counterterrorism specialists that, for now, a badly degraded al Qaeda and other terrorist groups such as the Islamic State-Khorasan do not have the capacity to strike the United States or major U.S. outposts such as embassies. That capability could take years to reemerge. As Burns said in April testimony, although al Qaeda and the Islamic State may still seek to strike the United States, “the reality is that neither of them have that capacity today.” Burns added: “There are terrorist groups, whether it’s al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula or in other parts of the world, who represent much more serious threats.” 

Lt. Gen. Scott Berrier, the head of the Defense Intelligence Agency, told the Senate Armed Services Committee in April that al Qaeda has fewer than 200 members in South Asia, most of them in Afghanistan, but few seem to be active and its leadership has been decimated. Berrier added that al Qaeda “very likely will be unable to conduct terrorist attacks” for the rest of 2021. 

So the question, then, said William Wechsler, a counterterrorism specialist at the Atlantic Council, becomes whether “we can develop over-the-horizon capacities faster than al Qaeda can develop its abilities to target the U.S. homeland. It becomes a race.”

Others are skeptical that Washington can win that race—especially since Thursday’s attacks demonstrate just how tenuous Taliban control might be within Afghanistan. U.S. Rep. Raja Krishnamoorthi, a Democratic member of the House Intelligence Committee, said the lack of close U.S. bases and the absence of reliable intelligence on the ground means that even sophisticated drones like the MQ-9 Reaper may not have the ability to monitor terrorist threats as in the past. “If you’re flying from a long ways away and there’s only so much fuel, then you can’t dwell there. Having that unblinking eye in the sky is crucial if we’re going to monitor al Qaeda and other terrorist groups that might be massing,” he said.

And unless the Biden administration is able to negotiate new basing agreements in Afghan border states such as Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, and Tajikistan, maintaining that kind of vigilance may not be possible, said Seth Jones, a counterterrorism expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. “That’s the problem right now, and it’s a big one.”

That lack of access could be the key limitation to taking a proactive approach in the near term, said Philip Giraldi, a former CIA counterterrorism specialist. “I think there are definitely signs that the Taliban are not going to be in a provoking mood for quite some time,” he said. “But I’m a bit dubious about the whole thing. The problem with taking out the terrorists is that Afghanistan is landlocked. You’d have to get permission from people like Pakistanis.” 

Krishnamoorthi added that while it’s possible the CIA could develop a relationship with the Taliban, the militant group has already reportedly invited into its government U.S.-designated terrorists such as Sirajuddin Haqqani, the head of the al Qaeda-linked Haqqani network. “To say that Haqqani, who has been on the terrorist most wanted list for many years, is going to be some kind of trusted potential partner for us would be a big exaggeration,” Krishnamoorthi said.

Despite bringing more firepower with modern drones, the lack of bases and eyes on the ground will set back the U.S. counterterrorism fight far more than Biden is admitting, said Reuel Marc Gerecht, a former CIA officer. 

U.S. intelligence will have only a “rudimentary capacity to thwart and kill Islamic militants within Afghanistan. We will rapidly return to the [Bill] Clinton years, when we spin up missiles only to see the primary targets move before the strike. Through default or intention, we are embracing a European counterterrorism approach, where we shift to defense over offense,” he said. 

Michael Hirsh is a senior correspondent at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @michaelphirsh

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