‘IS is not done with us’: Arrested Tajiks highlight US fears of terrorist attack on US



CNN

The recent arrest of eight Tajik nationals suspected of having ties to ISIS has heightened concerns among national security officials that a dangerous affiliate of the now-divided terrorist group could carry out an attack on U.S. soil, according to several US officials who spoke to CNN. .

Members of the group first entered the United States through the southern border and sought asylum under U.S. immigration law. It is clear whether they entered at the same time and place.

By the time intelligence gathered on ISIS targets abroad linked the men to the terrorist group, they had already been screened by immigration authorities and allowed to enter the country, they said. officials said.

Although there is no hard evidence indicating they were sent to the United States as part of a terrorist plot, at least some of the Tajik nationals expressed extremist rhetoric in their communications, whether on social media or in direct private communications, which U.S. intelligence services were able to monitor, three officials said.

The discovery sparked a wave of emergency investigative efforts by federal agents and analysts across the country, sources said, including physical and electronic surveillance of the men – a counterterrorism operation that recalls the years immediately following 9/11, when the FBI investigated many local men. plots.

After a period of surveillance, federal officials in recent days faced a difficult decision: whether to continue monitoring the men to determine whether they were part of a potential plot or larger terrorist network, or install and remove them from the street. Rather than risk the worst-case scenario of a potential attack, senior U.S. officials decided to intervene and have the men apprehended by ICE agents, a source told CNN.

The men remain in federal immigration custody and will ultimately be deported following the antiterrorism investigation into them.

U.S. officials were particularly concerned that the men were from Tajikistan, a region of Central Asia that in recent years has been a source of constant recruitment by ISIS-K, the Islamic terrorist group’s affiliate based in Afghanistan. ISIS-K is led primarily by Tajiks, who have recently carried out a series of attacks in Europe on behalf of the group, including the Crocus Hall attack in Moscow in March that killed more than 100 people.

National security officials fear that at least some of the eight Tajiks may have been ripe for radicalization by ISIS-K while in the United States, potentially grappling with isolation, financial stress or discrimination – all things that could make a person vulnerable to propaganda glorifying ISIS. violence.

Top officials now view a so-called “lone wolf” attacker, who appears seemingly out of nowhere, as perhaps the more likely threat – and potentially just as dangerous – rather than a more traditional coordinated plot carried out by trained operatives.

Compared to terrorist networks, whose communications can provide opportunities for surveillance exploitation, lone individuals who do not telegraph their attack plans to anyone present an even more difficult challenge for security officials.

“We can’t assume it’s not all of the above,” a senior U.S. official said. “It is too early to know everything we want to know about the depth and texture of the links that might exist” between these eight people and ISIS.

The episode comes as top intelligence officials have publicly warned that global conditions have placed the risk of a terrorist attack on U.S. soil at its highest level in recent memory – at the same time that many national security officials acknowledge Also as US withdrawals in Afghanistan and elsewhere in the Middle East have reduced intelligence gathering on traditional terrorist threats.

“It’s no secret that since our withdrawals in various locations around the world, we have been collecting less intelligence. This has always been a compromise that we knew how to make,” said the senior US official.

Former acting CIA director Michael Morell co-authored a widely circulated article this week in Foreign Affairs warning that terrorism warning lights are “flashing red,” echoing a recent warning from the director of the FBI Christopher Wray, who reported seeing “flashing lights everywhere I turn.” ” ”

“The combination of the stated intentions of terrorist groups, the increasing capabilities they have demonstrated in recent successful and failed attacks around the world, and the fact that several serious plots in the United States have been foiled, leads us to a conclusion uncomfortable but inevitable. » » we read in the Foreign Affairs article. “Simply put, the United States faces a serious threat of terrorist attack in the coming months. »

Intelligence officials are keenly aware of gaps in intelligence collection in Afghanistan, where ISIS-K is primarily based. While officials believe ISIS-K primarily attempts to radicalize and inspire attackers rather than train and deploy operatives on the ground, the group’s rise is a relatively new phenomenon. That means there is much that U.S. counterterrorism analysts don’t know about its strategy, recruiting efforts, and operational tactics.

U.S. officials and analysts who closely track Islamist terrorist groups know that ISIS-K has significantly ramped up its online propaganda machine. Rather than training and deploying fighters – as al-Qaeda did during the 9/11 attacks, for example – ISIS-K has instead focused on radicalizing vulnerable populations. Tajikistan, for example, is one of the poorest countries in the world and its population faces extreme religious repression, two factors that terrorism experts say can make a population vulnerable to radicalization.

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Terrorism researcher Colin Clarke said the group was creating “charismatic propaganda” to reach “existing diasporas in Europe, North America and the Central Asian region, and trying to inspire people to carry out attacks.

“It seems like it’s only a matter of time before they’re able to pull something off,” Clarke said.

The arrests also highlight vulnerabilities at the U.S. southern border, a problem that Republicans have amplified in the midst of a presidential election year.

“We are literally living on borrowed time,” the Republican senator from Oklahoma said. James Lankford spoke from the Senate floor Wednesday about the threat of terrorists entering the United States through the southern border.

A report released June 7 by the DHS inspector general found that asylum seekers were not always screened in a timely manner and border agents could not access all the federal data they needed to screen non-citizens seeking admission to the United States.

The United States “risks admitting dangerous individuals into the country or allowing asylum seekers who may pose significant threats to public and national security to continue to reside in the United States,” the report said.

U.S. officials have been paying close attention to immigrants from Central Asian countries, including Tajikistan, since last summer, when it was discovered that a group of Uzbek nationals who had crossed the southern border had been helped to travel to the United States by a facilitator with ties to ISIS.

The episode sparked a rush within the U.S. government to locate and investigate these people.

Two U.S. officials also said it prompted national security officials to ensure that immigration and intelligence authorities appropriately monitored anyone traveling from Tajikistan, Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan.

“I think that [the incident with the Uzbek nationals] Last summer, it suggested that Central Asians are potentially a population of concern, given what we currently know about the global ISIS network,” the senior US official said.

In 2023, CBP reported 169 encounters with individuals identified as “potential matches” to names on the terrorism watch list.

But that’s not necessarily a reliable measure of how many actual terrorists might try to enter the United States, U.S. officials say. When a name appears on a terrorist watch list, it can mean a number of things: A person may have a very vague and attenuated connection to a known terrorist. Or they could belong to a traditional terrorist group — like the FARC — that is not known to carry out attacks on U.S. soil. Or they might just have a name similar to that of a legitimately concerned person.

That’s what happened with the Jordanian national who was arrested at the gates of the U.S. Marine base at Quantico earlier this year, two U.S. officials said. Although his name was found on one of the watch lists, he turned out to be a “bad match”, according to the senior US official.

The mix of crime and terrorism in poor countries – like Tajikistan – can also prove incredibly difficult for law enforcement officials to untangle. A person may have regular contact with a family member who has done paid work for ISIS, for example, without sharing any sympathy for the group themselves.

But, according to Clarke, the risk is there: “Crushing poverty [and] an extremely religious population repressed by its leaders, it’s almost a perfect formula for exporting jihadists.”

A police source said: “It has become a cliché, but it remains absolutely true: we may be done with ISIS, but ISIS is not done with us. »

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