DHS Working to Stop Syrian War Combatants From Entering the United States

9/17/2014
By Yasmin Tadjdeh

The Department of Homeland Security is taking steps to stop radicalized foreign fighters in Syria from entering the United States, Secretary Jeh Johnson said.

As foreigners including U.S. citizens, travel to Syria to fight with rebel forces against President Bashar al-Assad’s regime, the department has become increasingly worried that they could return with terrorist sympathies and training.

“We’re very focused on those who leave their home countries, including the United States, to travel to Syria to take up the fight against the regime there,” Johnson said Sept. 17 at the Air Force Association’s annual Air & Space Conference in National Harbor, Maryland.

“We’re concerned that these individuals may hook up with extremists and become indoctrinated by their ideology and return to their home countries motivated to commit terrorist acts,” he said.

One of these organizations, the Islamic State, also known as ISIS or ISIL, has emerged as a particularly violent group, Johnson said.

“ISIL is by all accounts a dangerous terrorist organization. They have both the elements of a terrorist group and an insurgent army,” he said. “They are a band of murders, rapists and terrorists.”

To ensure that foreign fighters do not return to the United States, DHS has since July enhanced its screening policies at last point of departure airports overseas, before potential terrorists can arrive in the country, he said.

“We’re making progress building more pre-clearance capabilities overseas,” Johnson said. “Together with our law enforcement and intelligence community partners, we are doing a better job … of tracking foreign fighters, of sharing information concerning foreign fighters.”

DHS is also evaluating if more information should be required from those traveling from visa-waiver countries to the United States, Johnson said.

“There are large numbers of foreign fighters from [coming to the United States] countries … from which we do not require a visa to come to this country. So the concern is that someone could go to Syria from another country, become radicalized, indoctrinated, come back to their country and then travel to our country without the need for a visa,” he said.

So far, intelligence reports have found no credible threat from ISIS to attack the homeland, Johnson said. Still, the organization is of particular concern.

The group takes in over $1 million a day in revenue, he said. ISIS is currently occupying large swaths of Iraq and Syria and violently killing those in its way.

Its wealth and use of propaganda makes them unique, Johnson said.

“ISIL is very adept at social media, propaganda [and] recruitment. Their social media, their literature is as slick as any terrorist organization’s that I’ve ever seen,” he said.

Another measure DHS — along with the Department of Justice and the FBI — is taking is educating people about ISIS’ violent work and stopping misinformation, Johnson said.

“I believe that it’s important that we deliver the message here at home that ISIL is neither Islamic nor a state. They are a band of terrorists. They are not out to defend or free Muslims. They kill Muslims,” he said.

Johnson said he took this message to a Syrian-American organization in Chicago earlier this year, and will go to a Somali community organization next week in Columbus, Ohio.

DHS is also working to counter violent extremism at home, especially those from ‘lone wolf’ actors, he said. Lone wolf attacks are characterized by the presence of a single terrorist who is influenced by the goals of a terror organization but works without any formal support from the group.

“It is still a huge agenda item … [to counter] those who read the literature, who may become indoctrinated from a distance. That is a major, major initiative of ours,” Johnson said. “In many respects, this type of terrorist threat is harder to detect than the terrorist threat from overseas. It could strike at any moment.”

Topics: Defense Department, Homeland Security, Air Transportation, DHS Policy

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