Islamic State extremists have discussed infiltrating the U.S. through its southern border with Mexico, a U.S. official said.
Francis Taylor, under secretary for intelligence and analysis at the Department of Homeland Security, told a Senate committee today that the Sunni militants have been tracked discussing the idea on social-media sites such as Twitter Inc.
“There have been Twitter and social-media exchanges among ISIL adherents across the globe speaking about that as a possibility,” Taylor said in response to a question from Senator John McCain, an Arizona Republican. Islamic State is also known by the acronyms ISIL and ISIS.
Referring to the 1,933-mile (3,110-kilometer) boundary with Mexico, Taylor said he was “satisfied that we have the intelligence and the capability at our border that would prevent that activity.”
Taylor’s comments before the Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee came hours before President Barack Obama was to outline in a speech plans to expand the U.S. offensive against Islamic State. Steps under consideration include blocking foreign fighters from entering Syria and Iraq, delivering more aid to moderate factions among Syrian rebels, and expanding air strikes to Islamic State targets in Syria.
Taylor said the security of the U.S.’s southwest border remains a high concern for his department, and that Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson has ordered “a comprehensive southern border security strategy that will include national security risks.”
U.S. intelligence officials said they are skeptical that Mexican drug cartels would let jihadists use their turf or delivery routes to attack the U.S. The cartels know that terrorist attackers coming through areas they control would almost certainly bring massive retaliation and a militarized border that would threaten their lucrative narcotics-smuggling operations, said two officials, who requested anonymity to discuss classified intelligence assessments.
Officials testifying before the committee said that Islamic State currently poses the greatest threat to U.S. interests in Iraq and within the region. At the moment, the group’s ability to develop significant, large-scale attacks diminishes with distance from Syria and Iraq, said Nicholas Rasmussen, deputy director of the National Counterterrorism Center.
“We do not assess right now they have the capability to mount an effective large-scale attack on the United States,” Rasmussen said.
Islamic State’s sweep across Iraq and a campaign of terror that has included the beheading of two U.S. journalists have galvanized fears among Americans of a rising terrorist threat and stirred demands from lawmakers that Obama articulate a plan for dealing with the issue.
Sixty-five percent of Americans back bombing strikes against the extremists in Syria, more than double the level of support from a year ago, according to an ABC News/Washington Post poll released yesterday.
Islamic State members have surfaced in Europe -- specifically in a shooting that killed four people at a Jewish museum in Brussels and through arrests in Paris -- “a clear indication of ISIL’s ambition to operate outside the Middle East,” Rasmussen said. If the group is left to grow, that threat will only increase, he said.
“Left unchecked, ISIL poses a threat to all governments it considers apostate,” Rasmussen said, adding that the group’s targets would include governments in Europe, the U.S., Africa and the Middle East.
Lawmakers concentrated on the threat posed by foreign fighters who join Islamic State, either Americans or Europeans who wouldn’t need a visa to enter the United States.
Johnson, speaking in New York today, said that about 12,000 foreigners are estimated to have traveled to Syria to fight over the past three years. The FBI has arrested some people who have tried to travel from the U.S. to Syria to join the fight.
In response to threats from overseas, Johnson said the U.S. has increased aviation security in 25 airports abroad since early July, adding screening of both passengers and carry-on luggage.
Rasmussen estimated that “over 100 persons from a wide variety of backgrounds have attempted to travel to the region” from the U.S. to fight alongside extremist groups active in Iraq and Syria.
‘Looking to Join’
Many go “simply looking to join the fight” and engage with extremist elements, not necessarily searching to join Islamic State in particular, Rasmussen said. “Where they end up actually affiliating plays out over time,” he said.
Rasmussen said the estimate of 100 people included individuals who show intent to travel but haven’t left the U.S. as well as those who remain there, those who have been killed and those who have returned.
One wild card will be U.S. citizens who may be radicalized through the Internet and decide to take up arms here, Rasmussen said.
“We can’t account for homegrown terrorists,” Rasmussen said, “people who might self-affiliate.”
This “lone-wolf” phenomenon “is the hardest terrorist threat to detect, and the one I worry about the most,” he said, citing the Boston Marathon bombers.
If there is any good news, Rasmussen said, it is the “aggressive information-sharing with all of our partners who have the same problem.” This has given the U.S. and Europe “a significant leg up” in attempts “to disrupt travel when these individuals attempt to leave Iraq,” he said.
Gathering data on Islamic State and other extremists groups has become more difficult since disclosures by former National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden, Rasmussen said, as intelligence agencies have seen terrorists change their methods and means of communication to avoid detection.
Those changes “frustrate our counterterrorism efforts,” he said. “We cannot connect the dots if we cannot collect the dots.”
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