President Joe Biden told the nation on Monday that his decision to pull out of Afghanistan was, in part, predicated on the war’s original counterterrorism mission ending. But the fall of the country to the Taliban means that the FBI’s counterterrorism mission just got more challenging.
At present, the bureau is battling the rapidly growing scourge of domestic terrorism and hate-based violence across thousands of investigations, and an on-going inquiry into the violence of Jan. 6 that has so far yielded at least 600 arrests.
This weekend’s events mean that the nation’s primary counterterrorism agency now also faces a renewed threat that Al Qaeda and related international terror groups will regroup in Afghanistan and strike here.
Media pundits and various experts — real and self-appointed — spent the weekend weighing in on the U.S. decision to pull troops out of Afghanistan and opining on how the withdrawal was or was not well managed. The professionals who must actually live with the consequences of the Taliban takeover, and its impact on the U.S. homeland, don’t have the luxury of Monday morning quarterbacking — the call was made and what matters is what comes next.
For FBI counterterrorism personnel, that means assessing the potential that the international terrorism threat could rapidly approach 9/11 levels. Agents and analysts will be working overtime to ensure that the rise of the Taliban doesn’t result in tragedy closer to home.
There’s good reason for concern. Last Sunday, the Taliban captured Bagram Air Base and the prison there, and “released thousands of prisoners, including many senior Al Qaeda operatives,” Axios reported. “The prisoners were some of the Taliban's most hardened fighters and could pose a threat not only to Afghan citizens but to American security interests.”
CNN reported that an estimated 5,000 to 7,000 prisoners were left behind following the withdrawal. The Bagram prison, Pul-e-Charkhi, was the biggest in Afghanistan and included a maximum-security cell block for Al Qaeda and Taliban prisoners. That’s a lot of hard-core terrorists looking for a fight and seeking vengeance against the Americans who helped capture them.
The Taliban’s rapid takeover of Afghanistan has raised concerns in the U.S. military and intelligence community of a similarly rapid resurgence of Al Qaeda and other terror groups who may, once again, view that country as their training and staging ground.
Gen. Mark Milley, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said "the United States could now face a rise in terrorist threats from a Taliban-run Afghanistan,” The Associated Press reported. “That warning comes as intelligence agencies charged with anticipating those threats face new questions after the U.S.-backed Afghan military collapsed with shocking speed.” Milley reportedly told the lawmakers that “U.S. officials are expected to alter their earlier assessments about the pace of terrorist groups reconstituting in Afghanistan.”
The U.K.'s defense secretary, Ben Wallace, reportedly shares Milley’s concerns. The Times of London, noting that Bagram’s prison housed “5,000 ‘highest value’ Taliban, Al-Qaeda and Islamic State fighters captured on the battlefield,” reported that Wallace cautioned that Afghanistan may again someday “harbor terrorists as they plot against the West.”
“I’m absolutely worried that failed states are breeding grounds for those types of people,” Wallace said. “Al Qaeda will probably come back.”
The fall of Afghanistan means that America is less safe today than it was last month. That doesn’t mean the U.S. military mission there failed. To the contrary, fighting terrorists over there meant that we didn’t have to constantly fight them here. America has not experienced an iconic terror attack for the 20 years we waged war against the Taliban and terror groups on their home turf.
As Council on Foreign Relations terrorism fellow Bruce Hoffman recently wrote: “The number one success was the government’s thwarting Al-Qaeda’s every attempt to carry out another attack in the United States on the scale of 9/11.”
But the Taliban’s ascent to power, coupled with the release of thousands of terrorist prisoners, means that we must now thwart the threat remotely, in multiple places, even when it’s uncomfortably close to home. On Aug. 16, Biden sought to reassure the nation that he was prepared to do that. “Today the terrorist threat has metastasized beyond Afghanistan. We conduct effective counterterrorism missions against terrorist groups in multiple countries where we don’t have a permanent military presence. If necessary, we will do the same in Afghanistan,” Biden tweeted.
Let’s hope Biden is right and that the fight against international terrorism will remain just that — international. But at the FBI, Department of Homeland Security and other agencies tasked with protecting the United States itself, hope isn’t a strategy. The military battle rhythm may have waned over there, but here at home, the counterterrorism pace just escalated.