Politics & Policy

Vulnerable to the Islamic State

A former DHS official says we need a “full-court press” to confront the group.

It’s only a matter of time before the Islamic State tries to attack Americans here at home. That’s according to James Chaparro, a former senior official at the Department of Homeland Security who spoke at length with National Review Online about the country’s vulnerabilities to the terrorist group, from the visa system to homegrown sympathizers.  

Chaparro spent more than two and a half decades working in the federal law-enforcement and intelligence communities, where his duties included managing intelligence efforts across DHS. He left his position as the assistant director of intelligence at Immigration and Customs Enforcement in the summer of 2013.

“I think that we were caught flat-footed with ISIS,” Chaparro says. “I don’t think that we were nimble enough to organize ourselves in a way that would have allowed us to put together that sort of comprehensive plan of attack — and not just military attack, but with all the instruments of national power.” He says a plan could have included using the Treasury Department, intelligence community, immigration and customs authorities, and the military to strike back at the Islamic State.

Because the rapid ascension of the Islamic State caught the federal government off-guard, American intelligence agencies don’t know enough about the group, Chaparro says. The lack of intelligence has many ramifications, but chief among them, it has made it difficult for officials to effectively update the terrorist watch list to prevent terrorists from exploiting the visa-waiver program or applying for non-immigrant visas.

He’s not the first to sound the alarm about loopholes in the visa system. Ronald Colburn, a former director of law enforcement on the White House Homeland Security Council, told NRO in August that members of the Islamic State could use visa waivers to enter the U.S. “Members of Hamas, Hezbollah, and potentially in the near future, if not already, ISIS, [could come] over on visa waivers from places like Great Britain,” Colburn said. Many intelligence sources believe that the terrorist who beheaded American journalist James Foley has roots in Great Britain and, as a result, could enter the U.S. without a visa.

And if Islamic State extremists and sympathizers do enter the United States on visas, they may have little trouble staying undetected. Chaparro says the lack of interior immigration enforcement has caused terrorists to have little fear of being caught overstaying a visa. In order to confront the Islamic State in the same way the United States beat back al-Qaeda, Chaparro says, the U.S. will need to implement a “full-court press.” “When I say a ‘full-court press,’ I mean that we need to use all instruments of national power that we have available to us, and so that is military, intelligence, diplomacy, getting our friendly nations involved, finance, or financial authorities,” he says.

The upheaval across the Middle East, which has created a flood of emigration from the region, has also created a means for members of the Islamic State to slip past immigration officials. Terrorists have the ability, Chaparro says, to “slip into that stream” of refugees and enter the United States. “Without a good ability to really investigate on the ground who these people are, a lot of times they get accepted into refugee programs because you don’t have derogatory information,” he says. “But because you don’t have derogatory information doesn’t mean they’re not bad.”

The current screening process has proved incapable of keeping terrorists at bay: In 2009, the U.S. admitted two al-Qaeda terrorists who had been living as Iraqi refugees in Bowling Green, Ky. The pair, who were living in public housing and collecting public-assistance payouts, later admitted to having attacked American soldiers on the battlefield in Iraq. Chaparro says the Islamic State will work to capitalize on similar oversights.  

But the threat posed by the Islamic State is not limited to foreign nationals seeking to enter the U.S.; Chaparro says the Islamic State will attempt to recruit homegrown terrorists, too. The group’s use of social media to recruit and propagandize is “very sophisticated,” he says, and some Westerners have already been persuaded to go fight overseas. The FBI apprehended three teenage Denver girls in Germany last week as they were reportedly traveling to Syria to join the Islamic State. “There’s a small segment of people already in the U.S. who can be swayed by that kind of stuff and take it upon themselves to carry out activities,” he says. “You will likely see people who are inspired, not to go overseas and do that, but to carry out attacks here.” Chaparro points to the attack inside the Canadian parliament as the sort of radicalization the Islamic State has the potential to inspire in the U.S.

Chaparro’s warnings echo those of several lawmakers. In August, House Intelligence Committee chairman Mike Rogers (R., Mich.), for example, said the intelligence community, the Department of Defense, and other government agencies are not configured in a way that allows them to work together to disrupt the Islamic State.

“It’s much broader than the visa-waiver program or just crossing the border illegally,” he says. “Clearly in their tradecraft they’re looking to evade the monitoring that the U.S. government does. They’re getting smarter.”

— Ryan Lovelace is a William F. Buckley Fellow at the National Review Institute.

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