As published by USA Today by Josh Meyer
The Biden administration bare- ly mentioned ISIS-K when talking about the U.S. withdrawal from Af- ghanistan, then downplayed its ca- pabilities until last week’s deadly attacks were imminent.
The Trump administration glossed over the regional affiliate of the Islamic State terrorist group, too, boasting before the 2020 elec- tion that its peace deal with the Ta- liban would doom the murderous offshoot without putting U.S. troops at risk.
By claiming that ISIS-K posed little or no danger to Americans on U.S. soil, Presidents Donald Trump and Joe Biden turned their focus elsewhere during the long drawdown that culminated in Mon- day’s official end of the U.S. presence in Afghanistan.
That position proved disastrous, ac- cording to more than a dozen current and former U.S. counterterrorism offi- cials, citing last Thursday’s horrific at- tacks that killed 13 American service members at the airport in Kabul, Af- ghanistan.
ISIS-K was nearly neutralized by 2019 thanks to joint U.S. and Afghan counter- terrorism efforts, but it has regrouped and morphed into a splintered, urban- based network that poses dangers to American interests overseas – and po- tentially on U.S. soil, experts said.
The threat is likely to rise without a robust U.S. intelligence and military presence in Afghanistan to keep it in check.
“This was a perfect storm that played totally into ISKP’s capabilities,” Douglas London, the CIA’s former top Afghani- stan counterterrorism official, said, re- ferring to Islamic State Khorasan Prov- ince, or ISKP, as the terrorist organiza- tion in Afghanistan and Pakistan is for- mally known. “When you have a group that is decentralized and hard to find in the first place, and then all of a sudden the pressure against them is gone, the government is gone and the CIA and the troops are essentially gone, they’re now free to do whatever they want.”
Afghanistan as a breeding ground
Biden defended the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan on Tuesday, saying America’s longest war needed to end and Americans would be safer as a re- sult – including from terrorist organiza- tions such as the Islamic State and al- Qaida.
“To ISIS-K, we are not done with you yet,” Biden said from the White House. “As commander in chief, I firmly believe the best path to guard our safety and our security lies in a tough, unforgiving, tar- geted, precise strategy that goes after terror where it is today, not where it was two decades ago.”
Current and former counterterrorism officials said Afghanistan is exactly one of those places, just as it was before the attacks Sept. 11, 2001, on New York and Washington.
“Al-Qaida was only a threat to us overseas, too, until 2,900 people were dead,” said London, a decorated, 34- year veteran of the CIA’s Clandestine Service. “So it’s a one-sided view that a group like ISKP is just going to stop in place and say, ‘You know what? We’re not going to do anything externally.’ Of course they have external capabilities. They’ve been involved in external activ- ities (outside Afghanistan) since 2016.”
London said the Kabul airport attack and the hasty U.S. evacuation effort have given ISIS-K a recruiting and fund- raising tool.
That makes ISIS-K a far more attrac- tive alternative to the Taliban and even al-Qaida for the thousands of Islamic militants streaming into Afghanistan to exploit the vacuum created by the col- lapse of the government.
London, who retired from the CIA in early 2020, worries that the broader Is- lamic State network could look to Af- ghanistan as an even better caliphate stronghold than it had in Iraq and Syria in 2015 before the U.S. military de- stroyed it.
“As they become stronger and more capable, they will most certainly pursue external operations” against U.S. tar- gets, said London, author of the forth- coming book on CIA counterterrorism, “The Recruiter.”
Now that the U.S. war is complete and investigations into the withdrawal are ramping up, U.S. intelligence and military officials deny that they missed the growing ISIS-K threat.
The Pentagon even used the U.S. gov- ernment’s most powerful non-nuclear weapon – known as the Mother of All Bombs – on an ISIS-K tunnel complex in eastern Afghanistan in 2017. A steady drumbeat of drone strikes and special operations missions hammered the ter- ror group’s operations center near the border with Pakistan. U.S.-led forces have killed more than 500 midlevel or senior ISIS-K leaders since 2015, Lon- don said.
But publicly highlighting the threat of ISIS-K was seen as a politically inconve- nient factor that would complicate U.S. efforts to withdraw from Afghanistan, current and former officials and private.
sector counterterrorism analysts said. “Biden and Trump disagreed on ev- erything except for one thing, and that was that we’re ending the ‘forever wars’ and getting out of Afghanistan,” analyst Bruce Hoffman said. “And anything that went against that policy conclusion was ignored or dismissed, with the tragic re- sults that we’ve seen over the past few
weeks and certainly on Thursday.” Hoffman, who has studied jihadist organizations and the U.S. response for nearly 50 years, said it was “profound wishful thinking” on the part of both ad- ministrations to think that ISIS-K and al-Qaida wouldn’t want to launch mass casualty attacks while the U.S. with- drawal was underway. “Something like this is just as terrorism always is: No one ever thinks about it until it happens, de- spite the fact this should have been star- ing everyone in the face,” Hoffman said. “Because if people had thought serious- ly about it, it would have been another reason to stay at Bagram” Airfield and
delay the U.S. withdrawal.
National Security Council spokes-
woman Emily Horne said the Biden ad- ministration remained focused on al- Qaida and ISIS-K until the end. She re- ferred USA TODAY to comments about ISIS-K made by two top administration intelligence officials this year – Director of National Intelligence Avril Haines and CIA Director William Burns.
Those officials said Biden’s national security team has always considered ISIS-K a threat within Afghanistan, but it focused more intensively on other ter- rorist groups that demonstrated more capability and intent to attack Ameri- cans on U.S. soil.
Biden suggested as such May 28 in a speech to military service members and their families at Joint Base Langley-Eus- tis in Hampton, Virginia:
“As we draw down, we’re also going to focus on the urgent work of rebuilding over-the-horizon capabilities that’ll al- low us to take out al-Qaida if they return to Afghanistan – but to focus on the threat that has metastasized,” Biden said. “The greatest threat and likelihood of attack from al-Qaida or ISIS is not go- ing to be from Afghanistan; it’s going to be from five other regions of the world that have significantly more presence of both al-Qaida and organizational struc- tures, including ISIS.”
Attacking American targets
That may be true, current and former counterterrorism officials said, but ISIS-K has a track record of launching mass casualty attacks against hospitals, schools and other “soft” civilian targets in Afghanistan and Pakistan since at least 2016. Members include militants from al-Qaida, other terrorist groups and the Taliban, all of which have at- tacked U.S. interests in the region and beyond.
“They represent a very sophisticated and dangerous threat that we have to stay focused on,” Gen. Joseph Votel, commander of U.S. Central Command, said in February 2019 on a visit to Af- ghanistan.
Despite preliminary negotiations be- tween Washington and the Taliban re- garding a potential peace settlement in Afghanistan, Votel said, “we have an en- during interest here to make sure that violent extremist groups in this part of the world can’t be used to hurt Ameri- cans, American interests and American homeland.”
U.S. intelligence showed that the col- lapse of the Islamic State caliphate in Iraq and Syria probably helped its Af- ghanistan offshoot, which had more than tripled in the past year to more than 5,000 fighters.
“We’re very concerned about their ca- pability and trajectory,” Col. Dave Butler,
the spokesman for U.S. Forces-Afghani- stan, told the Voice of America in May 2019. “IS-K has made it clear that they aspire to attack the United States and our allies.”
As the Trump administration intensi- fied its negotiations with the Taliban even some of the president’s closest al- lies expressed concerns that ISIS-K and other terrorist groups could benefit.
“To trust the Taliban to control al- Qaida, ISIS-K and other radical Islamist groups present in Afghanistan – as a re- placement for a U.S. counterterrorism force – would be a bigger mistake than Obama’s Iranian nuclear deal,” Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., said.
By mid-March 2020, U.S. and U.N. in- telligence suggested the terror group’s fighting force had been halved to about 1,000 fighters. The United States kept up maximum pressure on the group to make sure it didn’t bounce back, said Army Lt. Col. Thomas Campbell, a Pen- tagon spokesman.
How ISIS-K made a comeback
When Trump cut his peace deal with the Taliban in Doha, Qatar, in February 2020, the United States promised to get out of Afghanistan within 14 months, and the Taliban pledged to cut ties with al-Qaida and not allow the country to become a haven for terrorist groups.
Trump agreed to release as many as 5,000 Taliban prisoners if the Taliban would set free 1,000 people, most of them Afghan government fighters.
ISIS-K was devastated by the con- stant pounding by U.S. and Afghan mil- itary forces and from attacks by the Tali- ban, which considered it a competitor for Islamic fighters and public support. A succession of leaders had been killed, and it had lost its all-important base of operations in Nangarhar and Kunar provinces from which to recruit, train and plot attacks.
As U.S. troop numbers declined, so did CIA operational and analytical as- sets in country because they rely on the Pentagon for support and protection outside cities, current and former in- telligence officials said.
ISIS-K and other terrorist groups be- gan making a comeback in Afghanistan because the Taliban didn’t live up to their part of the deal as the United States ratcheted down operations.
When Secretary of State Mike Pom- peo said in July 2020 that the Taliban were combating al-Qaida, the com- mander of U.S. Central Command pub- licly disagreed.
“Right now, it is simply unclear to me that the Taliban has taken any positive steps,” Marine Gen. Kenneth McKenzie said.
The U.S. Treasury Department re- ported in January that “as of 2020, al- Qaida is gaining strength in Afghanistan while continuing to operate with the Ta- liban under the Taliban’s protection.”
In February, Edmund Fitton-Brown, coordinator of the United Nations mon- itoring team for the Islamic State, al- Qaida and the Taliban, said “we have not seen any evidence” of the Taliban trying to suppress a potential terrorist threat.
The Islamic State was on the move, McKenzie said Feb. 8 at the Middle East Institute. He described the Islamic State and al-Qaida as drivers of instability “across Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria and Ye- men.”
Despite ISIS-K’s losses, McKenzie said, “new leadership allowed it to stabi- lize and increase localized and lone wolf attacks throughout the second half of the year.”
As many as 10,000 foreign fighters streamed into Afghanistan from around the region and the Middle East, eager to join the Taliban, al-Qaida and ISIS-K as the U.S. withdrawal continued, accord-ing to U.N. monitoring reports.
The reports noted there were nearly four times as many ISIS-K attacks from January to April as during the same pe-riod in 2020, a jump from 21 to 77.
“The focus in the U.S. was always on Taliban and al-Qaida ever since the Trump administration signed the Doha deal, but ISKP had been quite active this year, and there was no good reason to ig- nore the threat it poses,” said Faran Jef- fery, an open-source intelligence ana- lyst in Pakistan. “Unfortunately, ISKP threat was downplayed until it became
Other observers criticized the Trump
and Biden administrations for ignoring the obvious and growing threat.
“That’s not surprising,” according to Hoffman, a senior fellow for counterterrorism and homeland securi- ty at the Council on Foreign Relations. “It was very clear ISIS-K was becoming more active and more threatening and was benefiting from the chaos in Af- ghanistan. And as soon as U.S. and ANA (Afghan National Army) pressure dropped off, and with the Taliban con- cerned with just capturing the country, it shouldn’t have been a surprise.”
“No one was ever under any illusions about ISIS,” Hoffman said. “I mean look, they’ve attacked girls’ schools at hospi- tals. Why wouldn’t they smell blood in the water with this opportunity?”
By early 2021, ISIS-K was targeting U.S. interests in Afghanistan and be- yond. In mid-January, the Kabul govern- ment foiled an alleged ISIS-K plot to as- sassinate a top American diplomat to Kabul and senior Afghan officials. In a statement, the State Department said it was “aware of deeply troubling reports that members of ISIS-K were plotting to assassinate U.S. Charge d’Affaires Am- bassador Ross Wilson.”
‘Flying blind’ against ISIS-K
In the aftermath of last Thursday’s attacks, the Biden administration de- fended itself by saying it had few op- tions, given Trump’s controversial agreement with the Taliban. It could honor the pact and finish the withdraw- al or escalate a war that neither presi- dent – nor the American people – want- ed.
Michael “Mick” Mulroy, a former dep- uty assistant secretary of defense and CIA paramilitary operations officer, said there was a third option: to keep a few thousand troops in Afghanistan to help prop up the Kabul government’s counterterrorism agencies and continue military strikes against al-Qaida, ISIS-K and other terrorist organizations that threaten American interests.
“Like most people I know, I thought we should have kept the residual force, used our air components, SOF (special operations forces) components and in- tel components, reduce the amount of guys that are in harm’s way but basically preserve what we – what I – fought for for 20 years and not just throw it all away,” said Mulroy, who served in Af- ghanistan and Iraq as a U.S. Marine.
London said the troop drawdown tor- pedoed the spy agency’s efforts against ISIS-K, especially after the military shut down its Forward Operating Bases around the country. Even in Kabul, where ISIS-K was most dangerous, CIA capabilities were “significantly de- creased because we were depending on leads coming in from throughout the country.”
“We were flying blind against most activities” against ISIS-K, other terrorist groups and even the Taliban, London said. “And we were dependent on our lo- cal partner, which was scrambling for survival itself as the Taliban started roll- ing up provincial capital after capital.”
ISIS-K regrouped so quickly by flat- tening its organizational structure and splitting up into many cells scattered across multiple provinces, said Jeffery, deputy director of the Islamic Theology of Counter Terrorism, a U.K.-based anti- terrorism think tank.
Jeffery said ISIS-K’s network in Ka- bul is perhaps its strongest, consisting of “highly ideologically driven opera- tives” with a long track record of launch- ing mass casualty attacks.
That capability should worry U.S. of- ficials because ISIS-K is attracting more fighters by the day, including many from the Taliban. And it has indicated an in- terest in attacking targets – including American interests – in and outside Af- ghanistan.
“ISKP has long acted as a sort of headquarters of Islamic State in South and Central Asia,” Jeffery said. “It has attracted many foreign fighters over the years, including from U.S. partner coun- tries like India, and these foreign fight- ers are the ones who could pose the most serious threat to U.S. interests out- side of Afghanistan.”