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Preparing for the Post-Afghanistan Resurgence of Terrorism

By Erik Kleinsmith
Associate Vice President, Intelligence StudiesNational Security & Homeland Security

With the fall of Afghanistan to the Taliban after nearly a generation of occupation by U.S. and Allied forces, homeland security and intelligence professionals are now coming to grips with a new phase in the war on terror. Ironically, this phase will be marked with 25-year-old footprints.

In just the past few weeks, radical Islamic terror groups have been given an unprecedented opportunity to regroup, rearm, and restart their longstanding jihad to achieve their goals of establishing an Islamic Caliphate and defeating the West in the process.

Intelligence and security analysts of all stripes – many of whom have spent their entire careers viewing terrorists as a defeated and desegregated collection of local insurrectionists – must now refocus their efforts to relook at these groups with both a new and old mindset. 

Given the Taliban’s recent capture of Afghanistan, we must now understand what their win means for a reinvigorated Islamic jihad going forward.   To accurately predict both the short- and long-term effects of securing their old base of operations, proven techniques of threat profiling and other structured analysis need to be relearned and implemented at all levels of government and in the private sector.

Arms & Equipment = Cash = Capability

The fall of Afghanistan has benefitted Islamic terror groups in two significant ways. First, through their friends in the Taliban, they now have both a safe haven and access to the largest abandoned set of military equipment in history. To help put things in perspective, U.S. forces left behind an estimated $70 to $90 billion dollars in vehicles, aircraft, arms, and ammunition. As the historian Victor Davis Hanson puts it, this is close to the amount of military support provided to Israel over a 70-year period. 

This treasure trove of equipment provides terrorists with weapons for immediate use and a massive infusion of cash in the longer term as they will undoubtedly flood the international black market with what they can’t use. Equipment that doesn’t work, or which they do not have the skills to use, can be repaired with outside assistance or sold to the highest bidder. While the Babylon Bee joked that the Taliban is opening a new chain of Army surplus stores – unfortunately, their satire is more truth than fiction.

The influx of cash and armaments will most likely be used to increase capabilities for terrorist groups across the board from improved communications to recruitment and training of operatives. It will also help to foster networked relationships between groups as financial ties bind those toward their common cause of attacking both their near enemy (Israel) and their distant enemies (U.S. and the West). 

If they haven’t already, intelligence and security analysts should be following this money as it will undoubtedly filter from the Taliban to their various associated Islamic fundamentalist terror groups.  Like that odd uncle who just won the lottery, distant relatives will pop up everywhere to get a piece of the spoils. 

Using threat profiling, analysts will need to concentrate on how this windfall of financial and attack capability translates into how ISIS-K and associated terror groups change the other aspects of their profile.

Terrorism Won’t Rest after One Victory

Besides the tangible benefits of taking over Afghanistan, the moral victory of such a monumental act will have far and possibly generational impacts on the lifeblood of terrorist groups worldwide. Just as the retreat of the Soviets in 1989 fed the status and growth of a relatively small group of insurgents led by the former construction magnate, Osama bin Laden, the loss of Afghanistan has reinforced the perception that another of the largest and most technologically sophisticated military forces in the world can be defeated just like the Soviets were. 

Unfortunately, the goals and objectives of Islamic terror groups like ISIS-K and al Qaeda, and others do not allow them to sit back on their laurels. There is no such thing as a peace dividend for jihad as terror groups still have much to do to rid the Apostates from Dar al-Islam, or the world of Islam. Recent successes will also undoubtedly motivate them to take their fight to Dar-al-Harb, or the rest of the world where Sharia Law is rejected.

Islamic terror groups have suffered greatly since 9/11 in several ways. Besides losing key leaders and foot soldiers globally in places such as Iraq, Afghanistan, and the Horn of Africa – their ability to replace these losses has also been greatly diminished. 

Terror groups have a hard time recruiting operatives or inspiring independent jihadists when they are being pounded from the air or forced into hiding by active counterterrorism ground forces. Failure is indeed a deterrent as the many Leftist/Marxist radicals of the 1970s can attest to their failed efforts to inspire followers from the next generation. This is one of the primary reasons for their eventual demise.

Islamic fundamentalists have been fighting a defensive war for decades and their need to take the fight to the evil West is imperative for their continued survival. Having a massive victory, as Afghanistan will be spun, is a catalyst for recruitment and the perception of Jihad being responsible for the retreat of another superpower coalition of apostates will reignite a passion for jihad throughout the world. It also provides a moral standing and example of inspiration for others who wish to join over the past two decades but felt it too risky. This inspiration will be for direct recruits as well as independent and solo jihadists around the world. 

A Return to Proven Analytic Techniques

From a threat profiling perspective, this new phase means that many of the components of threat profiling will change significantly. Changes will occur in the goals and objectives of many groups as well as in the motivations of new recruits and veterans who are flush with recent victories and are hungry for more. It will also mean changes to the leadership and organization of the worldwide fundamentalist terror movement, as well as the social demographics because jihad has been enabled to make the jump to a new generation of warriors. 

Proven analytic techniques such as threat profiling need to be relearned and employed against the coming new wave of terrorist threats. Analysts should concentrate on identifying new leaders, operatives, cells, and entirely new organizations that will either form independently or splinter off from established groups deemed as too old or moderate. In addition, analysts should immediately start to look for links within the U.S. Without proper vetting of refugees, we may just be inviting their recon teams to start picking out their targets here.

How Much Time do We Have?

The world prior to 9/11 already gave us a roadmap of the attacks that took place against the West, and U.S. security forces have an even longer list of attacks that were thwarted or countered prior to weaponization or execution. Relatively simple or solitary attacks such as the 1993 World Trade Center Bombing took only five months to plan, while complex operations such as 9/11 took approximately two years.

While it is most likely that dedicated counterterrorism analysts are already following these events in earnest, those security analysts who have not will need to start now and place potential terror attacks on their people, assets, and interest back at the top of their lists. 

Erik Kleinsmith is the AVP in Intelligence, National Security, and Homeland Security for AMU. He is a former Army Intelligence Officer and portfolio manager for Intelligence & Security Training at Lockheed Martin. He is a subject of the book “The Watchers” about Able Danger. He published a book, “Intelligence Operations: Understanding Data, Tools, People, and Processes.” Erik is also a member of The Case Breakers, a private investigative group dedicated to breaking such cold cases as the Zodiac Killer, D.B. Cooper, and the fate of Jimmy Hoffa.

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