Afghanistan does not currently pose the biggest terrorist threat to the United States and is further down the priority list following the U.S. withdrawal and subsequent Taliban takeover, Director of National Intelligence Avril Haines said on Monday.
The top intelligence official’s comments came on the same day that President Joe Biden defended his decision to withdraw U.S. troops from Afghanistan but also acknowledged that the terrorist group al-Qaeda may attempt to reconstruct itself in the country.
Speaking at an intelligence and national security conference in Washington, Haines noted that while U.S. intelligence officials are keeping a close eye on potential terrorist groups reassembling in the country, they are more concerned with a number of other countries that could be harboring terrorists and pose a threat to national security.
“In terms of the homeland, the threat right now from terrorist groups, we don’t prioritize at the top of the list Afghanistan,” Haines said, adding, “what we look at is Yemen, Somalia, Syria, and Iraq for ISIS. That’s where we see the greatest threat.”
Despite a strong U.S. military presence in both Syria and Iraq, ISIS still operates within both countries, while in Yemen, an al-Qaeda offshoot based there has attempted attacks on the United States. In Somalia, the U.S. has regularly conducted counterterrorism strikes against Al-Shabaab, a terrorist group that regularly attacks neighboring Kenya.
While Haines stressed that there is a “big focus” for U.S. intelligence agencies in monitoring “any possible reconstitution of terrorist organizations” in Afghanistan, she acknowledged that intelligence gathering in the country has been “diminished” since the withdrawal of U.S. troops and the Taliban’s takeover.
“Afghanistan has been gut-wrenching and deeply personal to the intelligence community,” Haines said.
“Our intelligence collection is diminished and that is something that we have to prepare for and that we have been preparing for, frankly, quite some time,” she added of the challenges facing counterterrorism within the country.
Haines added that intelligence agencies have established a set of indicators so that they can “provide warning to the policy community” but noted that this “does not reduce the threat of those who are inspired by the ideology” calling that “one of the greatest issues” for counterterrorism.
Her comments come on the same day that Biden defended his decision to withdraw U.S. troops from Afghanistan but acknowledged that al-Qaeda may attempt to reconstruct itself in the country following the Taliban takeover.
The president marked the 20th anniversary of the Sept. 11 terror attacks by visiting all three sites where the hijacked planes crashed and told reporters he believes the terrorist group could “come back.”
“Could al-Qaeda come back? Yeah,” Biden said. “But guess what? It’s already back [in] other places. What’s the strategy? Every place where al-Qaeda is, we’re going to invade and have troops stay in? Come on.”
Biden defended his decision to withdraw U.S. troops from the country, concluding two decades of U.S. involvement, noting that it had completed its original mission of removing the terrorist group and its leader, Osama bin Laden.
“Let’s put this thing in perspective here. What interest do we have in Afghanistan at this point with al-Qaeda gone?” Biden continued. “We went to Afghanistan for the express purpose of getting rid of al-Qaeda in Afghanistan as well as, as well as, getting Osama bin Laden. And we did. … We went and did the mission. You’ve known my position for a long, long time. It’s time to end this war.”
Elsewhere on Monday, Haines spoke of the “growing and concerning threat” from domestic terrorists, noting that intelligence agencies are focused on supporting the FBI and Homeland Security Department when it comes to this matter.
She said the top priorities for intelligence agencies include investing in new and emerging technology, building partnerships with the private sector, developing expertise in long-term destabilizing trends like climate change and public health, and countering China, Bloomberg reports.