Former Acting CIA Director: Terrorists Are Going to Flock to ‘Jihadist Central’ in Afghanistan

By Patrick Goodenough | September 13, 2021 | 4:15am EDT
Taliban gunmen flank a mullah preaching in Kabul’s biggest mosque during Friday prayers. (Photo by Hoshang Hashimi/AFP via Getty Images)
Taliban gunmen flank a mullah preaching in Kabul’s biggest mosque during Friday prayers. (Photo by Hoshang Hashimi/AFP via Getty Images)

( – The Taliban is claiming to have defeated not only the United States but NATO – “the world's greatest military power ever” – and inspired jihadists will flock to Afghanistan to become “part of jihadist central,” former acting CIA director Michael Morell said on Sunday.

“I think that the Taliban winning the war in Afghanistan and then the way our exit happened has absolutely inspired jihadists all over the world,” Morell told CBS’s “Face the Nation.”

“The Taliban is saying, ‘We just didn’t defeat the United States; we defeated NATO. We defeated the world’s greatest military power ever.’ So there’s a celebration going on.”

“‘We defeated the Soviet Union, then it fell. Now we’ve defeated NATO, right? Maybe they could fall, too,’” Morell said the Taliban were saying.

(The Islamic mujahideen – out of which the Taliban grew – fought against the Soviet occupation through the 1980s until the foreign troops left in 1989, amid the disintegration of the Soviet Union.)

“I think not only will jihadists be inspired, but a lot of them are going to come to Afghanistan to be part of the celebration, to be harp – to be part of jihadist central,” Morell said.

“So after 9/11, they all scattered from Afghanistan. I think we’re going to see a flow back in, and that’s one of the things that makes Afghanistan more dangerous than other spots on the planet.”

Morell also commented on the reported presence in Afghanistan of al-Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri, after host Margaret Brennan noted that the terrorist group had released a video featuring Zawahiri on Saturday, and that a U.N. Security Council report in July said he was believed to be in Afghanistan.

Asked whether he was indeed living in Afghanistan, Morell replied, “We think so, which means that the Taliban is harboring Zawahiri today. The Taliban is harboring al-Qaeda today. And I think that’s a very important point.”

A key element in the February 2020 U.S.-Taliban agreement signed in Doha was a commitment by the Taliban to “not allow any of its members, other individuals or groups, including al-Qaeda, to use the soil of Afghanistan to threaten the security of the United States and its allies.”

Specifically, it undertook not to cooperate with such groups or individuals, not to “host” them; to deny them asylum or residence in Afghanistan; to prevent them “from recruiting, training, and fundraising”; and not to issue them with visas, passports, travel permits, or other legal documents.

In defense of his total troop withdrawal from Afghanistan, President Biden has argued several times that the terrorist threat has changed since 2001, pointing to the existence of al-Qaeda and ISIS affiliates in places other than Afghanistan.

Morell said Biden wasn’t wrong about the fact “there’s terrorists in a lot of different places in the world,” but that a Taliban-controlled Afghanistan offered a degree of “safe haven” not available in other locations.

“Right now,” said Morell, “the places I’m most worried about are ISIS in Africa and [al-Qaeda-affiliate] al-Shabaab in Somalia.  But longer term, I worry most about al-Qaeda in Afghanistan and ISIS in Iraq and Syria. Why? Because at the end of the day, the most important thing that-- that a terrorist group can have, the most important determinant of their success is safe haven, right?”

“And you have safe haven in Afghanistan that you really can’t have anywhere else because you’re being harbored now by the Taliban. And Afghanistan is a big place – it’s tough to get to, it’s tough to find partners,” he said.

“So that’s why I worry more about Afghanistan.”

Asked by Brennan whether Americans were more at risk without a military presence in Afghanistan, Morell replied, “we are more at risk, without a doubt.”

He cited difficulties in collecting intelligence on whether al-Qaeda was again rebuilding its capabilities and planning to attack America again as it did 20 years ago, and then difficulties in collecting “the kind of intelligence that gives you the precision you need to conduct strikes.”

“The intelligence community’s got to figure that out,” Morrell said.

“Then the Department of Defense has to figure out this ‘over the horizon capability,’ right? So when the intelligence community says, ‘Mr. President they’re rebuilding again, they're getting to the point where they can attack the homeland again.’ And the president says, ‘take action.’

“The military has to be able to reach in and degrade al Qaeda, right? We haven’t figured those two things out yet.”

Morell served as deputy and – twice – acting director of the CIA during the Obama administration. After retiring in 2013 he took up a senior role in a geopolitical consulting firm in Washington and became a CBS News on-air contributor. He endorsed Hillary Clinton for president in 2016, writing in a New York Times op-ed, “Donald J. Trump is not only unqualified for the job, but he may well pose a threat to our national security.”

Floated as a possible pick for CIA director in a Biden administration, Morell’s potential nomination ran into criticism from Democratic lawmakers unhappy with positions he had taken about the effectiveness of controversial CIA interrogation techniques. The post went to Bill Burns.

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