For months the gaze of U.S. counterterrorism officials has been shifting, moving from scrutiny of foreign terrorist organizations to individuals in the United States seeking out ideologies to justify their use of violence.
The most likely attackers, according to the government’s most recent terrorism advisory, are lone actors or small groups motivated by a wide array of beliefs and personal grievances who pose a “persistent and lethal threat to the homeland.”
But while attacks like the May 2022 mass shooting that killed 10 Black shoppers in Buffalo, New York, continue to grab headlines and the attention of officials, the top U.S. counterterrorism official cautions that jihadi groups, such as al-Qaida and Islamic State, cannot be forgotten.
“We have still got to be really vigilant about the threat posed by those organizations that are based overseas that want to conduct attacks against Americans here in the homeland,” National Counterterrorism Center Director Christine Abizaid said Tuesday at an event hosted by the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.
“The al-Qaida- and ISIS-inspired threat is still there,” she said, using an acronym for the Islamic State group, which is also known as IS or Daesh.
Years of counterterrorism pressure by the U.S. and its partners have taken a toll on the two groups, whittling away each group’s core leaders.
IS has been especially hard hit, losing two emirs over the past 12 months — Abu Ibrahim al-Hashimi al-Qurashi during a raid by U.S. special forces in northwest Syria last February and Abu al-Hassan al-Hashimi al-Qurashi during an independent operation by the Free Syrian Army this past October.
In the months between those two deaths, the U.S. and its partner forces in Syria and Iraq, as well as allies like Turkey, killed or captured another 10 senior IS leaders.
But the victories against IS appear to have done little to dampen overall enthusiasm for the group and its affiliates.
“ISIS is actually a very dynamic group that continues to be led from this core in Iraq and Syria, continues to have interest in not just their sort of territorial integrity but in the notoriety and the brand expansion and attacks against the West,” Abizaid said.
“We see ISIS’s expansion across the African continent. We see concerning indications of ISIS-Khorasan in Afghanistan and its ambition that might go beyond that immediate territory,” she added, calling the IS Afghan affiliate the “threat actor I am most concerned about,” while declining to estimate how soon it could threaten interests outside Afghanistan.
Al-Qaida, too, has been dealt some severe blows, perhaps none so important as the death of longtime leader Ayman al-Zawahiri in a U.S. drone strike in Kabul in August.
“Zawahiri was the center of gravity for that network,” Abizaid said. “He was both symbolically important but also strategically important for what was a diverse network of affiliates.”
And according to the most recent U.S. intelligence estimates, more than six months after his death, al-Zawahiri has still not been replaced.
“The question for al-Qaida, that it hasn’t answered for itself, is who follows,” Abizaid said. “The best candidates are Saif al-Adel and Abdul Rahman al-Maghrebi, that are sitting in Iran … What does that mean for their credibility? What does that mean for their ability to lead?”
U.S. intelligence also suggests other parts of the Afghanistan-based al-Qaida organization have been further marginalized, perhaps by design at the direction of the Taliban or the Haqqani network, with Abizaid saying the affiliate known as al-Qaida in the Indian Subcontinent, once thought to have a few hundred fighters in the country, is now “defunct.”
She warned, however, it would be dangerous to write off al-Qaida just yet.
“The al-Qaida problem there is a problem,” Abizaid said of Afghanistan.
There are also concerns about al-Qaida’s remnants in Syria, most notably the faction known as Hurras al-Din, a group with 1,000 to 3,000 fighters whose leaders have been targeted by U.S. airstrikes in the past.
“Their stature, some of the interconnectivity with other aspects of the al-Qaida network, I think, are important and really resonant in the Hurras al-Din presence,” according to Abizaid.
And she warned that the overall environment in Syria makes it a cauldron of potential terrorist activity poised to benefit al-Qaida, IS or eventually some other group.
“You have significant population of radicalized individuals in IDP [internally displaced person] camps, in prisons scattered throughout Syria, that represents the potential of a future threat if not appropriately engaged and handled,” Abizaid said.
In addition to IS and al-Qaida, Abizaid said Iran and its proxies, active across the Middle East and even in Afghanistan, have become ever more open in their willingness to conduct terrorist attacks.
“I would describe Iran’s interest in conducting terrorist attacks overseas as one of the most striking developments,” the NCTC director said. “What I see is a pretty brazen Iranian threat network that is willing to explore avenues for attack internationally and in the region.”
While some Iranian proxies, like Lebanese Hezbollah, have been increasingly vocal, Abizaid warned, “it’s not just a proxy battle.”
“Iran is leveraging its own capability to threaten various actors,” she said.
“That we have actual evidence of them trying to pursue that interest inside the United States is a real concern,” she said, noting the Iranian plot to kill former U.S. national security adviser Ambassador John Bolton.
“The threats against Iranian activists and journalists here in the United States are also persistent and concerning,” Abizaid said.