- The Washington Times - Tuesday, May 2, 2017

Lawmakers will announce a major effort Wednesday to explore ways to keep terrorists from reaching America’s shores, warning that Islamists from hotbeds of fundamentalist activity in Europe are able to enter the United States visa-free if they manage to slip through the cracks of the nation’s vast immigration enforcement bureaucracy.

On Wednesday, a bipartisan House Homeland Security Committee task force will convene to explore specific U.S. immigration protocols, in particular the visa waiver agreements with countries in Europe, where counterterrorism officials have identified dangerous weaknesses.

With the rise of Islamic terrorism, particularly attacks inspired by the Islamic State group and its Salafi ideology, border security is an increasingly emotional issue across the country and sits at the heart of the Trump administration’s vow to “make America great again.”

Mr. Trump’s executive orders — now mired in the court system — to bar people from a number of Muslim-majority countries and temporarily halting all refugee admissions brought the issue front and center. Supporters claimed a critical issue had finally achieved long-overdue recognition while opponents denounced the move as draconian and dangerous.

Congress in 2015 overwhelmingly passed legislation severely limited visas from known terrorist hot spots such as Iran and Iraq. A House Homeland Security Committee task force at the time was tracking Islamists traveling to the Middle East to fight in the Syrian conflict.

The task force of five Republicans and three Democrats meeting Wednesday will focus on foreign fighters returning from Syria to Europe and potentially to the United States.

“As ISIS’ so-called caliphate in the Middle East deteriorates, foreign fighters are attempting to return to Europe and the United States,” Homeland Security Committee Chairman Michael T. McCaul, Texas Republican, told The Washington Times in an email. “Though an ocean divides us, it alone cannot protect our citizens from determined terrorists one flight away from our nation’s shores.”

Rep. Mike Gallagher, Wisconsin Republican, is expected to chair the task force.

“I intend to keep our work above partisan politics and approach this serious threat in a thoughtful, bipartisan manner,” Mr. Gallagher said.

Mr. McCaul, a former federal prosecutor, has targeted the visa waiver program as a key vulnerability. It allows visa-free 90-day travel to the U.S. from nearly 40 countries, including most of Europe. Counterterrorism officials worry that extremists from France, Belgium and Germany, which has allowed a massive resettlement of Syrian refugees, could exploit the automated system.

Task force members say they are troubled about whether European countries are sharing enough information on “people of concern” or those with suspected terrorist links. This information should flow from European intelligence agencies through Interpol to the automated American visa program.

Last month Homeland Security Secretary John F. Kelly warned that Islamic State combatants returning to Europe could try to manipulate the visa program.

“We are the Super Bowl in terms of terrorists,” the former Marine general said. “That’s where they want to come” — to the U.S.

The task force also will study whether various agencies are sharing information and resources, including Immigration and Customs Enforcement, U.S. Customs and Border Protection and other border security operations.

Additionally, task force members hope to develop more sophisticated procedures to track the social media footprints of visa applicants for evidence of jihadi leanings. Violence across Europe — including a truck attack on Bastille Day that killed 86 people in Nice, France — have uncovered links between the attacks and radical groups contained on social media sites.

Mr. McCaul’s committee publishes a monthly terrorist snapshot, providing detail on Islamist-linked plots across Europe and the U.S.

“We cannot wait until after the next tragedy to strengthen our nation’s defenses and fix security shortcomings,” Mr. McCaul said. “The time to act is now.”

Since 9/11, American society has struggled with balancing fundamental freedoms and a need for heightened security when discussing immigration and border reform. Analysts say U.S. approaches to dealing with fears of radical Islamists tend to veer between “hammer” and “scalpel.”

The Obama administration, for instance, at times used precision drone strikes and covert operations to thwart foreign fighters attempting to penetrate the U.S. Mr. Trump denounced that as weak and was more bold in his early efforts — including the travel ban — which critics say have scapegoated immigrants and pandered to Islamophobia.

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