After Taliban takeover, concerns mount over U.S. counterterrorism ability

By Idrees Ali, Humeyra Pamuk and Jonathan Landay

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – With no U.S. troops or reliable partners left, jails emptied of militants and the Taliban in control, doubts are mounting within President Joe Biden’s administration over Washington’s ability to stem a resurgence of al Qaeda and other extremists in Afghanistan, six current and former U.S. officials told Reuters.

Afghan security forces whom the United States helped train crumbled as Taliban militants made their way through Afghanistan in less than two weeks, leaving the United States with few partners on the ground.

“We’re not in a good place,” said a U.S. defense official, who requested anonymity to discuss the issue.

Weeks before the 20th anniversary of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks on the United States by al Qaeda, the lack of visibility regarding potential extremist threats is a chilling prospect for officials.

U.S.-led forces toppled the Taliban in 2001 for sheltering al Qaeda militants, leading to America’s longest war.

The U.S. troop departure ordered for Aug. 31 by Biden and the subsequent collapse of Afghan security forces have stripped the CIA and other spy agencies of protection, forcing them to close bases and withdraw personnel as well.

The Biden administration cannot rely on neighboring countries because it has so far been unable to strike accords on bases for U.S. counterterrorism forces and drones, officials said.

That has left Washington dependent on staging counterterrorism operations from U.S. bases in the Gulf and counting on the Taliban to adhere to the 2020 U.S. pullout deal to stop militant attacks on the United States and allies.

But it is a costly endeavor. Flying military aircraft out of the Middle East, the nearest military hub Washington has in the region, may ultimately cost more than the 2,500 troops that had been in Afghanistan until earlier this year, the officials added.

Even deploying scarce U.S. resources to monitor militants in Afghanistan will effectively have to compete with the administration’s key priority in Asia of countering China.

The Group of Seven industrialized nations made it a priority that Afghanistan’s new Taliban rulers break all ties with terrorist organizations and that the Taliban must engage in the fight against terrorism, an official at the French presidency said on Tuesday after a meeting of G7 leaders.


U.S. military leaders estimated in June that groups like al Qaeda could pose a threat from Afghanistan to the U.S. homeland in two years.

But the Taliban takeover rendered that estimate obsolete, officials said.

Nathan Sales, the State Department’s coordinator for counterterrorism until January, estimated it would now take al Qaeda six months to reconstitute the ability to conduct external operations.

The Taliban freed hundreds of detainees from prisons, stirring fears that some may include leading extremists.

While the Taliban vowed to uphold their commitment to prevent al Qaeda from plotting international attacks from Afghanistan, experts questioned that pledge.

Daniel Hoffman, a former chief of CIA covert Middle East operations, expressed doubt that the Taliban would constrain al Qaeda, noting their decades-old ties and shared ideologies.

“The country is a petri dish of threats: ISIS, al Qaeda and the Taliban. They all have us in their crosshairs,” he said.

Biden has said the United States will closely monitor militant groups in Afghanistan and has the ability to track and neutralize rising threats.

But he wrongly said last week that al Qaeda was “gone” from the country, confusing U.S. officials.

His national security adviser, Jake Sullivan, said on Monday that Biden was referring to al Qaeda’s capability to attack the United States from Afghanistan.

A series of United Nations reports say that hundreds of al Qaeda fighters and senior leaders remain in Afghanistan under Taliban protection.

U.S. military planners say some intelligence can be gathered by satellites and aircraft flying from bases in Qatar and the United Arab Emirates. But they acknowledge such operations are expensive.

“Our intelligence community and our military operators are going to be at a severe disadvantage in trying to identify where these al Qaeda cells are located, what they’re planning, and it’s going to be incredibly difficult for us to take them off the battlefield,” said Sales.

In 2015, U.S. military officials were surprised to learn that al Qaeda was operating a massive training camp in the southern Kandahar province. That was with thousands of U.S. and coalition troops in Afghanistan.

“Even when we had forces on the ground and a very robust air coverage, we would often be surprised by what al Qaeda was able to do,” said Kathryn Wheelbarger, a former senior Pentagon official.

Pakistan has said it will not host U.S. troops and countries in central Asia are reluctant to accept American requests because of concerns that it may anger Russia.

“I just do not believe over-the horizon can work, particularly in Afghanistan,” Wheelbarger said, referring to counterterrorism efforts from outside Afghanistan.

(Reporting by Idrees Ali, Humeyra Pamuk and Jonathan Landay; Editing by Mary Milliken and Peter Cooney)

South Korea conducts anti-terror drills ahead of Winter Games

South Korea conducts anti-terror drills ahead of Winter Games

PYEONGCHANG, South Korea (Reuters) – Set to host the Winter Olympics in February, South Korea conducted a series of security drills on Tuesday to prepare against terror attacks ranging from a hostage situation, a vehicle ramming a stadium and a bomb-attached to a drone.

Police and firemen were among around 420 personnel participating in the exercise, held in front of the Olympic Stadium at Pyeongchang, just 80 km (50 miles) from the heavily fortified border with North Korea.

During the simulated drills, members of a SWAT team shot down a drone with a bomb attached that was flying toward a bus carrying athletes.

In another part of the mock exercise a terrorist took hostage athletes on a bus, and tried to ram the vehicle into the stadium before being gunned down by police. Officers in gas masks also removed a chemical bomb.

Anxiety on the Korean Peninsula has been rising in recent months due to a series of missile tests by North Korea as it continues its pursuit of nuclear weapons in defiance of U.N. sanctions and warnings from the United States.

“Please keep in mind that accidents always happen where no one has expected,” South Korean Prime Minister Lee Nak-yon said.

“Please check until the last minute whether there are any security loopholes.”

Lee did not mention North Korea, but South Korea’s Defense Ministry on Friday flagged risks that North Korea could resort to terrorist or cyber attacks to spoil international events.

Some 5,000 armed forces personnel will be deployed at the Winter Games, according to South Korean government officials and documents reviewed by Reuters.

Pyeongchang’s organizing committee for the 2018 Games (POCOG) has also hired a private cyber security company to guard against a hacking attack from the North, tender documents show.

To minimize the risk of provoking an aggressive North Korean reaction during the games, South Korea has asked Washington to delay regular joint military exercises until after the Olympics, the Financial Times reported. A spokesman for South Korea’s defense ministry said on Tuesday that nothing has been decided.

(Reporting by Choi Jiwon and Hyunjoo Jin; Editing by Simon Cameron-Moore)

New York subway attack shows limits of counterterror strategy

New York subway attack shows limits of counterterror strategy

By Joseph Ax

NEW YORK (Reuters) – Minutes after a man set off a pipe bomb strapped to his body in one of New York’s busiest transit hubs, throwing the Monday morning commute into chaos for many, a suspect was in custody, trains were rerouted and throngs of police swarmed the streets.

The massive response exposed the limits of the antiterrorism force the city has built since the deadly attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. It has learned to respond quickly and effectively to attacks but faces an almost impossible task in trying to thwart every threat, particularly the acts of “lone wolves” targeting public places and New York’s vast transit system.

Nearly 6 million people ride New York’s subway each day, entering at any one of the system’s 472 stations – more stops than any other in the world.

That open access is partly what allows U.S. train systems to carry five times as many passengers as airlines but also leaves unique security vulnerabilities, according to a Congressional Research Service report earlier this year.

“You can’t search everyone entering a subway system, particularly a system the size of the one in New York,” said Tom Nolan, a former U.S. Department of Homeland Security analyst who is now a professor of criminology at Merrimack College in Massachusetts.

No one was killed in Monday’s attack, and the person most severely injured was the accused bomber, whom police identified as Akayed Ullah, 27.

New York state Governor Andrew Cuomo sounded relieved when he told reporters that just three other people had been slightly hurt in the attack.

“When you hear about a bomb in the subway station, which is in many ways one of our worst nightmares, the reality turns out better than the initial expectation and fear,” Cuomo said.

He had reason to expect worse: Suicide bombers killed 52 people in on London subways and a bus system in 2005, 40 people were killed in the 2010 bombing of the Moscow subway and last year 32 died in coordinated attacks on Brussels’ subway and airport.

“This is a fact of life, whether you’re in New York or London or Paris,” New York Police Department counterterrorism chief John Miller told reporters. “It can happen anywhere.”


A network of cameras blankets almost all of New York’s subway system, which sprawls over 665 miles (1,070 km) of tracks. The New York City Police Department uses radiation detectors to search for “dirty” bombs, which combine a traditional explosive with radioactive material, said Anthony Roman, a private security consultant who is familiar with NYPD antiterrorism efforts.

Undercover and uniformed police patrol the system, along with bomb-sniffing dogs, random screening posts and heavily armed tactical officers.

The city’s Joint Terrorism Task Force collects intelligence from overseas, and cameras equipped with facial and license plate recognition can help investigators track suspects in real time, Roman said.

But attempting to screen every passenger, as airports do using metal detectors and body scanners, is an impossible task and would only create more opportunities for attacks by causing crowding.

“They will never be 100 percent,” Roman said. “The goal is to prevent and deter the vast majority of events, and for those few that occur, minimize their effect by quick, coordinated, interdepartmental response.”

The NYPD’s Miller said intelligence had stopped at least 26 plots since 2001. But the proliferation of so-called “lone wolf” attackers, who are self-radicalized and not working with an overseas militant group, has made it harder to do so, experts said.

Both Ullah and Sayfullo Saipov, accused of killing eight people on a Manhattan bike lane with a rented truck in the name of Islamic State, appear to have acted alone, according to authorities.

“When you have lone attackers, it’s much more difficult,” said Max Leitschuh, the senior transportation analyst at the risk management and security consulting company iJET International.

Following Monday’s attack, cities including Chicago, Boston and Los Angeles increased security for their mass transit systems.

Ultimately, those efforts are mostly about reassuring the public, said Maria Haberfeld, an expert in police counterterrorism and a professor at New York’s John Jay College of Criminal Justice.

“You have to accept it,” said Haberfeld, who served in a counterterrorist unit in the Israel Defense Forces. “You can only put so many barriers out there before you abandon the idea of an open society.”

(Reporting by Joseph Ax; Editing by Scott Malone and Jonathan Oatis)

Obama to deliver speech defending his counterterrorism fight

President Obama

By Ayesha Rascoe

WASHINGTON, Dec 6 (Reuters) – President Barack Obama will make the case on Tuesday that his counterterrorism policies have helped protect Americans from evolving international threats as he prepares to hand over the White House to a successor who has been critical of his approach.

Obama will deliver his final major speech on national security as president at MacDill Air Force Base in Tampa, Florida.

He will argue that his administration has been successful in building coalitions and working with local governments to take out militant leaders and disrupt Islamic State and other groups without overextending the U.S. military, the White House said.

“This represents a more sustainable approach … one where we had a limited number of U.S. forces on the ground,” White House deputy national security adviser Ben Rhodes said on a call with reporters.

Some counterterrorism experts have pointed to the rise of Islamic State as an example of Obama being too slow to respond to an emerging threat.

While the United States has been successful in killing some key militant leaders, Obama’s “legacy has been tarnished by the way terrorist groups have regenerated and strengthened in the latter parts of his presidency,” said Robin Simcox, a fellow at the Heritage Foundation.

Republican President-elect Donald Trump referred to Obama and Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton as the “co-founders” of Islamic State during the presidential campaign, blaming them for the initial spread of the militant group.

Trump, who takes office on Jan. 20, has chided Obama for not speaking out more bluntly against “radical Islam.” He has also voiced support for waterboarding captives.

Obama signed an executive order after taking office in January 2009 that banned waterboarding and other “enhanced interrogation techniques” or EITs. Such executive orders can be rescinded by a president’s successors.

Many lawmakers and human rights groups have denounced waterboarding, an interrogation technique that simulates drowning, as torture.

Some former officials from President George W. Bush’s  administration and the CIA officials have defended waterboarding and other EITs, denying they are torture and saying they elicited valuable intelligence.

Rhodes said Obama’s national security speech had been planned long before the Nov. 8 election and was not aimed specifically at the incoming Trump administration.

Rhodes said, however, that Obama would argue the administration’s decision not to use waterboarding had actually improved national security.

“We’ve actually been strengthened because it’s easier to get other nations to cooperate with us,” Rhodes said.

(Reporting by Ayesha Rascoe; Editing by Peter Cooney)

FBI director says investigators unable to unlock San Bernardino shooter’s phone content

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – FBI Director James Comey said on Tuesday that federal investigators have still been unable to access the contents of a cellphone belonging to one of the killers in the Dec. 2 shootings in San Bernardino, California, due to encryption technology.

Comey told the Senate Intelligence Committee that the phenomenon of communications “going dark” due to more sophisticated technology and wider use of encryption is “overwhelmingly affecting” law enforcement operations, including investigations into murder, car accidents, drug trafficking and the proliferation of child pornography.

“We still have one of those killer’s phones that we have not been able to open,” Comey said in reference to the San Bernardino attack.

Syed Rizwan Farook, 28, launched the Islamic State-inspired attack with his wife, Tashfeen Malik, 29, at a social services agency in the California city, leaving 14 dead.

Comey and other federal officials have long warned that powerful encryption poses a challenge for criminal and national security investigators, though the FBI director added Tuesday that “overwhelmingly this is a problem that local law enforcement sees.”

Technology experts and privacy advocates counter that so-called “back door” access provided to authorities would expose data to malicious actors and undermine the overall security of the Internet.

A study from the Berkman Center for Internet and Society at Harvard released last month citing some current and former intelligence officials concluded that fears about encryption are overstated in part because new technologies have given investigators unprecedented means to track suspects.

Senator Ron Wyden, an Oregon Democrat, asked Director of National Intelligence James Clapper to provide a declassified response to the Berkman study within 60 days. Clapper agreed to the request.

The White House last year abandoned a push for legislation that would mandate U.S. technology firms to allow investigators a way to overcome encryption protections, amid rigorous private sector opposition. But the issue has found renewed life after the shootings in San Bernardino and Paris.

Senators Richard Burr and Dianne Feinstein, the Republican and Democratic leaders of the intelligence panel, have said they would like to pursue encryption legislation, though neither has introduced a bill yet.

(Reporting by Dustin Volz and Mark Hosenball; editing by Sandra Maler and G Crosse)

Government announces new anti-terrorism task force, initiative

The United States government took new steps in the fight against the Islamic State and other extremist groups on Friday, with three separate departments unveiling new measures designed to help stop terrorist organizations from spreading their radical messages to a global audience.

The Department of Justice and Department of Homeland Security teamed up to establish a new anti-extremism task force and the State Department created a new Global Engagement Center that will help counter terrorist propaganda, according to news releases from the departments.

“The horrific attacks in Paris and San Bernardino this winter underscored the need for the United States and our partners in the international community and the private sector to deny violent extremists like ISIL fertile recruitment ground,” National Security Council spokesman Ned Price said in a statement about the new efforts, using an acronym for the Islamic State.

Price noted the announcement came on the day that top White House and national security officials were meeting with several leading technology companies in California’s Silicon Valley.

Lawmakers and President Barack Obama have publicly called for more to be done to help prevent terrorist organizations from using social media to share information about their actions and messages. In December, George Washington University’s Program on Extremism released a report that said it identified at least 300 Islamic State sympathizers in the United States who spread propaganda or communicated with other “like-minded individuals” on social media.

Following the San Bernardino terrorist attacks, lawmakers proposed legislation that would require social media companies to report any evidence of terrorist activities to the proper authorities. The Department of Justice has said one of the San Bernardino shooters pledged allegiance to the leader of the Islamic State on Facebook on the morning of the deadly rampage.

“Today’s developments reflect President Obama’s commitment to take every possible action to confront and interdict terrorist activities wherever they occur, including online,” Price said in a statement.

The State Department said its Global Engagement Center would “more effectively coordinate, integrate and synchronize” its anti-terrorism communications. The State Department currently runs a social media campaign called “Think Again Turn Away,” that says it offers “truths about terrorism.” Its recent Twitter postings tout victories the United States-led coalition and Iraqi military have scored against ISIS, including killing of 75 terrorists and destroying equipment.

It’s not exactly clear if or how this new effort will differ from the existing campaign.

The State Department’s news release said the Global Engagement Center will “focus more on empowering and enabling partners … who are able to speak out against these groups and provide an alternative to ISIL’s nihilistic vision.” The department said the efforts will center on things like how terrorists treat women and defectors, rather than what the groups publicize.

The Department of Justice said the Countering Violent Extremism Task Force is part of the government’s increased effort “to prevent extremists from radicalizing and mobilizing recruits, especially here at home.” The task force will aim to coordinate the anti-terrorism efforts of a variety of government agencies, bringing officials from the Homeland Security and Justice departments, FBI and National Counterterrorism Center together under one roof.

Iraqi Military Scores Big Victory Against Islamic State in Ramadi

The Iraqi military has scored another pivotal victory in the fight against the Islamic State insurgency, retaking control of a government complex in the important city of Ramadi.

Anbar Governor Sohaib Alrawi announced on Twitter on Monday that the Iraqi flag is now flying above the government compound in the city, which had been captured by Islamic State insurgents in May.

Ramadi is the capital of Anbar, Iraq’s largest province in terms of land area.

Iraqi forces had been aggressively working to recapture Ramadi, and had made major inroads in recent weeks. But the Islamic State insurgency continues to put up a fight, and The Washington Post reported that a military leader said about 30 percent of the city remains under ISIS control.

The military victory drew a mixture of celebration and caution, as the fight is still ongoing.

Col. Steve Warren, the spokesman for the United States-led coalition against the Islamic State, issued a statement congratulating the Iraqi Security Forces for the “significant accomplishment” of clearing and recapturing the government center, which he called “a proud moment for Iraq.”

Warren noted the coalition has conducted more than 630 airstrikes supporting the Iraqi efforts, as well as provided training and equipment to the forces working to defeat the Islamic State.

Warren, who shared photographs of the flag over the complex, said the coalition would continue to support Iraqi forces as they “move forward to make Ramadi safe for civilians to return.”

Maryland Man Charged With Receiving Funds from ISIS to Carry Out U.S. Attack

A 30-year-old Maryland man is accused of receiving close to $9,000 from the Islamic State to fund a terrorist attack in the United States, according to the Department of Justice.

FBI officials arrested Mohamed Yousef Elshinawy on Friday at his home in Edgewood, the Department of Justice said Monday in a news release. The charges against him include providing material support to the Islamic State, as well as lying to the FBI and hiding facts.

“According to the allegations in the complaint, Mohamed Elshinawy received money he believed was provided by ISIL in order to conduct an attack on U.S. soil,” Assistant Attorney General for National Security John P. Carlin said in a statement, using an acronym for the Islamic State.

Prosecutors accused Elshinawy of receiving at least $8,700 from people he knew he had ties to the Islamic State between March and June of this year. Prosecutors said Elshinawy claimed that he wasn’t going to carry out an attack and that he was just trying to scam money from the group.

But the Department of Justice alleges that Elshinawy mentioned pledging allegiance to the Islamic State in two separate electronic communications with his childhood friend and brother. In one instance, Elshinawy is accused of telling his brother he wanted to die as a martyr for ISIS. He’s also accused of using social media and prepaid phones to speak directly to ISIS operatives.

“The affidavit alleges that Mr. Elshinawy initially told the FBI that he was defrauding the terrorists, but further investigation showed that Mr. Elshinawy was supporting the terrorists and misleading the FBI,” U.S. Attorney Rod J. Rothstein said in the news release.

Prosecutors said they first became aware of Elshinawy in June after noticing a suspicious money transfer from Egypt. The FBI interviewed Elshinawy about two weeks later, and said Elshinawy admitted he had received $4,000 from an Islamic State operative for “operational purposes.”

The investigation found additional money had been sent to Elshinawy, according to prosecutors.

Earlier this month, George Washington University’s Program on Extremism published a report that found that 56 individuals had been charged with Islamic State-related activities in the United States this year. That was the most terror-related arrests in any single year since 2001.