That effort, and the uncertainty that followed, has forced a reckoning in the highest ranks of the Biden administration’s national security establishment about its Middle East strategy.
Now, amid intense bombardment from Iran-backed groups, more than a dozen current and former U.S. officials, lawmakers and congressional aides say Washington’s deprioritization of the Middle East, and specifically its approach on Iran, has left the U.S. vulnerable. Many were granted anonymity to discuss sensitive national security matters.
“Biden has spent much of the last three years … ignoring the Middle East completely,” said one former senior official who worked on Middle East matters during the Trump administration. “I’ve spent a long time in the Middle East, and part of me wants to forget it, too. That’s not the way it is. They ignored it. And now they are paying the price.”
Iranian-backed groups have launched hundreds of missiles at U.S. forces in Iraq and Syria since the Hamas attack. Three U.S. troops
were killed in Jordan over the weekend in a drone attack. Houthi rebels in Yemen have
attacked American freighters. And officials have calculated that Hezbollah, an Iranian-backed group in Lebanon, is planning attacks on Americans.
Asked for comment, a senior Biden official rejected the idea that the administration’s policy on the Middle East has limited its ability to protect Americans at home or abroad. The Biden administration has maintained counterterrorism forces in the region and launched successful operations to take out key terrorist leaders, the official said.
Another official said it was the
killing of Qassem Soleimani, the commander of an elite group inside Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corp, that upped the threats against U.S. interests overseas. And the intelligence failure around Oct. 7 was on Israel’s part.
“We were always going to learn most of what we learn about Hamas from sharing that comes from Israel,” one official said. “We were not poised to collect or look at the kinds of intelligence that would give you a warning about something in Gaza.”
Still, offices focusing on global counterterrorism have suffered from a
lack of resources and attention in recent years despite sustained threats from ISIS-K in Afghanistan, Iranian proxies in the Middle East and al-Qaeda-affiliated groups in northern Africa.
Christy Abizaid, the director of NCTC, the National Counterterrorism Center, said in a statement that the Oct. 7 attack “has galvanized a diverse array of terrorist adversaries across the globe” and that the U.S. should continue to invest in counterterrorism in order to thwart future attacks.
Top officials dating back to the Obama administration have spent years pushing the U.S. to draw back from the region and redirect resources elsewhere to focus on countries that pose greater risks such as Russia and China.
Over the last decade, the CIA
shut down its program to train the Free Syrian Army, a rebel group that formed in 2011 to fight Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and his military. The Pentagon brought back
thousands of forces from Iraq. The U.S. withdrew from
Afghanistan completely. Washington
stopped its support for Saudi-led operations in Yemen. And the Middle East desks at both the National Security Council and the State Department shrunk.
“We started to really tune in to the sheer scale of Xi Jinping’s ambitions,” said a former senior official. “Not only were they regional, but they were really global. And it became harder and harder to ignore.”
The National Security Council’s Asia section had just four people when Donald Trump came into office in January 2017 — a significantly smaller team compared to the Middle East office, which employed about 15 staffers. By the end of Trump’s term, those numbers had essentially flipped. The Biden administration expanded other high-level offices focused on Asia, creating Korea desks at the intelligence agencies and a China office under Secretary Antony Blinken at the State Department.
The National Security Council declined to comment.
The intelligence agencies also dedicated more money and staff to studying and analyzing Russia and China, including attempts to expand their influence in Africa,
sometimes through proxies, according to two former intelligence officials.
“Their whole approach to the region, as their whole approach to foreign policy, is about one main thing: strategic competition with China,” said Matt Duss, former senior national security adviser to Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.). “And to the extent they wanted to focus on the Middle East, it was that they didn’t want to focus on it.”
It’s that thinking that left officials searching for answers on Oct. 7.
In the hours following the attack by Hamas, officials in Washington — from the State Department to the Pentagon to the intelligence agencies — were unsure of exactly what had happened.
It appeared from
news reports that Hamas militants crossed through Israel’s border by bulldozing fences and sending dozens of militants across via air gliders. The attack appeared well-coordinated. But U.S. officials had few other details.
That’s partly because the U.S. has come to rely more heavily on ally countries in the region for intelligence on terrorist organizations, according to two senior officials. Israel, those officials argue, is better positioned to collect and analyze intelligence about activities in Gaza.
Since Oct. 7, senior officials have said publicly that Israel did not share key details it had collected about a potential assault by Hamas from Gaza.
The U.S. and Israel have a strong intelligence-sharing partnership — one that would have allowed for Israel to share details of a possible attack by Hamas. But Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government did not seriously consider information from its
own intelligence ranks that Hamas was planning an attack and did not pass on the blueprints it had obtained to U.S. officials.
“This was a clear Israeli intelligence failure,” a senior official said. That failure has prompted members of Congress and the administration to consider the extent to which the U.S. should continue to rely so heavily on allies, including Israel, to provide intelligence on threats posed by groups like Hamas.
“There are obviously some conversations that our intelligence agencies are going to have with Israel with regard to what went wrong there — reevaluating the protocols for how they share and and what they share,” said Rep. Rick Crawford (R-Ark.), a member of the House Intelligence Committee.
While officials have pushed blame for the intelligence failure on Israel, some admit that the U.S. was unprepared for the regional repercussions of such an assault.
“Are we less well-equipped right now to think about how the other terrorist organizations with some form of regional or global footprint may operate in this environment?” said a senior intelligence official in the days following Oct. 7. “The answer is yes.”
Officials interviewed by POLITICO likened the scenes inside the White House, Pentagon, the State Department and the intelligence agencies in the weeks following the initial attack to the days following the attack on the U.S. embassy in Benghazi in 2012.
Dozens of officials — many of whom were similarly unprepared for such a scenario — convened to game out potential points of attack on the U.S.
“It was like all of a sudden counterterrorism, and the Middle East was back in the conversation again,” a senior official said.
Leaders of the intelligence agencies held roundtables about threats posed by various terrorists in the region, including Iranian-backed militias in Iraq and the Houthis in Yemen. The FBI and Department of Homeland Security had to sort and analyze potential domestic attacks. And the State Department
authorized the voluntary departure of some personnel from the embassy in Beirut.
“You had a kind of a classic security dilemma where he’s watching everybody else’s moves without direct communication. We don’t have direct communication with the Iranians. The risk was extremely high,” one senior official said.
Officials surmised that the U.S. was at risk of experiencing an increase in attacks by Iranian-backed groups in the region, including on U.S. forces in Iraq and Syria. The situation could easily spiral, they calculated. Officials were collecting a massive number of tips and intelligence, including signals intelligence, as well as information from ally governments.
In the weeks that followed, officials assessed that while Hamas didn’t pose a direct threat to the U.S., other groups or individuals sympathetic to Hamas could attack the U.S. in the region. They became particularly concerned that Hezbollah
might try to target U.S. troops and diplomats abroad and even Americans at home.
A senior official claimed that despite the hundreds of attacks on U.S. troops in the Middle East and the violence between Israel and Hezbollah, the U.S. has stopped the conflict in Gaza from widening. The clashes are unrelated, the official said.
Intelligence gathered by the U.S. and other Western allies indicates Washington is still on alert for a potential large-scale attack by Iranian-backed groups, according to an intelligence readout obtained by POLITICO.
‘Blinking lights everywhere’
Internal administration concerns come after years of fears that Iran-backed groups similar to Hamas would seek revenge for the Trump administration’s
killing of Soleimani.
Officials say they have seen a significant uptick in intelligence reporting involving active threats to the United States since October. They say they have also begun to see individuals, inspired by the Hamas attack, try to join terrorist organizations.
Federal prosecutors said that a New Jersey man, Karrem Nasr, who was motivated by the Hamas assault was arrested in Kenya in December after trying to join Al-Shabaab. Nasr
sought to attack “evil America,” according to a statement by the U.S. Attorney’s Office in the Southern District of New York. Law enforcement also arrested individuals for posting online about “killing Jews,” FBI director Christopher Wray said at a congressional hearing Dec. 5.
“I’ve never seen a time where all the threats or so many of the threats are all elevated, all at exactly the same time,” Wray said. “I see blinking lights everywhere.”
The National Counterterrorism Center, which is charged with helping lead the administration’s counterterrorism strategy, has concluded that the Oct. 7 attack has galvanized a diverse array of terrorists across the globe. And despite Washington’s pivot away from the Middle East and counterterrorism, Abizaid, the director, said her office has continued to track threats to the U.S. even though the counterterrorism community has “blunted the capabilities” of various terrorist groups in recent years.
The U.S. has slowly begun to move resources back to the Middle East in recent weeks as violence escalates in Gaza, Iraq, Iran, Pakistan, the Red Sea and between Israel and Hezbollah on the border with Lebanon.
The Pentagon has estimated that it will cost
more than a billion dollars to rebuild its presence in the Middle East after Oct. 7.
It has sent several ships and submarines, along with 1,200 troops to the region. The State Department and White House, meanwhile, have dispatched advisers to Israel to help coordinate with the Netanyahu government. And intelligence agencies have upped their collection work in countries, including Iraq and Syria, to monitor the movements and planning of Iranian proxies.
The increase of U.S. military force to the Middle East comes as thousands of troops based in Iraq and Syria continue to come under attack by Iranian-backed militias. U.S. forces have been attacked more than 150 times since the middle of October, according to the Pentagon.
Houthi rebels, who operate in Yemen, also have attacked merchant ships in the Red Sea. The U.S. and the U.K. have launched
several rounds of attacks on Houthi positions in Yemen in recent weeks in retaliation for the strikes and in an attempt to degrade the group’s capabilities.
Reprioritizing the Middle East will have to be weighed against the advantages that come with prioritizing Russia and China, said Rep. Jim Himes (D-Conn.), the top Democrat on the House Permanent Select Intelligence Committee.
“I’m 100 percent in favor of the pivot to Asia because I think that’s where the economy and the challenges and geostrategic events are going to occur. But we don’t have unlimited resources. And there is a trade-off,” he said. “You can’t be everywhere at the same time.”
Phelim Kine contributed to this report.