U.S. Officials on Jihadi Threat in 2023
U.S. officials warned about multifaceted threats from ISIS and al Qaeda in 2023.
In 2023, the United States faced multifaceted threats from foreign terrorist organizations such as ISIS and al Qaeda as well as state sponsors of terrorism and lone wolf actors, National Counterterrorism Center (NCTC) Director Christine Abizaid warned in January. The most direct threat to the U.S. homeland was from individuals inspired by jihadi groups. But the United States still needed to be “really vigilant” about foreign terrorist groups, Abizaid said. “And that's principally an al Qaeda and an ISIS threat.”
ISIS expanded its global network, brand, and operations, especially in Africa, despite leadership losses in 2022. Kurilla outlined two looming threats: the 10,000 ISIS fighters in detention and the tens of thousands of children in displaced persons camps in Syria. “There is no military solution to this ISIS detainee population,” Kurilla said during a trip to northeast Syria in March. “We and our partners must continue to detain them securely while working with the countries of origin of these ISIS detainees to repatriate and rehabilitate or find a prosecutorial way forward.” In Afghanistan, ISIS-Khorasan posed the most dangerous threat to the United States in 2023, Abizaid said. In the Middle East, ISIS was able to conduct operations and sought to strike beyond the region, Gen. Michael “Erik” Kurilla, the head of U.S. Central Command, warned during congressional testimony in March. Its “vile ideology remains unconstrained.”
Al Qaeda’s leader, Ayman al Zawahiri, was killed in a U.S drone strike in July 2022. His death was a significant strategic setback for the organization. But al Qaeda is plotting to rebuild, Kurilla said. “Though this will take time, al Qaeda remains a long-term threat to American interests and citizens as well as the homeland.” The following are excerpts of remarks by U.S. military and intelligence officials on the jihadi threat.
Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin
In Baghdad on March 7: “Our defense cooperation against Daesh is a key pillar of our bilateral relationship [with Iraq], and the United States remains committed to this fight in support of Iraq's security and the security of the entire region. Prime Minister Sudani and I both reaffirmed that commitment today... Just a few years ago, Daesh was marching across Iraq, terrorizing its citizens and threatening the stability of the entire region. In response, the United States convened the global coalition of 80 countries, and that coalition responded to the request of the sovereign government of Iraq to work alongside them to defeat this ruthless terrorist enemy. And we'll continue to listen to our partners and rally together with them in this fight. We'll continue to harness the professionalism of the coalition's diplomats and assistance experts and warfighters, as well as the incredible professionals in the NATO mission here. We'll continue to increase interoperability among our allies and partners, and we'll continue working to accomplish this mission together.
“Through the Global Coalition to Defeat Daesh, we liberated more than 50,000 square kilometers from Daesh and we freed more than 4.5 million Iraqis from their cruel grip. Now, the Iraqi Security Forces, including the Kurdish Peshmerga, have made huge strides in increasing their counterterrorism capabilities, and today they are in the lead. But military action alone won't ensure the enduring defeat of Daesh, so let me recognize the Iraqi government's ongoing repatriations of Iraqi citizens from northeast Syria. As I discussed with Prime Minister Sudani today, all countries with citizens in the detention facilities and displaced person camps in northeast Syria must take similar steps, and the United States stands ready to continue supporting Iraq and all countries working to repatriate their citizens.
“Now, looking forward, U.S. forces are ready to remain in Iraq at the invitation of the government of Iraq. These forces are operating in a non-combat advise, assist and enable role to support the Iraqi-led fight against terrorism. This is a critical mission, and we're proud to support our Iraqi partners. But we must be able to operate safely and securely to continue this vital work. So I want to thank Prime Minister Sudani and Minister of Defense Abbasi for their commitment today to ensure that the coalition forces in Iraq, at the Iraqi government's request, will be protected from state and non-state actors. We're focused on the mission of defeating Daesh, and we are here for no other purpose, and threats or attacks on our forces only undermine that mission. Now, we also talked today about the long-term vision for our defense partnership with Iraq, which will outlast Daesh. We continue to believe that Iraq's greater integration with its Arab partners in the region will deliver increased stability, security, and prosperity, and it will pay dividends not only for Iraqi citizens, but for all people of the region.”
In Erbil on March 7: “Working together, the United States and Iraq, including the Iraqi Kurdistan Region, have taken great strides to restore Iraqi sovereignty. Through the Global Coalition to Defeat Daesh, we have liberated more than 50,000 square kilometers from the nightmare of Daesh and freed more than 4.5 million Iraqis. So let me applaud the invaluable contributions to this fight made by the Kurdish Peshmerga, as part of Iraq's Security Forces. Now, I should underscore that U.S. forces are ready to remain in Iraq, at the invitation of the Government of Iraq, to support the Iraqi-led fight against Daesh. And we're glad to be able to support your forces and defend the Iraqi people... Daesh continues to threaten the lives and livelihoods of Iraq's citizens, so our continued cooperation is essential. And so is the Kurdish Peshmerga's coordination with the Iraqi Security Forces, including on Joint Brigades.”
Gen. Mark Milley, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff
In House testimony on March 29: “Terrorist organizations such as Al-Qaeda, ISIS, Al-Shabaab, and others continue to export terror, destruction, and destabilization. Unless the root causes of instability that give rise to these types of groups are resolved, terrorists will continue to take root around the globe, threaten others with attacks, and undermine legitimate governments. The root causes can only be effectively addressed by including governments of the region and we can best influence outcomes with diplomatic, economic, information, stability, and counterterrorism efforts. Through coalition efforts to train, advise, and assist partners and allies as well as intelligence sharing, we will continue to ensure that terrorists do not possess the capacity and capability to exert their will. Our counterterrorism strategy is to work by, with, and through our regional allies and partners and to conduct direct action counterterrorism strikes when necessary to protect the United States or our interests.”
Gen. Michael “Erik” Kurilla, U.S. Central Command
In testimony to the Senate Armed Services Committee on March 16, 2023: “Violent extremist groups continue to threaten the security and stability of the region. For example, ISIS, long past its 2014 pinnacle of capability, remains able to conduct operations within the region with a desire to strike beyond the Middle East. Though degraded, the group’s vile ideology remains unconstrained.
On Afghanistan: “In Afghanistan, the reduction in collection, analytical resources, and Intelligence, Surveillance, Reconnaissance assets means our campaign against Al Qaeda and ISIS Khorasan is challenged; while we can see the broad contours of attack planning, we lack the granularity to see the complete threat picture. ISIS-Khorasan has increased attacks in the region and desires to export those attacks beyond Afghanistan to include the US homeland and our interests abroad.
“The group also seeks to expand its operational presence and influence regionally and beyond. We are addressing this through the development of innovative Intelligence, Surveillance, and Reconnaissance platforms and increasing additional collection methods to build out a more fulsome threat picture.”
On Countering Violent Extremism: “While Iran poses the most ominous threat to the central region, Violent Extremist Organizations (VEOs) operating in the Middle East, Levant, and Central Asian States also represent a danger to security and stability. The Central Command Area of Responsibility serves as the epicenter of violent extremism, with 19 of 21 top tier terrorist groups operating across the region. ISIS and Al Qaeda are the principal Sunni violent extremist organizations in the Middle East and Levant. Both groups maintain numerous affiliates pursuing local, regional, and global objectives.”
On ISIS: “ISIS continues to organize attacks throughout the Middle East and must not be allowed to operate uncontested. Alongside our Syrian Democratic Forces partners, we continue to put pressure on ISIS in Syria. In Iraq, we continue to advise, assist, and enable the development of the Iraqi security forces in their fight against ISIS.
“We see ISIS in Iraq and Syria in three groups:
One, “ISIS At Large. This is the current generation of ISIS leaders and fighters we face in Iraq and Syria today. While we have significantly degraded this group’s capability, it retains the ability to inspire, direct, organize, and lead attacks in the region and abroad. This group offers the most straightforward solution: partner with Syrian Democratic Forces and advise, enable, and assist Iraqi Security Forces until ISIS At Large is defeated. The two other groups represent far more complex problems.”
Two, “ISIS In Detention. These are the roughly 10,000 ISIS fighters in detention facilities throughout Syria, and approximately 20,000 in detention facilities in Iraq. We rely on the Syrian Democratic Forces and our Iraqi partners to secure these sites, keeping this population off the battlefield. The Government of Iraq has sufficient infrastructure to keep these fighters in detention. The only long-term solution in Syria, however, is transfer of these detainees to the custody of their countries of origin... This population of detainees represents a looming threat to Syria, the region, and beyond. Syrian Democratic Forces leaders securing the site as well as camp administration officials described the detainee population as unrepentant and subject to further radicalization. One Syrian Democratic Forces official referred to the more than 5,000 detainees as a “ticking time bomb.” Unlike the first group, there is no military solution to this ISIS detainee population. We must support the Syrian Democratic Forces who continue to secure these sites while working with the countries of origin of these ISIS detainees to repatriate and rehabilitate or find a judicial solution.”
Three, “The Potential Next Generation of ISIS. This, the most concerning group, includes the more than 30,000 children in the al-Hol camp for internally displaced persons and the more than 1,000 children in the al Roj camp who are in danger of ISIS indoctrination on a daily basis... During four trips to the al Hol camp in 11 months, I’ve seen first-hand that these children are prime targets for ISIS radicalization. The al-Hol camp is a flashpoint of human suffering, with more than 51,000 residents, more than 90 percent of them women and children, living in tents. These children have little meaningful education, no access to the outside world, limited hot water, and few constructive outlets to develop their potential. They are at risk of becoming casualties to an ideological war within the camps: ISIS leaders want their minds.” “As with the second category of ISIS, there is no military solution for this group. Our long-term goal must be the successful repatriation, rehabilitation, and reintegration of the camp residents back into their country of origin.”
“While progress against ISIS in Iraq and Syria continues apace, the underlying conditions that led to the group’s 2013 and 2014 expansion remain. The ruinous effects of Assad’s rule and civil war in Syria lingers, employment and educational opportunities remain scarce for many young men, and millions live in appalling conditions. ISIS’ vile ideology remains uncontained and unconstrained, and a seething hatred remains open to exploitation.
“Our continued, limited presence in Iraq and Syria allows us to assist the Syrian Democratic Forces and the Iraqi Security Forces in maintaining pressure on ISIS to prevent the group’s resurgence to 2014 levels. The minimal U.S. troop strength in those countries allows us the ability to advise, assist, and enable partner forces with the goal of the enduring defeat of ISIS and the prevention of external attack plots against the U.S and nations throughout the region. Our support is essential to ensuring regional stability as well as protecting the homeland.
On Afghanistan: “In Afghanistan, the Taliban’s hold on security is maintained through ideology, continued humanitarian aid, and persistent abuse of human rights to dissuade unrest. Extremist groups see opportunity and ISIS-Khorasan grows emboldened amidst the chaos, seeking to expand its ranks and inspire, enable, or direct attacks in the region and beyond. ISIS-Khorasan is building a capability in Afghanistan from which to strike Western interests worldwide, with the ultimate goal of a strike on the American homeland. Al Qaeda remnants remain in Afghanistan. While the July 2022 death of Ayman al-Zawahiri set the group back, Al Qaeda desires to rebuild. Though this will take time, Al Qaeda remains a long-term threat to American interests and citizens as well as the homeland.”
During a trip to al Hol detention center in Syria on March 8, 2023: “In visiting the detention facility, I saw the looming threat posed by this group of detained ISIS fighters... Between those detained in Syria and Iraq it is a veritable ‘ISIS Army in Detention.’ If freed, this group would pose a great threat regionally and beyond... There is no military solution to this ISIS detainee population... We and our partners must continue to detain them securely while working with the countries of origin of these ISIS detainees to repatriate and rehabilitate or find a prosecutorial way forward.”
“Again, there is no military solution to this problem - the only solution to the lingering threat posed by ISIS in the camp is the repatriation, rehabilitation, and reintegration of residents to their countries of origin... “I saw first-hand the battle for the minds of these children and the poor quality of life in which they live... The al Hol camp is a flashpoint of human suffering, and the only durable solution is timely and successful repatriation, rehabilitation, and reintegration of the camp residents back into their countries and communities of origin... Alongside the SDF, we continue to put pressure on ISIS in Syria... The fight against ISIS is a fight for security and stability of not only Syria and Iraq, but the entire region. We absolutely cannot allow a resurgence of ISIS.”
Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense Dana Stroul
In remarks during a trip to Dubai on February 28: “When ISIS originally spread across Iraq and Syria, the Global Coalition had many lines of effort that it was focused on. One was to dry up the unconstrained financing that was going to ISIS ranks; another was to provide humanitarian aid given the massive flows of both refugees and displaced people fleeing ISIS terror; another was the military and operational support to our local partners on the ground; and then there was the countering ISIS ideology and its recruitment online efforts.”
“So number one, I would note here that it is not exclusively a military line of effort. This is something that for us in the U.S. Government we call a whole-of-government effort. We work on a daily basis with multiple different offices within the State Department, the National Security Council, and our U.S. Agency for International Development to both make sure that we are countering ISIS ideology in the information space but also offering tools for humanitarian aid, stabilization, so that communities can recover from the depravities of ISIS and seize opportunities both economically, politically, socially, culturally, and religiously for a better life post recovery from ISIS.”
“This is also something that the United States cannot do by itself. It’s something that we are constantly coordinating across the Global Coalition, with our allies, and also looking for partnership in the Middle East on how we can offer, especially the youth of the region, proactive and positive affirmation to make choices other than being recruited or inspired by ISIS.”
On U.S. Forces in the Region: “We are committed to our partners. And we are expanding ways not only to work with them on a daily basis but enable and empower them to be in the league so that they can independently maintain pressure on ISIS. Again, I want to underscore, this is truly what the United States does best. We consult, we listen, we understand what our partners’ objectives and shared interests are; then we design a mission in which we can cooperate consistently on a daily basis to achieve that shared vision.”
On Turkish Military Operations in Syria: “Continued Turkish military operations or a ground incursion into northern Syria would detract from what is a shared global commitment and concern about ISIS. So number one, we’re concerned that [a Turkish ground incursion into northeast Syria] would detract – the SDF would no longer focus on maintaining security at the detention facilities where still to this day 10,000 ISIS detainees remain under SDF custody, where they carry a serious responsibility for the international community in ensuring that these fighters cannot exit and reconstitute their ranks.”
“And number two, we are also concerned that safe and humane conditions endure for the displaced families at the al-Hol and al-Raj camps. So a Turkish military operation that detracts from our focus both on continued counterterrorism pressure on ISIS and on maintaining security and humane conditions at both the detention facilities and the displaced persons camp is an ongoing area of concern which we constantly raise. Finally, of course, we do have about 900 U.S. forces on the ground in northeast Syria. The highest priority for President Biden and for Secretary of Defense Austin is the security and safety of those forces while they continue to implement the one mission that they are in northeast Syria for, and that is the deterrent – enduring defeat of ISIS. U.S. forces are present in Syria for no other purposes, and we seek conditions that enable us to continue our focus on that mission.”
Maj. Gen. Matthew McFarlane, Operation Inherent Resolve
In remarks during a trip to Dubai on February 28: “The coalition’s efforts enable the stability and security of Iraq, and by extension the wider region in northeast Syria. We’re committed to this mission and to our partners as they continue to build capability, capacity, and competence, as they have demonstrated the will to take lead in this fight against ISIS. However, we recognize there is still a lot of work to do, and we are committed to continuing our support of our partners in Iraq and Syria.”
“One of the critical aspects of our approach is that in Iraq, we are not here to fight on behalf of Iraq; we are here in a non-combat role to provide the necessary support and resources, advising, assisting, and enabling the Iraqi Security Forces to take the lead in the fight against ISIS. This approach has proven successful, and we are confident it will continue to be effective.”
“We continue to conduct operations supporting our partners that do wide-area security operations and also precision operations to remove ISIS leaders both in Syria and Iraq. Year over year, we have seen a decrease in the number of ISIS attacks and the effectiveness of those attacks, speaking to the progress being made to remove ISIS or combat ISIS and remove any remaining fighters that may be in Iraq and Syria... As we continue to do that, we are also ensuring we’re helping build the capacity and the enduring or independent capability for our partners to take more of these missions on themselves in an independent fashion.”
“The ideology remains unconstrained. There are still aspirations out there for radical fighters and a desire to continue to spread ISIS... And so I would tell you that ISIS is continually trying to rebuild leadership based on the coalition effectively disrupting senior leaders, and making sure we continue to work with our partners as they build the capacity to do the same, and conduct their operations to not only keep pressure on the entire network but also monitor and track ISIS as they try and re-emerge... Right now they’re militarily ineffective, as they have been; the last time they’ve done a complex attack was during the Ghuwayran prison attack in January of 2022. Since then, they have not been able to mount a complex attack either in Syria or Iraq. And I think that’s the effectiveness of the coalition, our partners specifically as they conduct operations to maintain pressure on the network.”
NCTC Director Christine Abizaid
In remarks on January 10 at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy: “We have a diverse, geographically dispersed and a highly unpredictable threat environment. Now, in the homeland, it's a threat environment that I was actually shocked as an intelligence community leader coming back into the CT community that we could describe as less acute here in the homeland than at any time since 9/11. That was true in 2021 when I came back. It remains true here now and I think that's a real credit to what has been an amazing and persistent campaign of pressure against our terrorist adversaries over the last 20 plus years since 9/11... But the threat is unpredictable. And when you look at it, let's just start here in the homeland. It's characterized as most likely to occur in the United States from lone actors. Now, lone actors [are] motivated by a range of ideologies. We have lone actors that are motivated and inspired by ISIS, inspired by al-Qaeda. There are lone actors that are inspired by ideologies that are more domestically bound.”
“By the numbers, the most likely terrorist attack inside the United States is going to be by an individual that is inspired to act based on racial or ethnic motivations, largely driven by a belief in the superiority of the white race.”
On the Jihadi Threat: “Even as we deal with that challenge which can be considered one, unpredictable, but also oftentimes less sophisticated, we have still got to be really vigilant about the threat posed by those organizations that are based overseas that want to conduct attacks against Americans here in the homeland. And that's principally an al Qaeda and an ISIS threat. Those two threats, even after the years post 9/11, even after the sustained pressure, those threats still exist... We've had disruptions here in the country of individuals that continue to consume propaganda by those organizations that is produced overseas, but very slick and English language, and it's continuing to inspire individuals to act here in the United States... The lone actor threat is really most manifest here in the U.S. as the threat we're concerned about—the pressure that you need to maintain on the al Qaeda and ISIS networks that still want to attack in the United States is absolutely necessary, because a networked organization that has sophisticated means of attacking innocent civilians is still something we've got to be concerned about.”
On the threat in Syria: “The complexity that the conflict in Syria introduces into how we manage the CT fight is significant. And as much as I talk about ISIS core being managed into a local insurgency, and one that we must sustain pressure on, I also recognize you have [a] significant population of radicalized individuals in [internally displaced people] camps, in prisons scattered throughout Syria that represent the potential of a future threat if not appropriately engaged and handled and protected against. It’s a festering problem with a degree of complexity that all aspects of our national security challenges really just show up in that one territorial conflict.”
“It is an intelligence challenge to really understand what’s happening in these camps where we have very limited access. And we just can’t lose sight of what that problem could mean for the future of the threat, what it means for how it evolves next.”
On ISIS in Syria: “Just in the last year you've seen the removal of the last two ISIS emirs in Syria. One based on a very effective U.S. raid conducted by the Department of Defense, but another just from local dynamics that really was a signal of the kind of pressure that is multi-vector, that they are dealing with in Syria and also in Iraq.”
“ISIS is actually a very dynamic group that continues to be led from this core in Iraq and Syria, continues to have interest in not just their territorial integrity, but in the notoriety and the brand expansion and the attacks against the West... [The al Hol camp] is a significant challenge... You've got large populations, a very large population of foreigners that you want to get out of the situation in Syria and back into their home countries. And for lots of different reasons, negotiating those repatriations, or engaging with those foreign counterparts, will result in at best mixed success. We're talking about thousands and thousands and thousands of individuals and success that happens in the tens and the fives.”
On ISIS and al Qaeda in Afghanistan: “The threat actor that I am most concerned about raising a threat to the United States, a threat outside of Afghanistan, is ISIS-Khorasan. That doesn't mean we don’t care about al Qaeda, it doesn’t mean we take our eye off the ball... ISIS-Khorasan is primarily tied up in fighting the Taliban. The Taliban understands it is their number one security threat. And notwithstanding that, I am concerned about their external ambition. The timeline to build a sophisticated external operational platform, which a group like ISIS-Khorasan has actually never effectively pulled off, that's a whole different question, and there's lots of nuance underneath it.”
“You’ve got to disaggregate the al Qaeda problem from the ISIS-Khorasan problem. They're completely different in that, you know, al Qaeda has to worry about what the Taliban has to say about their presence there. Al Qaeda has a relationship with the Taliban. The Taliban has an interest in ensuring that al Qaeda does not present a major threat. The shock of Zawahiri sitting in downtown Kabul was striking because all of those interests that the Taliban has wrapped up in international legitimacy and trying to move the country forward, even though in many ways they're moving it backwards.”
“The al Qaeda dynamic is just very different. There's, again, that defunct al Qaeda in the Indian Subcontinent group, which is increasingly less of a threat in terms of what’s on my radar. You look at the old school al Qaeda presence, those that have intermarried and engaged with elements of the Taliban. And yes, they’re there. But are they organized and coalesced into a real effort against the United States? Not as far as I can tell. And even Zawahiri being in downtown Kabul, he was in downtown Kabul isolated from the rest of the Afghanistan-based elements, as far as we can tell. The Haqqani network wanted to make quite sure of that, and you could see it in the cover up that they tried to pursue in the immediate aftermath of the strike.”
On ISIS in Africa: “The South Africa story is a very interesting story. It is not often that the State Department will release a threat warning in a country that is so far afield from those kind of traditional hubs that we've been watching from a counterterrorism perspective... Mozambique is another interesting example. You look at the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) and the kind of ISIS inroads that are happening there... There are certainly the parts of the continent that you would expect that ISIS is making inroads into, but it’s these other expansionary areas like South Africa, like Mozambique, like DRC that provide us that warning framework that we really need to understand, so that we know one, are they isolated? How interconnected are they? How much are they learning from each other? Are they just calling themselves ISIS because it's advantageous, or are they getting something beneficial from that association? And where does that benefit most meaningfully impact U.S. interests in the region and U.S. interest for further afield?”
On al Qaeda leadership: “[Former emir Ayman al Zawahiri's] removal is a strategic and symbolic setback, because the loss of him as that center of gravity really does test the ties that bind the rest of these affiliates. Whether it's the Yemen-based affiliate with [al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula], whether it's [Jamaat Nusrat al Islam wal Muslimin] and all of its own expansion that's happening, whether it's al Shabab [in Somalia] and how committed is Shabab really to the global agenda, whether it's these almost defunct elements in Afghanistan, with al Qaeda in the Indian Subcontinent, Hurras al Din in Syria.”
“These are all pockets of al Qaeda elements, some of whom know each other, all of whom [are] connected to a central rallying figure in a central call. And the question for al Qaeda that it hasn't answered for itself is who follows. And, yes, the best candidates are Saif al Adel and Abd al Rahman al Maghrebi that are sitting in Iran. What does al Qaeda think about that? How does the network respond to the fact that those leaders are there and almost certainly with the knowledge of the Iranian government? And what does that mean for their credibility? What does that mean for their ability to lead a very diverse organization that is becoming less and less connected because its leaders have been decimated?”
On al Qaeda in Syria: “Hurras al Din is concerning to me, not just because of its space to operate in Syria, where we have lots of actors who can operate, but because if we care about the ties that bind, their stature, some of the interconnectivity with other aspects of the al Qaeda network are important and really resonant in the Hurras al Din presence.”
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