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U.S. Intelligence on Jihadi Threat in 2023

U.S. intelligence warned about multifaceted threats from ISIS and al Qaeda in 2023.

ISIS fighters raising their weapons in the air
ISIS fighters in Iraq in 2022

In early 2023, the United States faced multifaceted threats from foreign terrorist organizations like ISIS and al Qaeda, as well as state sponsors of terrorism and lone wolf actors, warned National Counterterrorism Center (NCTC) Director Christine Abizaid on January 10.

Individual attackers, including people inspired by jihadi groups, posed the most direct threat to the U.S. homeland. But the United States still had to be “really vigilant” about terrorist groups based overseas, Abizaid said. “And that's principally an al Qaeda and an ISIS threat.”

Despite leadership losses in 2022, ISIS expanded its global network, brand, and operations, especially in Africa. In Afghanistan, ISIS-Khorasan posed the most concerning threat to the United States in 2023, Abizaid said. Similarly, 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 its affiliates—particularly in Syria—remained a threat. The following are excerpts of remarks by Abizaid.

 

NCTC Director Abizaid

In remarks on January 10 at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy:

On the Terrorist Threat: “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.”Image removed.

 

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. And it's incumbent upon us as a CT community to stay laser focused on those threats and make sure that we have a counterterrorism effort here in the homeland, a targeted counterterrorism effort internationally, one that builds on partnerships that make sure that we're able to manage that threat.”

“The al Qaeda and ISIS inspired threat is still there. We have had attacks by individuals. 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. And so, between the kind of racially, ethnically motivated violent extremist threat, the homegrown violent extremist threat that's tied to foreign terrorist organizations—those are the ones that are most likely to occur and often with sort of a lower degree of sophistication than we have been concerned about from kind of this hierarchically directed al Qaeda or ISIS sort of transnational plotting.”

“But I caution a little bit as true as that is—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. We've got to be prepared for, and we need to appropriately again organize ourselves as the United States government, not in the way that we did on the twelfth of September 2001, but organize ourselves effectively based on the lessons learned over the last 20 plus years so we're managing what is a dynamic threat environment.”

NCTC Director Christine Abizaid

NCTC Director Christine Abizaid

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Image removed.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.”

“[The al Hol camp] is a significant challenge. And on the one hand, you want to engage the international community to make sure that the humanitarian situation is protected. On the other hand, 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.”

“It is a problem that we’ve got to stay focused on, we’ve got to continue to chip away at. 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 the overall ISIS threat: “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. We've got really good partnerships with Syrian Democratic Forces, with Iraqi Security Forces. If you talk to [CENTCOM commander General] Erik Kurilla, you look at the stats that they have been able to put up against ISIS in Syria, in Iraq over the last year—it's over 300 operations that have had a significant impact that has kept this threat at bay.”

“And yet, we see ISIS expansion across the African continent. We see concerning indications of ISIS-Khorasan in Afghanistan and its ambition that might go beyond that immediate territory.”

“And so, even as there's been an amazing effort and a coalition effort to contain the ISIS core threat in the theater, where it had for a short time gained territory, this expansion, this brand expansion of the ISIS threat is really concerning. And from an intelligence perspective, it's a really important challenge for us to understand; not just where the expansion is happening, what is driving the expansion, but also, when does that expansion appreciably change the threat to the West, appreciably change the threat to the United States in a way that we’re at an inflection point and must get ahead of it before it comes at us again. 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. We’ve got to remain vigilant against it.”

On the ISIS threat 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. And they did. They did that with South Africa.”

“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. When I talk about the overall ISIS threat and I talk about sort of this expansion onto the continent, 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 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 the ISIS threat in Afghanistan: “With ISIS-Khorasan, there are just aspects here that we have got to be very mindful of. You look at the notoriety they got out of the Abbey Gate attack as we were evacuating so many Afghans and Americans from Afghanistan in those waning months of August. You look at some of their historical activities, their interest in encouraging attacks, whether in Europe and the United States or otherwise. You look at their own fight for survival against the Taliban, and how much of any external ambition they have is really about delegitimizing the Taliban and the sense of security that that Afghans feel.”

“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. It just means that as we focus our efforts, we've got to just be very, very vigilant about how that will evolve.”

“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.”

On al Qaeda leadership: “[Where the center of gravity is for al Qaeda today] is the question. I would tell you that in a way, a lot of us in the CT world have sort of a tendency to be dismissive about [former emir Ayman al Zawahiri] was the center of gravity for that network. I mean he was the singular leader—he was both symbolically important, but also strategically important for what was a diverse network of affiliate structure that brought different players to the table for decision making on seeing through the al-Qaeda vision of prioritization against the West and engagement and entrenchment in local communities. And his 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 [Jama’at Nusrat al Islam wal Muslimin] and all of its own expansion that's happening, whether it's al Shabaab [in Somalia] and how committed is Shabaab 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 the al Qaeda threat in Syria: “I mean with all its branch plans and splitting and infighting, and in some ways weakening of all of those sort of factions, the core al Qaeda presence that I focus on is Hurras al Din. It's the core al Qaeda presence that CENTCOM focuses on. You see it in some of their operations over the last year. 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.”

On the al Qaeda threat in Afghanistan: “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.”

 

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