US spy chief sees top terror risks from Yemen, Iraq, not Afghanistan

Armed men loyal to the government forces guard a site near the Safer oil fields in Marib, Yemen on Sept 12.
Armed men loyal to the government forces guard a site near the Safer oil fields in Marib, Yemen on Sept 12.PHOTO: REUTERS

WASHINGTON (BLOOMBERG) - The greatest threat to the United States from international terrorists comes from nations such as Yemen, Somalia, Syria and Iraq, with Afghanistan further down the priority list after the two-decade American troop presence ended, Director of National Intelligence Avril Haines said.

Although US intelligence officials are closely watching whether terrorist groups re-emerge inside Afghanistan, the country is no longer the prime concern when it comes to harbouring terrorists who could carry out an attack inside America, Haines said on Monday (Sept 13) at a national security conference in the Washington suburbs.

"We don't prioritise - at the top of the list - Afghanistan," Haines said. "What we're looking at is Yemen and Somalia, Syria and Iraq. That's where we see the greatest threat."

Nonetheless, a "big focus" for US intelligence agencies is monitoring the possible reconstruction of terrorist groups in Afghanistan, Haines said, conceding that intelligence collection inside the country has been diminished since the American withdrawal.

Her comments came as the Biden administration remains under criticism by both Republicans and Democrats for the hasty US withdrawal following the Taliban takeover last month.

Hours after Haines spoke, Secretary of State Antony Blinken began hours of testimony to the House Foreign Affairs Committee about the withdrawal.

Fueling much of the criticism of the Biden administration's decisions is the reality that about 100 Americans and thousands of Afghan allies of US and foreign forces remain behind in Afghanistan.

"Afghanistan has been gut-wrenching and deeply personal to the intelligence community," she said. "Our intelligence collection is diminished and that is something that we have to prepare for and that we have been preparing for, frankly, quite some time."

Haines also singled out the threat from domestic terrorists at the conference, which was hosted by the Intelligence and National Security Alliance and the nonprofit group AFCEA.

"It is a growing and concerning threat," she said. She said the primary role for intelligence agencies on domestic terrorism is supporting the FBI and Homeland Security Department.

More broadly, she said top priorities for intelligence agencies include countering China; investing in new and emerging technology; developing expertise in long-term destabilising trends like climate change and public health; and building partnerships with the private sector.

Haines also was asked what intelligence agencies are doing to combat disinformation. She said her office has been directed by Congress to establish a foreign malign influence centre.

"You can't go after all disinformation everywhere," she said. "You have to figure out what is the most important and how do we actually manage that."