America Is Once Again at Risk from Terrorism

America Is Once Again at Risk from Terrorism

FROM THE SLUMS OF BAGHDAD to the deserts of Kandahar, I’ve hunted Islamist terrorists my entire adult life. I lived among them, studied their languages, and immersed myself in their cultures.

I’ve also seen the carnage that these jihadists leave in their wake. In Baghdad, a Shia group, Jaysh al-Mahdi, would rape children in front of their parents. In Afghanistan, the Taliban executed my brother-in-arms, Gen. Surab Azimi, after his men surrendered—and filmed the entire thing. That wasn’t new for me. Jubha, the Islamic Army of Iraq’s deadliest sniper, killed my turret gunner, and filmed the kill shot, releasing it along with others in propaganda videos.

As a strategic-level terrorism analyst, I read vast amounts of intelligence from tens of thousands of sources. At United States Central Command, I led teams of analysts who were experts on hundreds of insurgent groups, each with its own ideological nuances, modi operandi, leadership, structures, and style.

With all that experience, my mental warning lights have been blinking red recently: There is increasing reason to believe that there could be a terrorist attack on the United States in the months ahead.

This is an unpleasant subject—no one wants to think about sudden violent acts of death and destruction and the chaos they can unleash.

It is also an inherently uncertain subject—it requires studying the conditions for an attack and making judgments based on incomplete information.

So I want to explain to you some of the reasons why I am concerned that a deadly act of terrorism seems increasingly likely in the short term—perhaps an ISIS-style attack similar to the Moscow attack, or a lone wolf-style attack similar to a January 2023 machete attack on an NYPD officer—and also why, looking further ahead, the possibility of more complex 9/11-style attacks is growing ominously plausible again.

ON JUNE 11, IMMIGRATION AND CUSTOMS ENFORCEMENT agents arrested eight Tajik nationals with ties to the Islamic State in Los Angeles, New York, and Philadelphia. These men hailed from the same region as the Moscow attackers, underscoring the breadth of the Islamic State Khorasan Province’s reach. They’re not just factors in the Middle East and South Asia; they’ve now expanded into Central Asia, a prime recruiting ground that the Taliban is also exploiting.

“I think Islamic radicalism is making inroads throughout Central Asia, particularly among the youth,” Col. Abdul Rahman Rahmani, a counterterrorism officer in the former Afghan government, told The Bulwark. “It is dangerous for them and the region.”

Most importantly, some of the men crossed the southern border, requested asylum, and passed the initial screening. It wasn’t until members of the American intelligence community sniffed out some extremist rhetoric on social media that federal law enforcement scrambled to apprehend the men.

Less than a week before the apprehensions, Sirajuddin Haqqani, a senior Taliban official with close familial ties to al Qaeda, conducted his first state visit as Afghanistan’s Minister of Interior Affairs, visiting United Arab Emirate ruler Sheikh Mohamed bin Zayed Al Nahyan. Haqqani, who is a specially designated global terrorist with a $10 million FBI reward on his head, then traveled to Saudi Arabia to conduct his first hajj, the Muslim pilgrimage that this year lasts until June 19. On June 14, Taliban leader Sheik Hibatullah Akhundzada bragged in his Eid message to the faithful that thousands of other Afghans were also on the hajj:

Praise be to Allah Almighty, this year, up to thirty thousand pilgrims from Afghanistan have traveled to Saudi Arabia to perform the great duty of Hajj. The Ministry of Hajj and Religious Affairs of Afghanistan, along with other relevant institutions, are providing them with comprehensive care and necessary facilities.

Add on al Qaeda leader Sayf al Adl’s recent call for foreign fighters to go to Afghanistan and a joint FBI arrest of an ISIS splinter cell in Spain, and the number of audacious terrorist gambits and near-misses is starting to grow to an alarming scale.

“By rallying foreign fighters and intensifying their propaganda, al Qaeda is clearly signaling their readiness for what they promise to be a bloody and ambitious phase of their war against the ‘far enemy’—the United States and its allies,” Lebanese-American counterterrorism expert Sara Harmouch told The Bulwark. “And to recall, Osama bin Laden said he would strike America, and indeed, he did. Maybe it’s time for us to start taking their words seriously and consider them in our strategic calculations.”

THE BIDEN ADMINISTRATION SHOULD prioritize this threat. The national security bureaucracy is already straining to support Ukraine and strengthen the transatlantic alliance amid the biggest war in Europe in eighty years, prepare for long-term competition with China, deter Iran and its proxies, and wrest some workable solution out of the Israel-Hamas war. There isn’t a lot of manpower, time, or attention left to devote to Afghanistan. But Afghanistan has once again become the place to be if you want to prepare an international Islamist terror attack.

Biden has been loath even to mention the word “Afghanistan” since the last Americans left Kabul in August 2021. That debacle tanked his approval ratings and they have yet to recover. In a close election, no candidate likes to talk about their mistakes and failures. But Biden should talk to the American people with candor about Afghanistan and the ongoing threat of international Islamist terrorism.

There are other reasons President Biden should discuss Afghanistan as well—including for the sake of our combat veterans, who are still struggling with moral injury. But whether you agree with Biden’s decision to withdraw is no longer important for today’s fight; we have to focus on the facts as they now stand, and what to do going forward. And we have to learn from the mistakes that my brothers- and sisters-in-arms paid for over the last twenty years. To do that, we have to stop pretending Afghanistan and its terrorist masters no longer exist—and that means admitting that we lost the war in Afghanistan.

The Biden administration must start talking about the current terrorism threat levels. At the very least, the Department of Homeland Security should issue a new advisory bulletin detailing the arrests of the eight Tajik nationals to DHS security partners.

It’s true that Biden’s electoral chances may suffer if voters are reminded of the disaster of the American withdrawal from Afghanistan. But the choice may not be his. He can address the issue as one his administration is taking seriously and present a plan to deal with it, or he can cross his fingers and hope that the terrorists themselves don’t raise the salience of the issue as they did in San Bernardino and at the Pulse nightclub during the 2016 campaign.

Our Correspondent

Our Correspondent

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