A common talking point coming from Biden officials to justify the Afghanistan withdrawal to hawks in Washington is that there are greater “terrorist threats” in other countries that the US needs to face.
On Monday, Director of National Intelligence Avril Haines made this case at the annual Intelligence and National Security Summit. “In terms of the homeland, the threat right now from terrorist groups, we don’t prioritize at the top of the list Afghanistan,” Haines said. “What we look at is Yemen, Somalia, Syria, and Iraq for ISIS. That’s where we see the greatest threat,” she said.
One thing Yemen, Somalia, Syria, and Iraq have in common is that US intervention in these countries led to the growth of groups affiliated with al-Qaeda and ISIS.
In Syria, the US and its allies poured money and weapons into militant groups fighting against the government of Bashar al-Assad, while knowing that al-Qaeda in Syria, known at the time as the al-Nusra front, was a significant element of the opposition. The US support for al-Qaeda in Syria coupled with the destabilization of Iraq due to the US invasion led to the rise of ISIS.
Today, the US still uses ISIS as an excuse to stay in Iraq and Syria even though the group is confined to remote areas and controls no significant territory. In recent years, the US has been bombing Iraq’s Shia militias, who the US fought on the same side as between 2014 and 2017 in major battles against ISIS. No group benefits more from the US fighting Iraqi Shia militias than ISIS.
Similarly, in Syria, the US opposes the Syrian government, which is another effective force against ISIS. Syria’s Idlib province is currently controlled by Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS), an al-Qaeda-linked group, and the area is essentially under Turkish protection. In early 2020, when fighting broke out between Turkey and Syria around Idlib, the US threw its support behind Ankara, and by extension, HTS.
In Somalia, the US is waging a drone war against al-Shabaab, a militant group that has pledged loyalty to al-Qaeda. But the pledge only came after years of fighting against the US and its proxies. Al-Shabaab is an offshoot of the Islamic Courts Union, a Muslim coalition that controlled Mogadishu until they were ousted by a US-backed Ethiopian invasion.
The first attack al-Shabaab took credit for was against Ethiopian troops occupying Mogadishu in 2007. It wasn’t until 2012 that the group pledged loyalty to al-Qaeda. The Biden administration recently bombed Somalia after a six-month pause in US drone strikes. Since the end of July, US Africa Command reported four airstrikes in Somalia. The latest one was carried out on August 24th.
In Yemen, there is an al-Qaeda presence, known as al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP). The US has waged a brutal drone war against the group, killing scores of civilians. But since 2015, the US has also supported Saudi Arabia and its allies against the Houthis in Yemen, who are a sworn enemy of al-Qaeda.
In January 2015, The Wall Street Journal reported that the US formed ties with the Houthis to cooperate against AQAP. Just a few months later, in March 2015, the Obama administration announced it was backing the Saudi-led coalition against the Houthis. Since then, reports have revealed that US military equipment sold to Saudi Arabia and the UAE ended up in the hands of AQAP. In 2018, The Associated Press reported that the UAE was directly funding AQAP militias.
Part of the reason why the Biden administration is hyping up the so-called “threats” to the US homeland emanating from these countries is to placate hawks who are upset over the Afghanistan withdrawal. But the rhetoric signals that there will be continued US intervention in these countries for years to come.