Terrorist organizations within Afghanistan’s borders are still roughly a year or more away from having the capability to launch attacks against Western countries, though intelligence officials remain concerned about the possibility.
Defense officials told lawmakers in the fall that groups like al Qaeda and Islamic State Khorasan Province (ISIS-K) could gain that ability within six to 12 months, but Defense Department and intelligence leaders have pushed that back.
Lt. Gen. Scott Berrier, the director of the Defense Intelligence Agency, testified in front of the Senate Armed Services Committee on Tuesday and said the threat from ISIS-K could take “a year, slightly longer, and longer for al Qaeda.”
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He is “more concerned about ISIS-K in Afghanistan and the fact that they have had known successful and catastrophic attacks in Canada, which does not portend well for the future,” the DIA chief explained.
“Al Qaeda has had some problems with reconstituting leadership, and to a degree, the Taliban have held to their word about not allowing al Qaeda [to] rejuvenate,” Berrier added. “But it’s something that we’re watching very, very carefully.”
Director of National Intelligence Avril Haines, who testified alongside Berrier, agreed with his assessment, acknowledging that ISIS-K is “the more concerning threat.”
The DNI does not “assess that they currently have the capability to” launch attacks against the United States, though Haines noted, “They could build that capability over time, and they certainly have the intent to do so.”
Last month, retired Gen. Frank McKenzie, then the head of U.S. Central Command, told the committee that DOD believed ISIS-K would have "external attack capability" in "12 to 18 months.”
“The figure that the period I gave, which is 12 to 18 months, for ISIS-K represents our best whole of intelligence community thinking on this, and it does change over time as we see groups gather, as we see groups fall apart, but I'll be able to give you a lot more detail on that in the closed session,” he explained.
Dr. Colin Kahl, the undersecretary of defense for policy, told the committee in October that ISIS-K could "generate that capability in somewhere between six or 12 months, according to current assessments by the intelligence committee,” while “for al Qaeda, it would take a year or two to reconstitute that capability.”
The United States withdrew from Afghanistan, ending its 20-year occupation in the Middle Eastern country, at the end of August — but not without controversy. The Taliban almost immediately overthrew the U.S.-backed Ghani administration, catching U.S. officials by surprise. Western countries, in the two-week period after the Taliban's ascension to power and the end of their presence on the ground, conducted a large-scale evacuation effort, in which they were able to help more than 100,000 people who thought they would be at risk under the Taliban regime leave the country, though many others, including Afghans who helped the U.S., were left behind.
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Without forces in Afghanistan, the U.S. intends to rely on over-the-horizon strike capabilities, though not having assets to gain real-time intelligence makes it harder to launch a strike.
Earlier this month, Gen. Mark Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told lawmakers that he believed the U.S. has “room to improve” its over-the-horizon capabilities, but he didn’t elaborate.