Al-Qaeda could reconstitute itself in Afghanistan and regain the ability to threaten the United States within “one to two” years, intelligence chiefs said Tuesday, downgrading previously released Pentagon estimates.
“The current assessment, probably conservative, is one to two years for Al Qaeda to acquire some capacity to at least threaten the homeland,” said Lieutenant General Scott Berrier, Director of Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA), at an annual summit hosted by the Intelligence and National Security Alliance, with panels hosted by CBS News.
“Having said that, the DIA is not going to take its eyes off the terrorist bullet,” Berrier said.
CIA Deputy Director David Cohen said at the same event that the agency was monitoring “very closely” the activities of the terrorist network in Afghanistan, adding that there is evidence that its militants are returning to the country.
“[W]We’re already starting to see some indications of a potential Al Qaeda move into Afghanistan, “Cohen said,” but that’s only the early days, and we’ll obviously be keeping an eye on that very closely. .
The Taliban, who have taken control of Afghanistan in a surprising waylast month, are known to have maintained close ties with al-Qaeda and are suspected by analysts of harboring senior officials.
The two U.S. officials said on Tuesday that intelligence agencies were working on ways to continue intelligence gathering without troops or embassies present in the country, acknowledging that current capabilities had been significantly reduced by the U.S. withdrawal. Lawmakers, counterterrorism experts and former intelligence officials have expressed concern about the reliability of so-called over-the-horizon capabilities without informant networks to guide them.
“We are thinking about ways to get back to Afghanistan with all kinds of sources,” Berrier said. “We are prioritizing this effort.”
Cohen said the agency would seek to maintain an intelligence network in Afghanistan, but operating remotely and in the absence of a physical presence was not a “new” challenge for the intelligence community.
“Since we are primarily working from the horizon… we will also be looking for ways to work from the horizon, where possible,” Cohen said. “But we will approach this the same way we have approached the counterterrorism mission in many places around the world for several years, and I believe that as a community we continue to improve more and more in this area.”
Speaking at the summit on Monday, National Intelligence Director Avril Haines said Afghanistan was not currently at the top of the list of international terrorist threats, saying the “greatest threat” came from militant groups operating in Yemen , Somalia, Iraq and Syria.