On December 2, 14 people were murdered and 21 injured in San Bernardino, California, in the deadliest terrorist attack on U.S. soil since Sept. 11, 2001. The investigation is ongoing, but it is clear the perpetrators were inspired by the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS). This comes on the heels of a string of major ISIS operations. Indeed, the world witnessed three ISIS terrorist attacks on three continents in just three weeks, including the massacre on the streets of Paris, brutal attacks in Lebanon and the downing of a Russian jet in Egypt — the first successful terrorist attack on an airline since 9/11.
Each of us has fought violent Islamist extremism or worked to keep our country safe before coming to Congress — at the Justice Department, CIA and in the military. We dealt with al Qaeda and became familiar with its hierarchical structure and desire to conduct large-scale attacks.
ISIS is different. It has the same ideology and desire to destroy us and our way of life, but has metastasized into a new form, one that is effective, ubiquitous and dangerous. And when it comes to large versus small-scale attacks, ISIS is interested in “all of the above.” We say this not to invoke fear, but to instill vigilance. We are in a generational fight for our nation, interests, allies and freedoms.
ISIS declared its “caliphate” in Iraq and Syria 17 months ago. Since then, the Obama administration’s anemic airstrikes have done little to eliminate their leadership, or destroy command and control, logistics, and flow of resources to fund their operations. As a result of our hesitation, ISIS has flourished. They now have a growing presence in 19 different countries. Over 30,000 foreign fighters from 100 different nations have traveled to Iraq and Syria to join the fight or receive training. 5,000 of these foreign fighters come from Western and visa waiver countries and 250 are Americans. This is just what we know. Intelligence officials have admitted that there are probably many more.
ISIS takes advantage of social media to recruit, train, direct and inspire terrorists all over the world. There are an estimated 200,000 pro-ISIS tweets a day, pushing out the group’s insidious message, searching for new enthusiasts, and celebrating their momentum. This reliance on social media, and other forms of communications, presents new opportunities, but also creates challenges when it comes to tracking and targeting those who seek to do us harm.
Their vision is to inspire jihadists worldwide to commit terrorist acts in their own communities. The attacks in Garland, Texas, Chattanooga, Tennessee and now San Bernardino, California, highlight the challenges law enforcement have to keep up with this pervasive threat. It is already difficult to monitor all of the terror suspects on our radar screen, but an even more dangerous threat comes from those who have quietly radicalized before law enforcement can take notice.
ISIS’ sophistication and the unprecedented volume of fighters flowing to the Middle East raise serious security concerns. That is why, in March, Chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee Michael McCaul appointed the three of us and five other members of Congress to a bipartisan task force to examine the threat. In September we released our final report, including more than 50 recommendations to enhance America’s defenses against terrorists. These included proposals to close security gaps here at home and overseas to keep violent extremists from crossing borders.
For example, 38 countries, mostly in Europe, participate in our Visa Waiver Program (VWP), which allows a citizen of that country to travel to America for 90 days without a visa after filling out an online questionnaire. In order to participate, countries agree to share intelligence information with us, but too few actually comply or do not share information with us regularly.
In addition, one-third of countries in the international community still do not use fraud-resistant “e-passports” and the majority of countries cannot even validate whether a secure passport actually belongs to the traveler presenting it. Worse still, most of our foreign partners are not screening travelers against INTERPOL databases in real-time at their borders, meaning that they miss out on a crucial opportunity to detect potential terrorists or suspicious travel documents, all of which INTERPOL helps to track.
While we share our terrorist watch list information with many European partners, it is EU policy to refrain from checking their own citizens against any watch lists or no-fly lists. Considering thousands of Europeans have traveled to join jihadists in Syria, this is a stunning security weakness.
There is no shortage of vulnerabilities in the system. That is why our bipartisan task force laid out specific, actionable recommendations to improve our security. Unfortunately, none of them have been acted on by the administration with the sense of urgency required to counter this aggressive threat.
Last month, the House passed bipartisan legislation to prevent terrorists from exploiting our refugee programs to enter the United States — which we know terrorists are interested in doing — and last week, passed an overwhelmingly bipartisan bill to tighten the security of the Visa Waiver Program, which would fulfill major recommendations from our task force. These initiatives are an important start and should be signed into law immediately.
So much more must be done to protect our country against the rising terrorist threat and to ultimately defeat ISIS. But much of it cannot occur without presidential leadership that takes this threat seriously and commits the resources needed to destroy ISIS.
In the meantime, we will do our part, and we stand ready to move our task force recommendations forward to strengthen American security, protect our communities and defend our way of life.
• Martha McSally, Arizona Republican, Will Hurd, Texas Republican, and John Katko, New York Republican, are U.S. representatives.