Smith: Thank you for agreeing to conduct this interview and thank you for your many other contributions to projects managed by Department of War Studies’ faculty and students, including your recent participation in the War Studies at 60 speakers series cohosted by RUSI.
General Petraeus: Great to be with you, Mike, thanks.
Smith: Before we proceed further, I should acknowledge that General Petraeus will be serving as an additional reader on my committee as I conduct PhD research supervised by faculty in the Department of War Studies here at King’s College London. And I probably would not have applied to conduct PhD research at King’s without his encouragement.
That said, here we go:
A careful reading of Usama bin Laden’s statements, al Qaeda’s propaganda, as well as the statements produced by ISIS leaders, who have claimed to be stewarding the global jihad charted by bin Laden, suggest a key objective among leadership figures in the wider Salafi-Jihadist movement has been to drain political will within the United States and its close allies to sustain “long and bitter wars,” as bin Laden put it, that might deny Salafi-Jihadists capabilities to bring their chief goal of reestablishing a caliphate to fruition. The growth in membership in Salafi-Jihadist groups during and after the Arab Spring, and the expansions of their operational footprints across many regions spanning from West Africa to the Philippines, suggest al Qaeda and ISIS have realized growing capabilities to convince people their objective of exhausting that political will is being met—thus their strategies for pursuing their apparently inspirational goal are indeed viable.
Since 9/11, what policies pursued by the United States and its allies might have inadvertently intensified the perceptibility of these groups as being credible, durable and capable stewards of international campaigns aiming to reestablish a caliphate?
General Petraeus: As you note, Osama bin Laden did, indeed, want to sap our political will and impose costs of various types on us. In fact, the 9/11 attacks did result in various costs, as we are reminded each time we go through airport security or have bags screened before entering a large public venue. Clearly, we had to improve our security and take innumerable measures to do that in various ways, not just physically but also in other domains, including cyberspace.
That said, in responding to your question, no actions come to mind that we took that inadvertently gave credibility to IS or AQ or their affiliates as they sought to achieve their goals of creating a caliphate or establish control of various areas. There were certainly deliberate actions in the past decade that heightened the “status” that IS, in particular, had attained as a serious threat to our allies and our homeland, and I believe those actions were needed, including the creation of the Counter-ISIS Coalition; however, again, no inadvertent ones come to mind.
Rather, it was the achievements of ISIS on the ground in Iraq and Syria that inspired alienated youth in Europe and elsewhere to seek to join ISIS in those two countries or to carry out attacks in their home countries. It was ISIS’s success on the ground in Iraq and Syria, as well as in cyberspace (where ISIS established what might be termed its virtual caliphate), that most powerfully conveyed that ISIS was a winner, was succeeding. ISIS’s accomplishments, in fact, demonstrated that nothing succeeds like success when it comes to recruiting, inspiring others to carry out extremist activities, prompting still others to contribute in various ways, and so forth.
In sum, it was not inadvertent activities by the US and countries of the Counter-ISIS Coalition that established ISIS as a successful movement that others wanted to join; it was success on the ground until the US and other countries returned to Iraq and deployed to Syria, providing the military assets that enabled Iraqi Security Forces and Syrian Democratic Forces to defeat ISIS, eliminate the IS Caliphate, and dramatically reduce the virtual caliphate—though clearly there are remnants of ISIS that continue to be very threatening in Iraq and Syria, with affiliates in other countries, as well, most significantly Afghanistan, as well as some continued, but much reduced, activities in cyberspace, as well.
Smith: A prominent feature of United States national security policies during the 20th and 21st centuries has been the use of America’s economic influence to constrain the capabilities of hostile state and nonstate actors to accrue financial and other resources. One way that the US Government has sought to diminish the capabilities of hostile foreign nonstate actors responsible for terrorist attacks targeting US interests to secure important resources—ranging from new members to cash and weapons, to sanctuaries in countries whose governments might not otherwise be inclined to interfere with their activities—has involved the US State Department designating them as Foreign Terrorist Organizations (FTOs). Early in 2017, I tried to persuade Senator Lindsey Graham to push the Trump administration to insist that the State Department designate the Taliban an FTO. As he was receptive to the idea, I also shared contact details with Senator Graham for a holdover staffer on the National Security Council (NSC) from the Obama administration’s NSC who was happy to discuss evidence that demonstrated the Taliban met the criteria for such a designation. Yet it quickly became evident that this was not something the Trump administration was inclined to do. This year, following the withdrawal of US military personnel from Afghanistan pursuant to the terms of a deal struck with the Taliban by the Trump administration, Senator Graham called on Secretary of State Antony Blinken to designate the Taliban an FTO. Several other prominent Republican senators have also introduced a bill to try to effectively force the State Department to designate the Taliban a terrorist group.
If the Clinton, Bush or Obama administrations had insisted that the United States Department of State should have designated the Taliban as a Foreign Terrorist Organization in response to the various forms of support it offered al Qaeda—as well as other entities designated as FTOs—before and after 9/11, would the situation in Afghanistan be much different than it is today, and, if the State Department designates the Taliban an FTO in the near future, how might that affect things?
General Petraeus: This is a difficult issue, of course, as the current US administration and its two predecessor administrations at various points sought to negotiate with the Taliban. And that was seen as difficult in various respects if the organization was designated as an FTO (though, in practice, I think workarounds were possible). In any event, I certainly recognize the challenges inherent in that situation.
Beyond that, I’m not sure whether designating the Taliban as an FTO or identifying it as a declared hostile force on the battlefield (as it was treated for a number of years until the previous two US administrations, at various junctures, sought to distinguish between the Taliban and al Qaeda and other extremist groups, including the Islamic State) would have been best. But clearly not targeting Taliban elements that were attacking our Afghan Security Force partners, while not putting our forces in harm’s way, was very challenging—and maddening—for those advising and assisting Afghan forces during those periods. In essence, our forces could always hit any AQ and, over time, IS elements we identified, but at a certain point in each of the previous two administrations could not target the Taliban unless they threatened our forces. And that created, again, a very difficult situation for those trying to help our Afghan partners seeking to secure their country and fellow citizens.
Smith: A lot can be learned about the interests and plans of jihadist groups from what their leaders say. Much can also be learned from what they don’t say. The Taliban’s leaders have not publicly disavowed al Qaeda. This suggests that they may once again serve as willing hosts of al Qaeda. Meanwhile, given that (a) al Qaeda’s leaders have for decades referred to the Taliban’s founding leader and his successors as Emir al-Mu’minin (Commander of the Faithful; a title historically reserved for caliphs), and (b) its current leaders have given baya (an oath of allegiance) to the Taliban’s current leader, it seems that the Taliban’s leader actually could persuade al Qaeda not to use Afghanistan as a base from which to train and deploy terrorists to perpetrate attacks in the West. Indeed, that al Qaeda did not seize on the opportunities to target US military personnel during the NEO staged at Hamid Karzai International Airport suggests the Taliban conveyed to al Qaeda’s leaders that it was not advisable to exploit that situation, and al Qaeda deferred to such guidance. Yet, even if al Qaeda were to honor a request not to use Afghanistan as a base to train and deploy its members to perpetrate attacks in the West, al Qaeda could still use Afghanistan to help it orchestrate attacks in the West. Because providing al Qaeda a sanctuary contributes to its capabilities to convince prospective aspirant terrorists the world over that the group is a durable enterprise that remains worthy of support—including support furnished in the form of terrorist attacks perpetrated in the US.
Do you see the situation in Afghanistan as something that contributes to al Qaeda’s capabilities to build and reinforce support, including among individuals in the West who may be willing to serve as de facto agents in its external operations?
General Petraeus: I do fear that either the al Qaeda or the Islamic State affiliates in Afghanistan—or both—could present challenges over time to the United States and, more likely, to the homelands of our allies, especially those in Europe—as IS elements and affiliates did at the height of ISIS’ power in northern Iraq and northeastern Syria. In fact, Colin Kahl, the US Undersecretary of Defense for Policy recently warned that IS’s element in the Af/Pak region and, to a lesser degree, AQ could present a threat beyond Afghanistan in relative near-term. “ISIS-K and al Qaeda have the intent to conduct external operations, including against the U.S.” he noted. “But neither currently has the capability to do so. We could see ISIS-K generate that capability somewhere between 6 to 12 months. I think the current assessments by the intelligence community [are] that al Qaeda would take a year or two.”
In fact, as you noted, there is a long history of varying levels of collaboration between the Taliban and al Qaeda elements in Afghanistan and Pakistan, not the least of which was when the Taliban permitted the sanctuary in the late 1990s and early 2000s that al Qaeda used to plan the 9/11 attacks. And one would expect the Taliban to continue to be permissive when it comes to al Qaeda, though there may be an attempt to discourage attacks on the US that might force the US to get more active once again in that region.
The Taliban-IS relationship, on the other hand, is one of conflict, as we have seen in the months since the Taliban took control of Kabul and Afghanistan, with IS elements carrying out horrific attacks against our forces and Afghans outside Kabul International Airport during the final days of our withdrawal operations and many subsequent attacks, often targeting Hazara Shia but also against Taliban forces and Afghan citizens. The Taliban leadership has deployed forces to track down IS elements, but one would expect conflict between IS and the Taliban to continue.
Smith: After United States President Joseph R. Biden, Jr. decided to withdraw US military and other governmental personnel from Afghanistan, as well as intelligence assets who assisted the US with counterterrorism operations there, President Biden claimed his administration would “maintain a laser-focus on our counterterrorism missions there and in other parts of the world.” He also advised the US is conducting counterterrorism missions “in multiple countries where we don’t have a permanent military presence,” adding: “If necessary, we will do the same in Afghanistan. We’ve developed counterterrorism over-the-horizon capability that will allow us to keep our eyes firmly fixed on any direct threats to the United States in the region and to act quickly and decisively if needed.” Yet the optics of the US departure—in particular, the ease with which the Taliban returned to power and then placed individuals designated as Specially Designated Global Terrorists by the US in key positions within its new regime—could adversely affect perceptions of the US as being a reliable counterterrorism partner among local civilian populations in many countries where al Qaeda and ISIS are expanding their operations. Particularly Afghanistan. Indeed, it seems reasonable to assume that the optics of what unfolded in Afghanistan could negatively impact America’s and several partner nations’ capabilities to cultivate the assets who play important roles in helping intelligence and military organizations identify where to orient “over-the-horizon” tools.
Do you assess that President Biden’s decisions to extricate the US military from Afghanistan and do very little to prevent the Taliban from reclaiming power over much of the country will adversely affect the capabilities of the United States Intelligence Community and intelligence agencies in governments of America’s closest allies to maintain existing and cultivate new relationships with individuals and organizations that can help gather information about the activities, plans and locations of al Qaeda and ISIS members?
General Petraeus: US intelligence and military leaders have very forthrightly noted that the loss of our bases in Afghanistan, which constituted the final bases we had in Central and South Asia, will make it much tougher to carry out operations to gain the kind of intelligence we will need to keep a close eye on AQ and IS elements in the Afghanistan/Pakistan region. There is no disputing that. Drones, for example, have always played an important role, together with all other sources of intel to be sure, in providing various forms of intelligence; however, they will now have to fly out of bases in the Gulf States—and depending on the specific location, they likely will use 50-65% of their flight time just getting to and from the location in Afghanistan where they may be needed to establish an “unblinking eye.” That obviously dramatically reduces dwell time and increases the number of such assets required. But all other typical actions will also be vastly more difficult given the loss of bases, partners, various intel assets, etc., etc. That is beyond dispute. And the intelligence community and US military elements are undoubtedly aggressively pursuing initiatives that will help mitigate the risks that have increased substantially with the loss of our Afghan government, military, and intelligence partners in Afghanistan.
Smith: The proliferation online of incitement-focused propaganda produced by al Qaeda and ISIS, the ease with which their members can identify and cultivate prospective aspirant terrorists on popular and “dark” social media platforms, and the ever-increasing speed with which inspirational information about “successes” achieved in their global terrorism campaigns spreads across the cyber domain has not only enhanced their capabilities to radicalize, recruit and incite violence; this has simultaneously increased the availability of open source information that can be harnessed by the United States Intelligence Community (USIC) to identify and manage threats linked to the Salafi-Jihadist movement. Yet, 20 years after 9/11, persistent threats posed by this movement—and the largely unmitigated growth in threats within the United States posed by rightwing extremists who have harnessed the Internet in similar ways—suggests the USIC has not made a maximal effort to utilize OSINT to prevent and counter violent extremism. Indeed, the renewed efforts underway in policymaking spheres in the US to elevate OSINT’s profile among other intelligence disciplines suggests members of Congress are concerned that biases favoring more discreet intelligence disciplines like human intelligence and signals intelligence may have remained a persistent issue within senior echelons of the US national security enterprise since 9/11.
Does the threat environment make OSINT an increasingly valuable tool for the US Government, and, if so, what are some of the things that could be done to help ensure it is not an underutilized resource?
General Petraeus: It is publicly known that the [Open Source Enterprise] (previously named the Director of National Intelligence Open Source Center), for which the CIA is the executive agent, has been a very productive and exceedingly important source of information from traditional media and also from social media and other activities that use the internet. Indeed, the richness of what can be gleaned from sources of information available via the internet has exploded. It is not uncommon, in fact, for such sources to rival those obtained by more traditional tradecraft and tools. During the fight against ISIS in Mosul, the location of the Caliphate’s capital in northern Iraq, e.g., one of the best real-time sources of information was available via a blog titled “Mosul Eye.” I can only imagine that my former colleagues at the CIA had that high on their list of all sources of intelligence for insights on the situation inside Mosul during the fight with ISIS and during the eventual liberation of Mosul. The same has been—and is—true for many other situations around the world. And ensuring that all such sources are well known and used is imperative.