Commentary on Political Economy

Wednesday 1 May 2024


The FBI director’s concerns over terrorism are at ‘a whole other level’

A woman places flowers on a monument for Russian poet Aleksander Pushkin in Belgrade, Serbia, in March. (Darko Vojinovic/AP)
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The terrorism warning light may not be flashing bright red, but it’s certainly blinking again, with senior officials concerned about a possible attack inspired by an offshoot of the Islamic State or perhaps by the war in Gaza or simply because our porous southern border could offer a pathway to mayhem.

A chilling assessment came from FBI Director Christopher A. Wray in an interview with NBC News last week. “As I look back over my career in law enforcement, I’m hard-pressed to come up with a time when I’ve seen so many different threats, all elevated, all at the same time.” He said concerns were rising before Hamas’s Oct. 7 terrorist attack on Israel, but since then “it’s gone to a whole other level.”

Wray told Congress this month that he worried that lone-wolf extremists or small groups could draw “twisted inspiration” from events in the Middle East. He added that “the potential for a coordinated attack” like the ISIS-K terror rampage at a Moscow auditorium in March was “increasingly concerning.” What keeps him awake, he observed in a speech this month at Vanderbilt University, are what then-Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld called “unknown unknowns.”

Wray’s comments haven’t gotten much public attention, perhaps because there are so many other worries this election year. For what it’s worth, my sense is that domestic political threats to our republic these days outweigh the danger of foreign terrorism. But forewarned is forearmed, so I’ve been asking officials across the government to share their assessment of current terrorism risks.

The ISIS-K concern is intense enough that the National Security Council held a “principals committee” meeting last week to discuss the subject. A senior Biden administration official summarized the situation this way in an email: “There is no current evidence of a credible plot. We are extremely vigilant about the potential risk given the evolving threat landscape.”

Officials at several agencies say there’s new focus on ISIS-K, the Islamic State offshoot in Khorasan, as it calls a region around northern Afghanistan. The officials say that when the Taliban rulers in Kabul drove rival ISIS-K leaders last year to neighboring Central Asian states such as Tajikistan and Uzbekistan, it “changed the dynamics of how they operate,” as one counterterrorism official put it. Now, ISIS-K leaders “are playing the long game, and fairly successfully,” another U.S. official said.

ISIS-K has recruited Tajik migrants working in Russia and Iran for major terrorist attacks in both countries. A January bombing in Kerman killed 95 Iranians, and the March attack at Moscow’s Crocus City Hall killed more than 140 Russians. The United States, with its extraordinary surveillance capabilities, was able to warn both Iran and Russia that such attacks were planned — but to no avail. “We are victim agnostic,” one U.S. official said, explaining the “duty to warn” about terrorist plots.

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The intelligence community fears that ISIS-K could use this Central Asian diaspora to mount similar attacks in Europe or the United States. The group “is reshaping its propaganda to reach this target” of emigres, noted the counterterrorism official. Officials see the raw ingredients for an attack, rather than specific plans.

Gen. Michael Erik Kurilla, the head of U.S. Central Command, warned a House committee March 7 that “lack of sustained pressure allowed ISIS-K to regenerate and harden their networks, creating multiple redundant nodes that direct, enable and inspire attacks.”

The pool of potential ISIS-K recruits or lone-wolf actors in the United States is impossible to calculate. But a senior official at the Department of Homeland Security told me that over the past 12 months, as many as 50 Central Asian migrants a day have entered the United States, and that the total flow this past year is more than 10,000. The DHS official said the vast majority were “legitimate asylum seekers” and that many passed through ports of entry, but some crossed the border illegally.

“We have a thorough screening and vetting process at the border that checks names and other information against classified databases to see if anyone is connected to a network that may pose concern,” the senior DHS official explained. DHS has organized several “repatriation flights” to Uzbekistan recently as the number of undocumented Central Asian migrants has increased, the official said.

The Gaza war adds a final combustible element. Wray’s concern about “unknown unknowns” is a good description of the perilous terrain ahead.

Gen. John Abizaid, then commander of U.S. forces in the Middle East, warned more than 20 years ago that the United States faced a “long war” against Islamist extremism that might last decades. That sense of conflict has ebbed and flowed since then; it lured an anxious America into two unwise wars and led successive presidents to try, in vain, to reduce our exposure in the Middle East. But the long war is still with us.


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