Nearly 20 years after the 9/11 attacks, United States President Joseph R. Biden, Jr decided to withdraw US military and other governmental personnel from Afghanistan. Once the withdrawal was underway, it became evident that the Taliban could and would reclaim control of most of the country. Since then, the Biden administration has strived to assuage concerns that either al-Qaeda, which has a longstanding alliance with the Taliban, or Islamic State (ISIS), which has a sizable presence of members in the country, could immediately use Afghanistan to conduct external operations. A notable example was seen in remarks issued by Under Secretary of Defense Colin Kahl during an open US Senate Armed Services Committee hearing. In an exchange with the committee’s chair, Dr. Kahl advised, “I think the intelligence community currently assesses that both ISIS-K and al-Qaeda have the intent to conduct external operations, including against the US, but neither currently has the capability to do so.” History suggests this is a problematic assessment. Because the external operations programs managed by al-Qaeda and ISIS are much more dynamic than the one overseen by Usama bin Ladin on September 11, 2001. Plus, the situation in Afghanistan may be increasing their capabilities to conduct newer forms of external operations sooner than Dr. Kahl has led the Senate Armed Services Committee—thus the world—to believe either terrorist group can.
A New Paradigm of External Operations
Already, al-Awlaki’s online activities had indicated al-Qaeda was keen to expand its capabilities to generate buy-in for an ideology that could imbue some new adherents in the West with a sense of urgency to “defend” their faith vis-à-vis acts of terrorism. Before Khan moved from the US to Yemen to join forces with al-Awlaki, authorities’ responses to his online activities provided al-Qaeda with evidence that the US Government was not prepared to tackle such innovative efforts to build support for the group’s global jihad. As Khan put it in the second issue of Inspire while expressing his surprise that federal agencies had not disrupted his plans to travel overseas to join al-Qaeda in October 2009, “I was quiet [sic] open about my beliefs online and it didn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out I was al Qaeda to the core.”[i] Indeed, prior to Khan’s departure for Yemen, then-Congressman Sue Myrick, a member of the US House of Representatives Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence and chair of the Congressional Anti-Terrorism Caucus who represented the North Carolina congressional district in which Khan resided, had expressed concerns about his online activities to the FBI.[ii] In a recent discussion with me about open source intelligence’s (OSINT) potential utilities in counterterrorism, Congressman (Ret) Myrick noted, “When he was in Charlotte, working out of his parents’ basement, he changed servers constantly, used foreign ones, so they never could charge him,” adding: “It was a total screw up by the FBI.”
Perhaps more importantly, al-Qaeda also had evidence that al-Awlaki’s blog posts and YouTube content had likely helped stimulate Nidal Hasan’s interests in perpetrating a terrorist attack at Fort Hood in November 2009. Regardless of whether al-Awlaki should be painted as the radicalizing force, Hasan had contacted al-Awlaki via e-mail to try to confirm that attacks targeting US military personnel would be permissible, according to al-Awlaki’s notions of sharia (Islamic law). That al-Awlaki did not reply to Hasan’s e-mail with a message contesting the legitimacy of the following directive issued by bin Ladin and other Salafi-Jihadist luminaries in their 1998 declaration of war with the US and Jews was almost certainly the stuff of inspirational silence:
The ruling to kill the Americans and their allies—civilians and military—is an individual duty for every Muslim who can do it in any country in which it is possible to do it …
Yet, prior to 2010, al-Awlaki’s online activities had not offered such concrete evidence that he aimed to expand al-Qaeda’s capabilities to orient the interests of his target audience towards using items in their mothers’ kitchens to make bombs and perpetrate terrorist attacks. This was made clear with a how-to feature story in the first issue of Inspire that was published online in 2010.
Also made clear by the first issue of Inspire was al-Qaeda’s interest in establishing direct and safe lines of communication with individuals in the West who may be willing to serve as agents in its external operations program. Not only did al-Awlaki and Khan provide Gmail, Hotmail, Fastmail and Yahoo e-mail addresses that could be used to contact them; they published a four-page tutorial on how al-Qaeda enthusiasts in the West could use an encrypted correspondence tool to exchange messages with them.
That al-Qaeda’s second and presumably current leader determined there was profit to be garnered from the model of online incitement developed by al-Awlaki and Khan is made evident from the continued publication of Inspire and variations thereof following their deaths in 2011, as well as al-Qaeda’s expanded use of popular and “dark” social media since. Notable dividends include the Boston Marathon bombings in April 2013 and the attack at the offices of Charlie Hebdo in January 2015. According to the US Justice Department’s chief expert witness in the prosecution of Dzokhar Tsarnaev, perpetrators of the former plot gathered instructions for producing their bombs from the aforementioned article published in the first issue of Inspire, titled “Make a bomb in the kitchen of your Mom.” A victim targeted in the latter attack in France was featured in a hit list that was published in the tenth issue of Inspire, which was published online in the spring of 2013.
As I noted in testimony for a US Senate hearing in 2017, following the declaration of its so-called “caliphate,” ISIS took al-Awlaki’s online model for expanding al-Qaeda’s capabilities to wage jihad in the West to “new heights.” In 2014, it should have been clear to officials in the US Intelligence Community who were briefing senior officials like then-Vice President Biden that ISIS’ intensely incitement-focused propaganda was intended to support its external operations. Abu Mohamed al-Adnani (d. 2016), the group’s spokesman who declared ISIS had established a “caliphate” in 2014, was also managing its external operations program. This indicated that orchestrating attacks in the West would feature prominently in how ISIS leaders would seek to define perceptions of the group. So too did the abundance of threats against Western nations in the group’s propaganda. Additionally, by the end of 2014, the most prominent narrative directed at consumers of the group’s propaganda that was tailored for (prospective) supporters in the West emphasized the following action items: According to Islamic traditions, all Muslims must give baya (allegiance) to ISIS’ “caliph,” and this allegiance is demonstrated with one of the following two actions: Making hijrah (emigrating) to the “caliphate” to support the group, or, if one is unable to do so, perpetrating terrorist attacks in their home country.
Since then, ISIS has used its propaganda that is tailored to present an image of strength and durability—thus worthiness of support—paired with an aggressive exploitation of social media technologies, along with more user-friendly encrypted communication tools than were available to al-Awlaki, to orchestrate exceedingly more attacks in the West than al-Qaeda. In many cases, these attacks have been perpetrated by terrorists not trained in either conflict zones or “sanctuaries.” In most cases, their selections of targets and tools used to perpetrate attacks have reflected adherence to directives devolved in ISIS propaganda. So too have these terrorists’ efforts to firmly define their actions as contributions to ISIS’ global jihad pursuant to the following guidance that was published in the fourth issue of its infamous ezine Dabiq in October 2014:
At this point of the crusade against the Islamic State, it is very important that attacks take place in every country that has entered into the alliance against the Islamic State, especially the US, UK, France, Australia and Germany. … It is important that the killing becomes attributed to patrons of the Islamic State who have obeyed its leadership. … Otherwise, crusader media makes such attacks appear to be random killings.
By ensuring their actions were understood as efforts to fulfill expectations for group supporters’ conduct set in ISIS propaganda, these de facto agents of ISIS’ external operations have done more than just demonstrate their faithful adherence to the group’s gudiance. They have also helped ISIS—which al-Adnani claimed was the true steward of bin Ladin’s manhaj (methodology) weeks before declaring it had established a “caliphate”—appear as a more competent and dedicated manager of a global jihad than al-Qaeda under the leadership of bin Ladin’s successor, Ayman al-Zawahiri.
The Current Situation in Afghanistan: New Fuel for the New Paradigm of External Operations?
The current situation in Afghanistan could be used by both al-Qaeda and ISIS to conduct external operations sooner than the Biden administration apparently wants the world to believe. It enhances each group’s capabilities to project an image of strength and durability. This, in turn, fuels their powers of persuasion that factor centrally in their capabilities to conduct effective recruitment-cum-incitement campaigns in the cyber domain focused on grooming agents for external operations here in the West.
For al-Qaeda, the hasty withdrawal of the US military has enabled the group to meet a key expectation set by bin Ladin’s external communications: al-Qaeda and its allies can survive “long wars” with the United States and its closest allies, which bin Ladin believed would “bleed” America of vast amounts of financial resources, influence in the Muslim world and the political will to deny participants in the wider Salafi-Jihadist movement capabilities to pursue their chief goal of restoring a caliphate. This intensifies the perceptibility of al-Qaeda as a credible organization that is pursuing a viable strategy for achieving that inspirational goal. The optics of a Taliban “victory” corresponding with the twentieth anniversary of the 9/11 attacks also reinforces the view of al-Qaeda as not only an important force in, but also a key beneficiary of the apparently successful effort to transition Afghanistan back into an “Islamic Emirate.” Indeed, that the Taliban has not disavowed al-Qaeda conveys a message to al-Qaeda’s wider support base that Afghanistan is likely to be a safer haven for the group than ever before. Here, it is useful to consider that, as demonstrated by ISIS following the declaration of its “caliphate,” de facto control of territory factors importantly in Salafi-Jihadists’ capabilities to fashion a group as a legitimate enterprise that is worthy of support—including support furnished in the form of terrorist attacks perpetrated in the West.
For ISIS, recent developments in Afghanistan have rendered an abundance of opportunities to further contrast the group with al-Qaeda. Further, it is doing this in ways that can provide particularly potent incentives for individuals who share these groups’ goal of restoring a caliphate to help ISIS assert dominance in the wider Salafi-Jihadist movement. Notably, by seizing on the opportunity to perpetrate attacks targeting American military personnel at Hamid Karzai International Airport, ISIS simultaneously highlighted two things that are almost certainly of great interest to prospective recruits, including members of competing groups like al-Qaeda who may be willing to defect into ISIS’ ranks: There were substantial opportunities to kill US military personnel, but neither al-Qaeda, nor its chief ally, the Taliban, were seizing them. This reinforces ISIS’ claims that al-Qaeda has deviated from the path of jihad charted by bin Ladin. Thus, as al-Adnani put it in an address just before he declared ISIS had established a “caliphate,” al-Qaeda is no longer the “base of jihad.” Moreover, the spectacular effects produced by the attack at the airport in Kabul on August 26, 2021 that was perpetrated by a single ISIS member—in particular, the deaths of 13 US military personnel—paired with the surge of ISIS-claimed attacks in Afghanistan thereafter, are successes that can help the group animate aspirations among supporters in the West to perpetrate attacks here.
Ultimately, the situation in Afghanistan is very likely to stimulate interests among sympathetic consumers of al-Qaeda’s and ISIS’ propaganda here in the West in doing things to help these groups advance their global agendas. Given the increased emphasis among the US and its closest allies on denying prospective aspirant terrorists capabilities to travel abroad to join these groups, one of the easiest things al-Qaeda and ISIS enthusiasts here in the West can do to support them is volunteering to serve as agents in their external operations. This makes amplifying the notion that neither group can immediately capitalize on the situation in Afghanistan to help them orchestrate attacks in the US a risky business, both in terms of the Biden administration’s political and national security management concerns. Not only could this undermine confidence in President Biden if attacks occur, potentially offering Donald Trump and other prospective contenders for the presidency renewed opportunities to harness concerns about counterterrorism policies to boost their candidacies the way that Trump did in 2016; it creates additional incentives for al-Qaeda and ISIS to increase their efforts to push supporters in the US to perpetrate attacks. Indeed, as bin Ladin clearly understood, defying expectations about Salafi-Jihadists’ capabilities to advance their agendas that are set by their powerful enemies can help inspire confidence in groups like al-Qaeda and ISIS. Thus, perhaps it is not a coincidence that, right now, there is a push underway to help increase al-Qaeda’s capabilities to attract support from English speakers by increasing the availability of English-language translations of its propaganda.
[i] Citing the transliteration of the group’s name used by Khan.
[ii] The author was a contributing expert to the Congressional Anti-Terrorism Caucus.