Defense officials fear ISIS-K and al Qaeda threats in Afghanistan growing as months go by

The growth of the Islamic State Khorasan, or ISIS-K, and al Qaeda in the months since the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan could result in both groups having the capacity to launch international attacks in a matter of months, officials said.

This continues a pattern of warnings that began just weeks after the withdrawal. Gen. Mark Milley, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said during his Sept. 29 testimony on Capitol Hill that either terror group could reconstitute within six to 36 months. That timeline remains accurate, a spokesperson from the Joint Chiefs office told the Washington Examiner, meaning that the groups could return as soon as three months from now.

The United States withdrew from Afghanistan after nearly 20 years of war, just weeks after the Taliban overthrew the U.S.-backed Ghani government. With the Taliban now in control, officials at the Department of Defense expressed concern about the possibility that the groups could become operational and an international threat at some point in the future.

“It’s a real possibility in the not too distant future, six, 12, 18, 24, 36 months, that kind of time frame, for reconstitution of al Qaeda or ISIS,” Milley said, with Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin agreeing with his assessment.

Roughly two weeks before their testimony, Lt. Gen. Scott Berrier, the director of the Defense Intelligence Agency, and Deputy CIA Director David Cohen warned that al Qaeda could obtain the means to attack the U.S. homeland within “one to two years,” while Dr. Colin Kahl, a DOD official, offered a similar opinion during his testimony on the Hill in late October.

Kahl, the undersecretary of defense for policy, told the Senate Armed Services Committee that ISIS-K could generate the capability to strike internationally “in somewhere between six or 12 months, according to current assessments by the intelligence committee,” while al Qaeda’s rebuild “would take a year or two to reconstitute that capability.”

U.S. Central Command, when asked by the Washington Examiner if the previous time frames remained accurate, pointed to an interview Gen. Frank McKenzie, the head of CENTCOM, did with the Associated Press last month.

“I believe al Qaeda and ISIS are recruiting both internally, and I think in fact, internationally,” he explained in the Dec. 9 interview, adding that al Qaeda, which he said has “an aspirational desire” to attack the U.S., has grown slightly in the time since the military departed.

While the groups in Afghanistan all view the U.S. as an enemy, many view the other groups the same way.

McKenzie explained, “ISIS has certainly attacked the Taliban pretty violently across the entire country. So I think ISIS will be easy for the Taliban to respond to. I think al Qaeda is a far more difficult matter for them to resolve.” He noted that the Taliban are not monolithic in how they view their path forward.

The U.S. is hoping that the Taliban can take care of ISIS-K on their own but is concerned about the previous connections between the former and al Qaeda.

“We want the Taliban to succeed against ISIS-K,” State Department Special Representative Thomas West told reporters in early November. “When it comes to other groups, look, al Qaeda continues to have a presence in Afghanistan that we are very concerned about, and that is an issue of ongoing concern for us in our dialogue with the Taliban.”

When the Taliban took control of the country in August, they released hundreds of prisoners for Afghan prisons.

McKenzie said ISIS-K was “reinvigorated” by the release of these prisoners, and just days later, a member of the cell detonated an explosive as the U.S. military was evacuating people out of Afghanistan, killing 13 U.S. service members and 200 civilians.

“So certainly we should expect a resurgent ISIS. It would be very surprising if that weren’t the case,” he explained, adding, “It remains to be seen that the Taliban are going to be able to take effective action against them.”

With the terror groups attempting a comeback and the U.S. military no longer present in Afghanistan, the military is relying upon their over-the-horizon capabilities — or drone strikes launched from elsewhere. But experts are quick to point out that there are flaws in the plan.

Without having assets in the country passing along real-time intelligence, the U.S. will have more difficulty launching these strikes and is more likely to incur unintended consequences, though McKenzie told the Associated Press that there hadn’t been any such strikes in Afghanistan since the withdrawal.