Will Islamic State Khorasan Attack the U.S. Homeland in Six Months?
By TorchStone VP, Scott Stewart
Colin Kahl, the American undersecretary of defense for policy, testified before the Senate Armed Services Committee on Oct. 26 that according to U.S. government intelligence assessments, the Islamic State Khorasan Province (ISK) could “potentially develop” the capability to launch external attacks within six months to a year.
He also noted that al Qaeda could potentially develop that capacity within one to two years.
Kahl’s testimony produced headlines such as “ISIS in Afghanistan Could Attack the U.S. Within 6 Months: U.S. Intelligence” and “Senior Pentagon official says ISIS-K could be capable of attacking US next year.”
While it is possible that there could be an ISK-inspired attack against the American homeland, it is doubtful that the ISK itself will conduct such attacks any time soon.
It is important to note that while ISK has shown itself to be a capable insurgent force in Afghanistan, and quite capable of conducting terrorist attacks inside that country, they have as of yet exhibited no intent to attempt to project those capabilities beyond the borders of Afghanistan.
In fact, ISK remains locked in an intense struggle for survival with the Taliban that began when hardline jihadists broke away from the Taliban to form ISK. The fighting between the two jihadist entities has been extremely brutal—including beheadings.
Because of the Taliban’s intense campaign against ISK, a vast majority of the group’s resources and energy are being dedicated to surviving the Taliban’s onslaught.
ISK is also very active in conducting attacks designed to divert Taliban security forces from the anti-ISK campaign, such as the Nov. 2 ISK suicide attack against a military hospital in Kabul.
Ironically, these attacks in Kabul and other major cities, are mirroring the tactics the Taliban used to force the former Afghan government to draw security forces back to protect vulnerable urban centers in an effort to ease pressure against their forces in the countryside.
But given their fight for survival and focus on the acute physical and ideological threat the Taliban poses to them, ISK leaders simply don’t have the luxury to plan attacks against the U.S. homeland, no matter how much they detest America.
ISK has also launched a campaign of terrorist attacks in Afghanistan against non-Taliban targets. Many of these strikes have been directed against ethnic minorities such as Hazaras (who are mostly Shia Muslims) in a bid to stoke ethnic and sectarian tensions.
Conducting attacks to create sectarian and ethnic friction that will undercut the government is a page directly out of the playbook the Islamic State core followed in the campaign that allowed them to conquer large portions of Iraq and Syria in 2014.
The Islamic State core also conducted attacks against foreign forces that were supporting the Iraqi government as well as international aid organizations.
If ISK is indeed following the Islamic State core’s playbook, it is thus likely that they will also begin to attack the interests of foreign countries supporting the Taliban, such as Pakistan, Iran, China, and Russia.
Since ISK’s foundation, U.S. forces have conducted a large number of military operations against the jihadist group, sometimes even intervening on the Taliban’s behalf.
However, the United States has lost much of that capability following their withdrawal from Afghanistan, and now presents a much less immediate threat to ISK than the Taliban.
This means that the U.S. will not be as much of a priority for ISK to target as the Taliban, ethnic and sectarian targets, or even the interests of those countries that more directly support the Taliban government.
Given this reality, if ISK decides to pursue a strategy of external terrorist strikes, it would be more likely to first go after these more significant foreign targets.
Furthermore, given the geography involved, and the logistics of conducting external terrorist attacks, if ISK is intent on beginning to project its terrorist capability, it seems logical that it would likely do so via attacks in the region, before stretching out to conduct attacks further across the globe.
Focus on the Tradecraft
Certainly, ISK has shown itself quite capable of conducting terrorist operations in the permissive environment of Afghanistan where there is a vacuum of authority and a ready supply of fighters, weapons, and explosives.
Conducting terrorist attacks in a hostile environment half a world away is a far more difficult task—especially from a location as remote as the parts of Afghanistan where ISK operates.
This requires operatives who possess not only the ability to freely travel to the targeted country but also a great deal of terrorist tradecraft.
In many ways, the skills that make up transnational terrorist tradecraft are far more akin to those of an intelligence officer than those of a guerrilla fighter.
These skills include the ability to forge or otherwise obtain travel documents, travel internationally without being detected, move around in the targeted country without arousing suspicion and attention, covert communications, surveillance, and the ability to finance the attack in a clandestine manner.
Operatives that al Qaeda dispatched to the U.S. to plan and lead terrorist attacks have generally been well educated and educated in the West. Such operatives included 1993 World Trade Center bomb-maker Abdul Basit Mahmoud Abdul Karim (aka Ramzi Yousef), who attended university in the UK, and 9/11 attack leader Mohamed Atta who attended university in Germany.
Weapons acquisition is another challenge that must be surmounted.
It is easier to build bombs in an environment such as Afghanistan where factory-made items like bulk explosives, blasting caps, and detonating cord are readily available. It is far more difficult to make a bomb in a place where all those items must be fabricated in an improvised manner.
In the past, even operatives who were trained in bomb-making abroad, such as Faisal Shahzad and Najibullah Zazi, struggled to manufacture viable improvised explosive devices once they arrived in the United States.
Even having a number of operatives with a great deal of terrorist tradecraft experience, al Qaeda has struggled to conduct successful attacks inside the U.S. homeland since Sept. 11, 2001. The al Qaeda core and its franchise group in the Arabian Peninsula have made several unsuccessful attempts, including the botched Dec. 2001 shoe bomb attack and the failed Dec. 2011 underwear bomb attack.
It is also noteworthy that al Qaeda’s attacks against the U.S. homeland did not arise suddenly. Al Qaeda gradually worked on improving their ability to project their terrorist capability and conducted attacks in places like Yemen and Somalia before attempting an attack in New York.
Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula launched attacks in Saudi Arabia before they attempted their “go long” attacks against the U.S. using disguised bombs placed aboard aircraft.
In addition to the al Qaeda core’s close relationship with the Taliban, they have also long received shelter and safe passage from the government of Iran, along with aid and shelter from elements of the government of Pakistan. This affords the al Qaeda core significant logistical advantages over ISK in terms of projecting their terrorist capability transnationally.
Given al Qaeda’s history and experience, they would be capable of launching an attack in the U.S. before ISK could develop either the intent or capability to do so—a contradiction to Kahl’s testimony.
However, al Qaeda core most likely does not want to kick the hornet’s nest by launching an attack in the U.S. homeland at this time—especially one that could potentially be traced back to one of the countries that has supported the organization.
The IS core also had tremendous support.
With access to an incredible amount of material resources, expertise, and European fighters, the IS core was able to dispatch a cell of operatives to Europe to conduct terrorist attacks in 2015.
That cell was able to conduct significant attacks in Paris in Nov. 2015 and Brussels in March 2016. They were also able to send operatives to conduct attacks in Istanbul in June 2016 and Jan. 2017.
However, the IS core has not been able to repeat that success in recent years.
At the present time, ISK simply does not have the resources and manpower the IS core once possessed. It is also far easier to travel to Europe from Syria and Iraq than it is to travel from North America from Afghanistan—especially so amid the heavy flow of refugees that was streaming out of Syria and into Europe in 2015.
Likewise, ISK would likely demonstrate its improved tradecraft and increased capability by conducting attacks across international borders in adjacent countries before it developed the capability to launch an attack in North America
Is There a Threat to the U.S. Homeland?
The primary jihadist threat to the U.S. homeland in the near term stems from grassroots jihadists who are radicalized, inspired, and in some cases even mobilized, by foreign terrorist organizations.
Such operatives have been responsible for the successful jihadist attacks in the U.S. since 9/11: the 2013 Boston Marathon bombing, the 2015 San Bernardino attack, and the 2016 Pulse nightclub shooting in Orlando.
Grassroots jihadists, or “lone wolves,” have several similarities.
They tend to operate alone, or in small groups to help escape detection. This means that they tend to possess very little in the way of sophisticated terrorist tradecraft. This lack of tradecraft results in struggles to plan and execute attacks, and the attacks they do conduct tend to be simple attacks involving readily available weapons.
This lack of tradecraft also leaves operatives quite vulnerable as they progress through their attack cycle, especially as they struggle with tasks such as surveillance and weapons acquisition, and has also led to many grassroots jihadists being caught in sting operations.
Grassroots jihadists tend to focus their attacks on more vulnerable “soft” targets as the lack of terrorist tradecraft also makes it difficult to attack hard targets.
This means that security measures can be implemented to harden facilities to deter would-be attackers. There have been several examples of grassroots attackers who have been deterred from attacking a target due to the presence of CCTV coverage and good access control.
A broad assessment of the jihadist movement is that the threat of jihadist terrorism remains.
It is possible that at some point groups such as ISK develop the interest, intent, and capability to conduct attacks against the U.S. homeland, there will be signs of them expanding and improving their capabilities regionally before they are able to do so.