Afghanistan has become a terrorism staging ground again, leak reveals

Less than two years after President Biden withdrew U.S. personnel from Afghanistan, the country has become a significant coordination site for the Islamic State as the terrorist group plans attacks across Europe and Asia, and conducts “aspirational plotting” against the United States, according to a classified Pentagon assessment that portrays the threat as a growing security concern.

The attack planning, detailed in U.S. intelligence findings leaked on the Discord messaging platform and obtained by The Washington Post, reveal specific efforts to target embassies, churches, business centers and the FIFA World Cup soccer tournament, which drew more than 2 million spectators last summer in Qatar. Pentagon officials were aware in December of nine such plots coordinated by ISIS leaders in Afghanistan, and the number rose to 15 by February, says the assessment, which has not been disclosed previously.

“ISIS has been developing a cost-effective model for external operations that relies on resources from outside Afghanistan, operatives in target countries, and extensive facilitation networks,” says the assessment, which is labeled top-secret and bears the logos of several Defense Department organizations. “The model will likely enable ISIS to overcome obstacles — such as competent security services — and reduce some plot timelines, minimizing disruption opportunities.”

The Afghanistan findings are one facet of a complex and evolving terrorist threat described in the leaked documents, now linked to a criminal case in which a member of the Massachusetts Air National Guard is accused of sharing classified information with friends online. Other reports in the same documents trove reveal persistent efforts by the Islamic State in other parts of the world to obtain expertise for creating chemical weapons and operating drone aircraft, and a plot in which the group’s supporters would kidnap Iraqi diplomats in Belgium or France in a bid to secure the release of 4,000 imprisoned militants.

The documents will almost certainly be used as a political cudgel by congressional Republicans and others still seething about the Biden administration’s chaotic management of the U.S. exit from Afghanistan in August 2021.

Hastily orchestrated, the evacuation enabled more than 120,000 people to flee the Taliban’s return to power. Tens of thousands of American allies were left behind, however, and the two-week operation saw horrific suffering. As the mission neared its end, an Islamic State suicide bomber killed an estimated 170 Afghans along with 13 American troops before U.S. drone operators, believing they had identified another would-be ISIS attacker, killed 10 civilians in a botched airstrike days later.

Biden administration officials declined to verify the leaked documents’ authenticity, but defended their counterterrorism record since taking office.

Adrienne Watson, a spokeswoman for the National Security Council, said in a statement that the United States “maintains the ability to remove terrorists from the battlefield without permanent troop presence on the ground,” and has reorganized U.S. counterterrorism operations to address future threats “anywhere.” She cited as evidence, among other actions the administration has taken this year, a U.S. Special Operations raid in Somalia that killed Bilal al-Sudani, an Islamic State leader whom U.S. officials have said had influence with the group’s component in Afghanistan. Unlike Afghanistan, the Pentagon keeps a small military force in Somalia.

A senior U.S. defense official said in an interview that, historically, the number of Islamic State plots in play have ebbed and flowed, with many never occurring. In Afghanistan, the Taliban has served as a check on the ISIS affiliate there, known as Islamic State-Khorasan or ISIS-K, the official said. The two groups have warred openly, with ISIS-K launching attacks on ethnic minorities and government institutions, and Taliban security forces conducting raids on Islamic State hideouts.

“I would never want to say that we had mortgaged our counterterrorism to a group like the Taliban, but it’s a fact that, operationally, they put pressure on ISIS-K,” the official said. “In a strange world, we have mutually beneficial objectives there.”

ISIS-K’s standing within the broader organization has risen, the official said, attributing that in part to the ongoing campaign to extinguish Islamic State cells in other locations. The United States also has better methods now, and better technology, for tracking ISIS operatives, the official said.

“We see a lot of discussion and not a lot of action at this point,” the senior official said.

Other current and former U.S. officials, while declining to comment on the specifics of the classified documents, said the reports appear to bear out previous warnings about the potential for a terrorist resurgence in Afghanistan after the U.S. withdrawal.

The leaked assessment appears to complement congressional testimony from Gen. Michael “Erik” Kurilla, who told the House Armed Services Committee in March that the Islamic State had a stronger presence in Afghanistan than it did a year ago and could be capable of attacks outside the country within six months “with little to no warning.” Kurilla, who oversees U.S. military operations in the region, added then that the United States can see only “broad contours” of the Islamic State’s planning there but not “the full picture.”

A spokesman for Kurilla declined to comment.

The Islamic State rose to power beginning in 2013, sweeping across hundreds of square miles in Syria and Iraq in a bloody campaign that included grisly executions recorded on video and women forced into sexual slavery. The group was driven into hiding after a U.S.-led coalition destroyed the remnants of its self-declared caliphate in 2019. Since then, the organization has carried out hundreds of terrorist attacks in those countries, most of them small-scale and lacking in coordination. It has lost multiple leaders in coalition military raids and airstrikes, and largely failed in its efforts to regain momentum or carry out significant operations elsewhere.

It’s unclear the extent to which the Afghan chapter coordinates its operations with the group’s central leadership, believed to be based in Syria, but the leaked documents highlight that components in those countries are looking to attack Western targets. The most worrisome reports detail efforts by the group to recruit technical experts online for terrorist attacks abroad.

One document written in March described an attempt last summer to acquire the services of a British sympathizer who claimed to possess “aerospace and chemical engineering skills.” The unidentified individual offered to provide guidance on missiles and unmanned aircraft, as well as the construction of a chemical weapon. The Briton was encouraged to send his information remotely rather than risk a dangerous trip to Syria or Iraq.

Separately, Iraq-based Islamic State operatives were observed vetting engineering students at a Damascus university to determine if their skills would be helpful. In another instance, the terrorist group sought information from a “Ukraine-based individual” about building a drone strong enough to carry a substantial a payload, the March document shows.

The Islamic State has explored the possibility of using chemical weapons and drones in terrorist attacks since at least 2015. A U.N. investigating panel has documented an extensive effort during the caliphate era to manufacture mustard gas and other chemical agents, some of which were used in battle and tested on prisoners.

Despite the ongoing efforts to acquire a weapon of mass destruction, the March 2023 document notes, encouragingly, that the terrorist group’s ambitions were severely undermined by the collapse of the caliphate.

Since 2019, the group has struggled to find safe locations and personnel for constructing weapons, and it has been forced to rely on far-flung sympathizers for support and advice, according to the leaked document. It assesses that the Islamic State would be restricted in the near future to “small-scale manufacturing” of conventional explosives or possibly chemical or biological weapons, and that such efforts would continue to be thwarted by an inability to acquire necessary precursors and expertise.

The documents also detail the Islamic State responding to several recent world events, including consideration for sending a suicide bomber to Qatar to attack the World Cup tournament last year.

Militants also weighed multiple retaliatory plots in response to Quran burnings by far-right activists in Sweden and the Netherlands. Those plots included calls for attacks on Swedish or Dutch diplomatic facilities in Azerbaijan, Tajikistan, Russia, Turkey and other countries, the leaked documents said, though it does not appear any such strike was carried out.

As a collection, the documents indicate that U.S. intelligence agencies have succeeded repeatedly in intercepting the communications among Islamic State cells. Such intercepts appear to have led to the disruption of plans for kidnappings and small-arms attacks on government buildings in Europe.)

In recent weeks, U.S. forces have carried out two strikes in northern Syria targeting what the Pentagon described as senior Islamic State leaders. An April 4 strike killed a man said to be “responsible for planning ISIS attacks in Europe,” according to a statement. A helicopter raid by U.S. Special Operations forces on April 17 killed a second Islamic State official described as an “operational planner responsible for planning terrorist attacks in the Middle East and Europe,” a spokesman said.

The documents also suggest that the al-Qaeda organization once headed by Osama bin Laden continues to decline. While the reports highlight the emerging threat from ISIS in Afghanistan, there is no mention of an al-Qaeda resurgence there, something many counterterrorism experts had feared would happen following the U.S. withdrawal.

The group’s reclusive leader, Ayman al-Zawahiri, sought refuge in Kabul but was identified and targeted in a CIA-led operation that culminated in July 2022 in a lethal strike on an apartment where Zawahiri was staying in the Afghan capital in proximity to the former U.S. Embassy.

Since then, evidence suggests that bin Laden’s group “is not reconstituting,” said Bruce Riedel, a former CIA counterterrorism official who advised successive U.S. administrations on strategy for battling the group.

“The withdrawal from Afghanistan is a disaster, especially for Afghan women,” Riedel said. “But the administration is right about al-Qaeda: It is all but destroyed.”

Dan Lamothe joined The Washington Post in 2014 to cover the U.S. military. He has written about the Armed Forces for 15 years, traveling extensively, embedding with each service and covering combat in Afghanistan. His reporting about the 2021 attack on the Capitol was part of a project that earned the 2022 Pulitzer Prize for Public Service. 
Joby Warrick joined The Washington Post’s National staff in 1996. He has served with the Post’s investigative and national security teams, and writes about the Middle East, terrorism and weapons proliferation. He is the author of three books, including “Black Flags: The Rise of ISIS,” which was awarded a 2016 Pulitzer Prize for nonfiction. 
Afghanistan has become a terrorism staging ground again, leak reveals