Haines Warns Countries Besides Afghanistan Pose Greater Terror Threat

“What we look at is Yemen, Somalia, Syria and Iraq for ISIS. And that’s where we see the greatest threat,” said Avril D. Haines.

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Intelligence chief warns that countries besides Afghanistan pose a greater terror threat.

Avril D. Haines, the director of national intelligence, said a big focus of the agencies she oversees is monitoring “any possible reconstitution of terrorist organizations.”Credit…Melina Mara/The Washington Post for The New York Times

Sept. 13, 2021Updated 4:13 p.m. ET

Afghanistan is not the most pressing terrorism threat for the United States, even after the takeover by the Taliban, the Biden administration’s top intelligence official said Monday.

The withdrawal of American troops from Afghanistan and the collapse of the U.S.-backed government has created challenges for collecting intelligence in the country, said Avril D. Haines, the director of national intelligence. But she added said that Afghanistan is not the top global terrorism threat facing the United States.

“In terms of the homeland, the threat right now from terrorist groups, we don’t prioritize at the top of the list Afghanistan,” she said. “What we look at is Yemen, Somalia, Syria and Iraq for ISIS. And that’s where we see the greatest threat.”

Yemen is the base for a Qaeda offshoot that has attempted attacks on the United States. Somalia has Al Shabab, a terrorist group which regularly attacks neighboring Kenya. While diminished, the Islamic State still operates in Syria and has mounted attacks in Iraq.

Long before the Afghanistan withdrawal, Biden administration officials said that parts of the Middle East and Africa were more urgent terrorist threats than Afghanistan, though they made the argument before a swift collapse of the Afghan government. Since the Taliban takeover last month, military officials have said Al Qaeda may be able to rebuild its presence in Afghanistan more swiftly than previously estimated.

Intelligence officials have said the most immediate threat in Afghanistan is from the Islamic State’s affiliate in the country, which conducted the suicide bombing that killed scores of Afghans and 13 American service members on Aug. 26.

While Ms. Haines did not offer any assessment of the groups operating inside Afghanistan, she said a big focus of the agencies she oversees is monitoring “any possible reconstitution of terrorist organizations.”

Speaking by videoconference to the annual Intelligence and National Security Summit, Ms. Haines acknowledged that without American troops on the ground the intelligence collection in Afghanistan would be diminished.

“That is something that we have to prepare for and that we have been preparing for, frankly, quite some time,” she said.

The intelligence agencies have been largely silent about how they intend to collect information, though current and former officials have said they will work with Afghans supporters of the United States that remain in the country and will continue to intercept communications.

Overall, the threat of a foreign-sponsored terrorist attack in the United States has diminished in recent years, she said. But even if they cannot easily conduct attacks from overseas, terrorist groups continue to be able to ideologically inspire homegrown violent extremism, she said.

“That’s something that we also monitor and counter so that we can really try to reduce the hatred and vitriol, frankly, that terrorism is based on and the tragic consequences that it has for our society,” she said.

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