The rapid Taliban victory in Afghanistan has provided a boost to extremist groups and terror networks and hastened an intelligence vacuum that US officials are now scrambling to fill.
For months, US intelligence agencies had been preparing for what would inevitably be a reduced intelligence gathering operation in the region, given the withdrawal of US and allied forces from Afghanistan.
But the sudden collapse of Afghanistan’s government has prompted US intelligence agencies to move some resources to the region from elsewhere, according to two sources familiar with the matter, in an effort to try to make up for capabilities they view as key to detecting plots that could affect the US at home or its interests abroad.
One example is moving predator drones with more endurance into the area to try to mitigate the loss of bases in the country, said one of the sources.
Adding to the complexity, some anti-government and right-wing extremist groups in the US may also be drawing inspiration from the Taliban’s victory, officials say.
“We are assessing what’s the long-term impact on decisions made regarding the repositioning of troops,” one US law enforcement official told CNN.
In the short term, ISIS and al Qaeda will likely be focused on local and regional activities. Both groups have affiliates in Africa, Yemen and Syria.
National security adviser Jake Sullivan said Sunday that the threat of ISIS in Afghanistan is “acute” and should be taken seriously as the administration rushes to evacuate thousands of US citizens and Afghan allies from Kabul.
“The threat… is something we are focused on with every tool in our arsenal,” Sullivan told CNN’s Brianna Keilar on “State of the Union.”
One recent illustration of the threat came over the weekend as evacuation efforts at the Kabul airport were hampered because of threats just outside the airport gates from the local ISIS affiliate, President Joe Biden said.
On Monday, Sullivan said that Biden “has been clear from his perspective that American terrorism capabilities have evolved to the point where we can suppress that terror threat without keeping thousands or tens of thousands of troops on the ground in a country.”
Longer term, the worry is that Afghanistan could eventually devolve into a safe haven from which terrorists can recruit, train, launch attacks, and also maintain media operations to inspire attacks in the US.
The US law enforcement official says this could offer an opportunity for extremist groups to “engage more expansively on trying to inspire attacks, not necessarily manage them, but inspire them through their online activities.”
The relationships between the Taliban and a number of al Qaeda figures go deep, and back many years, a former Department of Homeland Security official who worked on counterterrorism, told CNN.
“Most of us assume that there will be only the lightest and thinnest of leashes that the Taliban will want to or be able to put over al Qaeda,” the former official said.
The chaotic nature of the US withdrawal is “clearly going to embolden violent extremists all over the world,” the former official added.
Watching for signs of recruitment
US intelligence officials in the coming months will be watching for signs of recruitment by al Qaeda and other groups that have a history of using Afghanistan and nearby areas of Pakistan as a base for attacks outside the region, including the US, Europe and India.
“As we are approaching 9/11, for them to be able to reclaim Afghanistan, think about what that does for recruitment,” said one former US counterterrorism official.
The National Counterterrorism Center noted in a recent report in recent days that terrorist groups from Syria to Pakistan have publicly celebrated US defeat in Afghanistan.
Of particular concern are the hundreds of prisoners set free by the Taliban in recent days across Afghanistan.
Michael Sherwin, a former Justice Department prosecutor who worked alongside Afghan prosecutors and judges in the country’s national security court, said the release of prisoners represents a boost of “hard core terrorists” into the ranks of al Qaeda and other groups.
Sherwin recalled that even during trials, some defendants would make explicit threats to kill Americans and allies.
“The magnitude of that impact won’t be completely realized for years,” said Sherwin, who also served as acting US attorney for the District of Columbia in the closing months of the Trump administration.
Since the US withdrawal announcement earlier this year, US intelligence officials have acknowledged that senior al Qaeda leaders who fled to other countries, could return to Afghanistan, according to a source familiar with internal discussions at the time.
Many of these leaders are believed to be part of the group’s command and control structure, the source added.
In recent years, the growth of domestic threats from White nationalist and other right-wing groups has prompted US law enforcement to shift resources away from international terrorist threats. But FBI officials have said the international threat never went away.
A recent Department of Homeland Security terrorism bulletin, issued days before Kabul fell to the Taliban, warned that 20th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks could serve as a catalyst for violence in the US.
“[F]oreign terrorist organizations continue efforts to inspire US-based individuals susceptible to violent extremist influences,” the bulletin said, pointing to the recent release of Al-Qaeda’s first English-language copy of Inspire magazine in over four years.
For US officials the immediate issue is dealing with the situation on the ground and making sure people who are being relocated from Afghanistan to the US are fully screened and vetted – systems and processes that have been upgraded over the years with Customs and Border Protection, Immigration and Customs Enforcement, and the intelligence community.
But that process is now being tested in a tense situation, requiring a surge of resources to comb through the thousands of people fleeing Afghanistan who face reprisals, even death, for working for the US.
“Anytime something’s happening in a pressure cooker you’ll be pushed to accelerate processes that are sometimes deliberate for a reason because you can miss something,” a former Homeland Security official told CNN.
Impact on domestic extremists
Also of concern is the possible boost to non-Islamist domestic extremists. The reaction on white supremacist and anti-government online forums to the Taliban takeover has been a “little bit surprising,” the US law enforcement official said.
“There are some significant discussions,” in which people are expressing support of what the Taliban has done and are looking at it as an example of what anti-government extremists should be doing in the US, the US law enforcement official said.
Some of the narratives are focused on “the Taliban did it right” and that it should be a “lesson learned” for how we should operate in the US, the US law enforcement official said.
“That’s got us a little concerned,” because it suggests an escalation in violence, the official added. For example, there were some references to the fact that only 80,000 Taliban were able to defeat an Afghan army of several hundred thousand supported by the US, the official said.
There’s a mix of narratives surfacing online, including discussions portraying the Afghanistan withdrawal as how the US government, and particularly the Democrats, are undoing all the work that has been done by Americans who served in Afghanistan.
Amid anti-immigrant sentiment, DHS officials are also in ongoing conversations about whether Afghans themselves will be targeted once they land in the US and are resettled here.
“Will they be the potential target? Will Afghans themselves become targets?” the official said, noting a concern.
CNN’s Zachary Cohen contributed to this report.