20 years after 9/11: Back to square one in the War on Terror?

Security experts fear return of Taliban, porous southern border leave U.S. vulnerable to attack
Kabul, Afghanistan
Hospital victims of the terror attacks in Kabul, Afghanistan. (Aug. 26. 2021)

Twelve days before the 20th anniversary of 9/11, President Joe Biden relinquished Afghanistan to the Taliban, the terrorist organization the U.S. had been fighting for 20 years, leaving behind several hundred Americans and $85 billion worth of American weapons, planes, equipment and tanks. As the much-strengthened Taliban quickly consolidated control, the world watched militants perform public executions on video posted online. 

Now, two decades into the War on Terror, many fear the U.S. has taken a giant step backward, ceding many of the gains it had acquired at a fearful cost in American blood and treasure since 9/11.

A victorious Taliban would take over Afghanistan "and return it to a pre-9/11 state after we have withdrawn," Rep. Michael McCaul (R-Texas) warned in May. "Without a military presence in country, the U.S. is giving them room to deepen their relationship with terrorist groups like al-Qaida, who may seek to launch external attacks on us and our allies from the country once again."

Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin, whom several in Congress have said should resign, recently warned that Al Qaeda terrorists may attempt to regain a foothold in Afghanistan. 

Gen. Mark Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told Fox News he thought there was "a very good probability of a broader civil war, and that will then in turn lead to conditions that could, in fact, lead to a reconstitution of Al Qaeda or a growth of ISIS or other ... terrorist groups." He estimated that "a resurgence of terrorism could come out of the general region within 12, 24, 36 months."

Meanwhile in mid-August, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security issued a new National Terrorism Advisory System Bulletin warning of a "heightened threat environment" across the United States. The U.S., it argued, faced "a diverse and challenging threat environment leading up to and following the 20th Anniversary of the September 11, 2001 attacks as well as religious holidays we assess could serve as a catalyst for acts of targeted violence."

The threats it mentioned include "those posed by domestic terrorists, individuals and groups engaged in grievance-based violence, and those inspired or motivated by foreign terrorists and other malign foreign influences." 

Within two weeks, a Muslim man in Texas, Imran Ali Rasheed, murdered a Lyft driver, stole her car, and went to the Plano Police Department, where he began shooting before he was shot and killed by police.

Rasheed, who had been the subject of a counterterrorism investigation from 2010 to 2016, "may have been inspired by a foreign terrorist organization to commit these acts," said Matthew DeSarno, special agent in charge of FBI Dallas. 

However, the FBI hadn't "found any evidence that he was directed by or in contact with foreign terrorist actors," DeSarno added.

Americans appear to lack confidence in the abilities of the Biden national security leadership team to protect the U.S. from terrorism following the bungled U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan. 

"Over the next year or so, 59% of voters say it is at least somewhat likely that there will be a major terrorist attack in the United States," a recent Rasmussen national survey found.  

Members of Congress are warning of security threats at the porous U.S. southern border, now compounded by new promises of asylum or refugee status for inadequately vetted potential terrorists — with some GOP lawmakers even calling for Biden and several of his cabinet members to resign or be impeached. 

Last week, Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) raised concerns about Afghan refugees being housed at Fort Bliss in El Paso.

Prior to the fall of Afghanistan, former Border Patrol Chief Rodney Scott warned agents of the need to be vigilant to catch suspected terrorists. Alleged terrorists have been slipping across the southern border "at a level we have never seen before," he said.

In a video message sent to 19,000 agents obtained by the Washington Examiner, Scott said that their national security mission was critical, especially after the policy changes implemented by the Biden administration.

What some see as an immigration crisis is in reality something worse — a national security crisis, Scott emphasized. 

"Immigration is just a subcomponent of it, and right now, it's just a cover for massive amounts of smuggling going across the southwest border — to include TSDBs at a level we have never seen before," he said. "That's a real threat."

TSDB, an acronym for the FBI's Terrorist Screening Database, refers to known or suspected terrorists. 

Scott's remarks came months after Customs and Border Protection (CBP) officials briefed Congress in March about four matches to the TSBD. 

According to PolitiFact, a 2017 FBI terrorist watchlist included 1.2 million people, including 4,600 U.S. citizens and lawful permanent residents. 

"Immigration officials won't say how many people on the terrorist watchlist have attempted to cross the southern border — legally or illegally, because 'any data would be considered law enforcement sensitive,'" the fact-checking site reported.

Two Yemeni men on the FBI's terror watchlist and on a no-fly list were arrested near the Calexico Port of Entry in California in separate incidents on Jan. 29 and March 30, according to CBP — although the agency's announcement was quickly taken offline, the New York Post noted.

Earlier this week, as first reported by Just the News, a male Afghan refugee departing the Ramstein Air Base in Germany was detained for carrying explosive materials in his carry-on luggage bound for the U.S. — the same day Secretary of State Antony Blinken acknowledged many Afghan refugees weren't fully vetted before they were evacuated.

The threat of using the southern border, or Mexico as a launching pad, is nothing new to law enforcement. 

In February 2001, Mahmoud Kourani, a fighter, recruiter and fundraiser for Hezbollah, an Iran-backed Lebanese Shia Islamist terrorist organization, entered the U.S. from Mexico. Federal prosecutors claimed he had received training in weapons, intelligence, and spy craft in Lebanon and Iran, according to a 2003 grand jury indictment

Three months later, in May 2001 —  just four months before 9/11 — former Mexican National Security Adviser and Ambassador to the United Nations, Adolfo Aguilar Zinser, said that "Islamic terrorist groups are using Mexico as a refuge," according to a report by the Library of Congress.

A "Hizbollah presence in northern Mexico was considered a possibility by observers because of the sizable ethnic Lebanese and Palestinian communities in the northern Mexican city of Monterrey," Zinser said. 

In 2004, Farida Goolam Mohamed Ahmed, who was allegedly connected to a Pakistani terrorist group working with al-Qaeda operatives based in the U.S., was arrested at the McAllen, Texas, airport. 

In 2007, the FBI issued an advisory about a jihadist plan identifying Afghanis and Iraqis as potential suspects working with cartels to gain illegal entry to the U.S.

In 2008, Somali Mohamed Dhakhane was arrested for making materially false statements on his asylum claim after he was apprehended at the Brownsville Port of Entry in Texas. He was indicted in 2010 in San Antonio and pleaded guilty to human smuggling, reportedly working with the Somali Al-Shabaab terrorist group.