Relatives and residents attend a funeral ceremony for victims of an Islamic State suicide attack at the Gozar-e-Sayed Abad Mosque in Kunduz, northern Afghanistan, Oct. 9, 2021.

Relatives and residents attend a funeral ceremony for victims of an Islamic State suicide attack at the Gozar-e-Sayed Abad Mosque in Kunduz, northern Afghanistan, Oct. 9, 2021. AP / Abdullah Sahil

Terror Groups in Afghanistan Could Attack US Next Year, Pentagon Policy Chief Says

Kahl says ISIS-K might be able to strike in less than 12 months; AQ in one to two years.

Islamic State terrorists in Afghanistan could be able to launch attacks against the United States within as few as six months, the Pentagon’s policy chief told senators Tuesday.

Lawmakers at the Senate Armed Services Committee hearing expressed concern at the short timeline, and asked Colin Kahl what the Pentagon is doing about it. Kahl, the defense undersecretary for policy, declined to answer in detail during the unclassified portion of his testimony. Broadly, he assured senators that the Defense Department is working to make sure the terrorist group and others do not regain their ability to attack abroad.

The 3,000 or so members of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria-Khorasan, or ISIS-K, have already been launching attacks in Afghanistan for some time; 13 Americans died in an August suicide bombing outside the Kabul airport.

But being able to carry out terrorist attacks outside the country is more complicated, and neither ISIS-K nor Al Qaeda can do so currently, Kahl said. He estimated that ISIS-K could be able to strike abroad within six to 12 months; for Al Qaeda, which was behind the 9/11 attacks, one to two years.

“We’re fairly certain that they have the intention to do so,” he said. “We have considerable evidence that they have the intent. The question at the moment is the capability.”

The Pentagon’s efforts to stop them include gathering intelligence in daily flights over Afghanistan and sharing the information with allies in the region and beyond, such as the United Kingdom, Kahl said, adding that he could go into more specifics in his classified session with senators. 

It’s not clear whether the Taliban will help control the terrorist threat. Kahl said the Taliban is “highly motivated” to combat their “mortal enemy” ISIS-K, but that it’s unclear if the new government of Afghanistan has the ability to actually fight the insurgent group.

How the Taliban will react to Al Qaeda is even more complicated, Kahl said, since the two groups cooperated the last time the Taliban was in power. There are also some members of the new Afghanistan government with ties to the Haqqani network, which is linked to Al Qaeda.  

ISIS-K’s Aug. 26 attack on Hamid Karzai International Airport raised the group’s profile, Christine Abizaid, the director of the National Counterterrorism Center, said at a conference on Monday.

“The group has gained some notoriety in a way that could be quite compelling for them on the transnational stage. At the same time, they’re fighting the Taliban,” Abizaid said at the Cipher Brief conference in Sea Island, Georgia. “How that force on force engagement in Afghanistan will go will have some defining characteristics about what the transnational threat looks like.” 

Abizaid said that the Taliban and Al Qaeda retain a relationship but pointed out that if the terror group were to again threaten the United States, that would have consequences that Afghanistan’s new rulers would like to avoid. That will require the U.S. government to be more sophisticated in the approach it takes to all of the groups, she said.

Back at the Senate, some lawmakers asked Kahl why they should believe this assessment when the intelligence community has been so wrong on other issues in Afghanistan, including how quickly the country could fall to the Taliban after U.S. forces withdrew. The Afghan government in Kabul fell five days after intelligence officials predicted it would take 30 to 90 days for the Taliban to control the capital. 

“I think this disconnect between the reality on the ground and what the Biden administration assessed would happen with respect to the collapse of the Afghan security forces is deeply troubling,” said Sen. Deb Fischer, R-Neb.. “How can you possibly assure us that such a disconnect isn’t happening between the reality on the ground and the Biden administration’s analysis of how long it’s going to take Al Qaeda or ISIS-K to gain the ability to attack the United States?”

Kahl acknowledged that the administration’s visibility into Afghanistan was lacking. 

“I think we should all be humbled that we’ve all known less about Afghanistan than we thought we did,” he said.