Afghan women walk by posters of Taliban leaders and flags in Kabul, Afghanistan, Wednesday, Aug. 25. 2021.

Chaos in Afghanistan creates power vacuum for ISIS, al-Qaeda to reorganize, counterterrorism expert says

Will Afghanistan become a safe haven for terrorist groups, like ISIS? Matthew Levitt, director of counterterrorism and intelligence at The Washington Institute for Near East Policy, joined The World’s host Marco Werman to discuss potential threats. 

The World

As the US continues to execute its exit from Afghanistan while trying to secure the Kabul airport, counterterrorism experts are warning that the threat of terrorism is rising.

United States President Joe Biden mentioned ISIS-K, or ISIS-Khorasan Province, an affiliate group that operates in Afghanistan, in his remarks on Tuesday. 

“Every day we’re on the ground is another day we know that ISIS-K is seeking to target the airport, and attack both US and allied forces, and innocent civilians,” Biden said. 

Related: In the wake of ISIS, Kurdish authorities are controlling religious messaging 

Will Afghanistan become a safe haven for terrorist groups, like ISIS?

Matthew Levitt, director of counterterrorism and intelligence at The Washington Institute for Near East Policy, joined The World’s host Marco Werman to discuss potential threats. 

Marco Werman: The situation is changing on the ground in Afghanistan very quickly. But given what you have been seeing and reading, do you believe that Afghanistan will become a safe haven for terrorist groups?
Matthew Levitt: The possibility is very strong given that we’re going to have both a weak government and a government that has close ties to elements of al-Qaeda. Add to that the fact that there is an element of ISIS, ISIS Khorasan, that is there. The Taliban don’t like them. But as we’re seeing with the effort to evacuate people through Kabul airport and the threats of ISIS suicide bombers coming into Kabul, the fact that the Taliban doesn’t and probably won’t for a very, very long time, if ever, have control over all of the city, let alone all of the country, there will be an element of a safe haven — even for groups that the Taliban doesn’t like, to use Afghanistan as a base from which to operate and carry out terrorist attacks there or abroad. 
Al-Qaeda is still alive. ISIS, as well. You mentioned ISIS-K, the branch of ISIS that President Biden mentioned in his comments on Tuesday, ISIS-Khorasan. Who are they and how are they different from ISIS in Syria and ISIS in Iraq? 
ISIS has branches or provinces in different places. The two most relevant for Afghanistan are ISIS Khorasan and elements of al-Qaeda, in particular, in South Asia. ISIS Khorasan has not been particularly capable. It’s off in Afghanistan. It was operating in a place that was denied space, both because you had US and coalition forces there and the Taliban were against them. But now the coalition is no longer there. The Taliban is not as strong and is distracted by many other things it needs to do. And so that’s going to give an opportunity for even a group like ISIS-K to reorganize itself, and all it needs is some successful attack, like a suicide bombing at the gates of the airport where there’s chaos and havoc, to put itself back on the map.

Related: Afghans mourn the loss of young lives in ISIS attacks  

Doesn’t the Taliban, in order to run their new government with legitimacy, don’t they need to stamp out these groups? 
They do. And I think they understand that. And there are reports the Taliban is trying to prevent ISIS from being able to carry out attacks. That doesn’t mean that they will be capable. So on the one side of the ledger, we have groups that even the Taliban doesn’t like, but that will be able to use the relative vacuum that we’re seeing in Afghanistan now to their advantage. And then even more so those groups that the Taliban does have long-standing relationships with, like al-Qaeda, which exist across many different provinces in Afghanistan, according to the latest UN report; that is a concern, that al-Qaeda, which has been comparatively quiet compared to ISIS over the past few years, could find an opportunity to rebuild not only in Afghanistan, but by virtue of the perceived success of jihad in Afghanistan, getting a boost elsewhere around the world, as well.

Related: Taliban have acquired an ‘overwhelming amount of potential weaponry,’ global security expert says 

I mean, I have to take a little sidebar here, and just ask you, I mean, you’ve just illustrated the presence of these militant groups, these terrorists. Do you agree with the decision to leave Afghanistan fully? 
I think that we need a shift in how we understand what we’re using our forces around the world for. And we need to shift away from a Cold War mentality — that it’s about victory and defeat — and move toward an understanding that’s more about something short of war, something short of peace. In certain places, we’re going to need a small number of forces to keep bad things at bay. And I think that with 2,500 US forces and an equal number of NATO forces, we could have stayed with minimal risk, and we could have kept things stable. That doesn’t mean making Afghanistan a stable country or a Jeffersonian democracy, but we could have kept bad actors from taking over a country. I think that we would have been better off not withdrawing as we did, and I think that we would have been much better off not carrying out the decision the way it was carried out. The havoc at the airport is a crisis of our own making.
With this reality on the ground in Afghanistan and with the US exit, what intelligence will the US actually have on these groups? How will Washington monitor them? 
With difficulty. You’ve heard the phrase “over the horizon” counterterrorism capabilities and such capabilities do exist, but they are not what you really want to be doing. When you have to fly drones from Qatar, that takes a while for that drone to get there, it’s using up a lot of gas, it can’t fly over the air of Afghanistan for as long. You won’t have that kind of coverage that you once had. You’re not going to be able to run the human sources that you did if you’re not on the ground in any way, the same way. Puts tremendous pressure on groups like the NSA, which are doing signals intelligence and against a target that isn’t using high-tech signals intelligence as much as some others. So, we’re not going to totally go dark, but the lights are going to dim in a very, very significant way. And I can tell you from my own conversations with US counterterrorism officials, there’s a tremendous concern that not today or tomorrow or next week, but at some point in the not-too-distant-future, someone could be planning something — even against the homeland — and we won’t be in a position to know about it because we’ve become accustomed to being able to rely on the type of collection in Afghanistan that we no longer have.
You’ve worked on counterterrorism efforts for years in various roles since 9/11. What have the last couple of weeks meant to you?
They’ve been painful. I worked on 9/11 at the FBI. This feeling that 20 years have gone by and trillions of dollars and most importantly, lives lost. And we’re back to a situation where the Taliban are going to control the country and where terrorist groups of different stripes are going to have relative safe haven is painful. It’s also true that today is not 20 years ago, and the other counterterrorism initiatives that we’ve put in place over 20 years are significant. We are not as at risk of a spectacular attack like Sept. 11 today, the way we were back then. But I’m concerned about the implications of this withdrawal and the hastiness of this withdrawal and the optics of what it means for jihadist groups and other terrorist groups, right-wing extremists, as well, around the world, who are looking at this and saying, “Well, maybe America is a little bit more of a paper tiger than we thought.”

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity. 

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