Chris Costa, who was the senior director for counterterrorism under the Trump administration, stated that al-Qaida now has an opportunity because of the rapid withdrawal of U.S forces and the rise of Taliban in Afghanistan.
"This is a powerful event for all jihadists."
Al-Qaida ranks have been reduced by the 20-year-old war in Afghanistan. It's not clear that they will be able to strike America with a series of devastating attacks, such as 9/11. This is especially considering how well-defended the U.S. has been over the past two decades through surveillance and other protective measures.
A U.N. Security Council report in June stated that the Taliban's senior leadership and hundreds of armed operatives remain inside Afghanistan. The U.N. Security Council noted that Taliban were the ones who shelter al-Qaida fighters prior to the Sept. 11 attacks. It said that they "remain close, on friendship, a shared struggle, ideological sympathy, and intermarriage."
Pentagon spokesman John Kirby acknowledged Friday that al-Qaida remains a presence in Afghanistan, though quantifying it is hard because of a reduced intelligence-gathering capability in the country and "because it's not like they carry identification cards and register somewhere."
Even inside the country, al-Qaida and the Taliban represent only two of the urgent terrorism concerns, as evidenced by unease about the potential for Islamic State attacks against Americans in Afghanistan that over the weekend forced the U.S. military to develop new ways to get evacuees to the airport in Kabul. Although the Taliban and IS have been at war in the past, the concern now is that Afghanistan could be used as a safe harbour for extremists who want to attack the U.S. and other countries.
Joe Biden repeatedly spoke of an "over the horizon capability", which he claims will allow the U.S., from far away, to track terrorist threats. Jake Sullivan, his national security advisor, said Monday that Biden was clear that counterterrorism capabilities had evolved to the point that the threat could be contained without a strong presence on the ground. According to him, the intelligence community doesn't believe al-Qaida has the ability to attack the U.S.
It is possible that the U.S. anticipates that enhanced airport screening and sophisticated surveillance will be more effective than they were 20 years ago when it comes to preventing an attack. But experts worry that intelligence-gathering capabilities needed as an early-warning system against an attack will be negatively affected by the troop withdrawal.
The sheer number of national security threats facing the U.S. government is a further problem. These include sophisticated cyber operations by Russia and China that can disable critical infrastructure and steal sensitive secrets, as well as nuclear ambitions in Iran. There is also an increasing domestic terrorist threat revealed by the Jan. 6 rebellion at the U.S Capitol.
Chris Wray, FBI Director, has described this home-grown threat to be "metastasizing," with nearly three times the number of arrests for white supremacists since his first year.
Bruce Hoffman, a Georgetown University terrorism expert, said that "my concern is that it's impossible to compare 2001 with today." He said that there is a "much larger and more organized bureaucracy" but it is burdened by demands not directly tied to terrorism.
Hoffman stated that, although he doubted that al-Qaida could use Afghanistan quickly as a launchpad to attack the U.S., it might re-establish its "coordinating function" in the area to encourage strikes by its associates. This patient strategy may still be valid.
Hoffman stated that terrorist groups don't follow flight or train schedules. Hoffman said, "They do what suits them, and, like al-Qaida, they quietly lay foundations in the hopes that this foundation will eventually influence or determine their success."
The concern is resonant enough that Biden administration officials told Congress last week that, based on the evolving situation, they now believe terror groups like al-Qaida may be able to grow much faster than expected. The Pentagon's top officials stated that an extremist group such as al-Qaida could be able regenerate in Afghanistan within two years of the American military withdrawing.
Al-Qaida was made the most well-known terrorist group after the Sept. 11 attacks. However, individuals inspired by Islamic State have been the most dangerous threat to the U.S. for the past decade. This has led to deadly massacres such as those in San Bernardino, California and Orlando.
Al-Qaida was not gone. U.S. authorities alleged last year that a Saudi gunman who killed three U.S. sailors at a military base in Florida in 2019 had communicated with al-Qaida operatives about planning and tactics. Last December, the Justice Department charged a Kenyan man with trying to stage a 9/11-style attack on the U.S. on behalf of the terrorist organization al-Shabab, which is linked to al-Qaida.
It is possible for other extremists to be inspired by al Qaida, even though they may not be directed by it.
"Until recently, I would say that the threat from al Qaida core was pretty small." They didn't have safe harbor in Afghanistan and their senior leadership was scattered," Nathan Sales, former counterterrorism coordinator at the State Department, said.
However, with the Taliban now in control, "all that could change" and it could happen very quickly.