Violence in the Mideast, rising threats from Islamic State group in Afghanistan pressure US, allies

The top U.S. general for the Middle East tells Congress that exploding regional violence fueled by Iran presents the most likely threat to the U.S. homeland

Lolita C. Baldor
Thursday 07 March 2024 18:03 GMT

Exploding violence in the Middle East, fueled by Iran, presents the most likely threat to the U.S. homeland, and the risk of an attack by violent extremists in Afghanistan on American and Western interests abroad is increasing, the top U.S. commander for the region told a Senate committee Thursday.

Army Gen. Erik Kurilla, head of U.S. Central Command, said the Islamic State group’s Khorasan affiliates in Afghanistan and Syria “retain the capability and the will" to attack and could strike “in as little as six months and with little to no warning.” Such an attack would be more likely against the U.S. and its allies in Europe, and it will take “substantially more resources” to hit the U.S. homeland.

Testifying before the Senate Armed Services Committee, Kurilla painted a dire picture of violence in the Middle East region in the wake of the Oct. 7 attack on Israel that killed about 1,200 people and took 250 others hostage. That assault and Israel's ongoing war in Gaza, has fueled attacks by Iran-backed militant groups in Yemen, Lebanon, Iraq and Syria, threatening maritime traffic in the Red Sea and Gulf of Aden, and targeting U.S. bases and troops across the region.

In response, the U.S. has retaliated with a handful of strikes in Iraq and Syria, and a persistent campaign of attacks against the Iran-backed Houthis in Yemen.

Asked by Sen. Kevin Cramer, R-N.D., about U.S. military surveillance over Afghanistan, Kurilla acknowledged that the U.S. has had to divert intelligence and reconnaissance assets from that region to Iraq, Syria and Yemen to better protect troops and ships under attack.

Kurilla said Yemen’s Houthi rebels, who have been launching nearly daily attacks against ships in the Red Sea and Gulf of Aden, have not been deterred by American and allied retaliation. But he said the Iranian-backed militias in Iraq and Syria have been deterred and that it’s been a month since they last launched an attack.

Iran, however, has continued to fund and equip the groups in Iraq and Syria, even though their attacks have stopped, at least temporarily, he said.

“The events of seven October not only permanently changed Israel and Gaza — it created the conditions for malign actors to sow instability throughout the region and beyond,” said Kurilla. “Iran exploited what they saw as a once-in-a-generation opportunity to reshape the Middle East to their advantage.”

Senators quizzed Kurilla on why the U.S. hasn't taken stronger action against Iran, including against Iranian ships that are delivering weapons, intelligence and supplies to militias.

“Why are we not sinking those Iranian ships if there’s an Iranian spy ship providing targeting information,” asked Sen. Dan Sullivan, R-Alaska.

Kurilla said deterring Iran requires more than a military solution but said he could provide more details in a closed session.

In other comments, he said the U.S. has been using directed energy weapons to shoot down drones but could use more of those so the Navy doesn't have to use large, expensive missiles to take out the smaller threats.

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