A senior FBI official has admitted the United States is finding it virtually impossible to screen out terrorists that could be hiding among the thousands of Syrian “refugees” heading soon to American cities.
The U.S. simply does not have the resources to stop Islamic radicals in Syria from slipping into the country through the State Department’s refugee-resettlement program, said Michael Steinbach, deputy assistant director of the FBI’s counter terrorism unit.
Separating legitimate refugees from terrorists was difficult enough in Iraq, where the U.S. had a large occupation force. Even then, the U.S. government’s vetting process missed “dozens” of Iraqi jihadists who slipped into the country posing as refugees and took up residence in Kentucky, according to a November 2013 ABC News report.
In Syria, the challenges are much greater. That’s why Rep. Michael McCaul, R-Texas, chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee, held hearings this week on the process of vetting refugees and sent a letter to the White House voicing the committee’s “serious national security concerns.”
“We learned our lessons with the Iraqi refugee population. We put in place a USIK-wide background and vetting process that we found to be effective,” Steinbach told the committee Wednesday.
“The difference is that in Iraq we were there on the ground collecting (information), so we had databases to use,” he added. “The concern is that in Syria, the lack of our footprint on the ground in Syria, the databases won’t have the information we need. So it’s not that we have a lack of a process, it’s that there is a lack the information.”
Separating the wheat from the tares
Rep. John Katko, R-N.Y., asked Steinbach if he could suggest ways to go about getting this vital background information that would separate legitimate refugees from those who may be seeking to enter the U.S. to harm Americans.
“I just don’t think you can go and get it,” Steinbach said. “You’re talking about a country that’s a failed state, does not have any infrastructure so to speak. So all the data sets, the police, the intel services, that you would normally go to and seek that information, don’t exist.”
“And that obviously raises a grave concern of being able to do proper background checks on individuals coming into the country?” Katko asked.
“Yes,” Steinbach responded.
Listen to clip of FBI agent Michael Steinbach’s testimony before house Homeland Security committee.
McCaul’s panel sent a letter to the Obama administration Jan. 28 saying they have “serious national security concerns” about the U.S. State Department’s plans to accept tens of thousands of Syrian refugees into the U.S. by the end of 2016.
The letter implored the administration not to let the refugee resettlement program become a “backdoor for jihadists” to enter the country.
The United States has traditionally taken in the majority of the world’s displaced persons, but since 1980 the refugee program has been handled through the United Nations high commissioner on refugees, who approves individuals for refugee status and then assigns them to various host countries. The U.S. is responsible for vetting the refugees assigned by the U.N., a task that falls to the Department of Homeland Security, and the U.S. can reject any refugee during that process.
The four-year-old Syrian civil war has created a humanitarian crisis, with 3.2 million Syrians having fled their country. Most are staying in camps in Jordan, Lebanon and Turkey.
The State Department said in December it was processing more than 9,000 applications referred from the United Nations, with tens of thousands more Syrians waiting in the U.N. pipeline. Resettlement agencies have lobbied the White House and Congress to allow up to 75,000 Syrians into the country as refugees over the next five years.
“Would bringing in Syrian refugees pose a greater risk to Americans?” asked McCaul.
“Yes, I’m concerned,” said Steinbach. “We’ll have to go take a look at those lists and go through all of those intelligence holdings and be very careful to try and identify connections to foreign terrorist groups.”
And the door from Syria swings both ways.
Not only are Syrians with potentially deadly ties to terrorism coming into the U.S., but Americans are going to Syria to fight for ISIS. Many are lured over the Internet or encouraged by radicalized mosques in the U.S. to fly to the Middle East and wage jihad. Once they receive military training they are a danger to return to the United States.
Situation ‘out of control’
Another purpose of McCaul’s hearings was to get a handle on the size of the ISIS fighting force and how many Westerners have left their countries to fight for the terrorist army, which has butchered Christians across Iraq and Syria.
More than 150 Americans are believed to have gone to fight for ISIS. That’s up from the number Vice President Joe Biden gave just last fall, when he said about 100 Americans were fighting for ISIS.
“We don’t have it under control,” said Steinbach. “Absolutely, we’re doing the best we can. If I were to say that we had it under control, then I would say I know of every single individual traveling. I don’t. And I don’t know every person there and I don’t know everyone coming back. So it’s not even close to being under control.”
McCaul said the American people want answers.
“You know the American people have seen Americans, the American journalists, beheaded by the ISIS executioner. It was a wake-up call for the United States,” McCaul said. “Kayla Mueller was just recently executed.
“And the Jordanian pilot, in one of the most horrific videos I’ve ever seen, in a very sophisticated Hollywood movie production style, lit in flames,” he continued. “They’re barbarians. And I think the barbarians are at the gate. We want to keep them outside the gates of the United States. I’m concerned that some have already returned.”
McCaul said the ISIS army is 50,000-men strong, but an article by WND earlier this week cited an Egyptian intelligence report that estimates the terrorist army could muster up to 180,000 or more fighters if it called in allied forces from al-Qaida, al-Shabab, al-Nusra and other like-minded Islamic groups.
What’s more troubling is the number of foreign fighters flooding in from the West. ISIS is not a nationalist movement with loyalties to any nation. Rather, it is an Islamic movement bent on building up the caliphate declared by Caliph Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi.
Under an Islamic caliphate, the fighters swear allegiance to the caliph. Christians in the caliphate have been forced to convert or die. Many of the Christian women have been sold into slavery after being forced to watch the murder of their own children.
5,000 ISIS fighters hold Western passports
“We know that foreign fighters have gone from 15,000 to 20,000. We know that 5,000 of these foreign fighters have Western passports that could get them entrance into the United States,” McCaul said. “… There are hundreds of Americans who have traveled to the region to fight with ISIS. We know that some of them have returned, and that’s a classified number. But my first question is, for those who have returned to the United States, what assurances can you give the American people, and what are we doing about it to make sure they do not attack in the United States?”
Nicholas Rasmussen, director of the National Counter Terrorism Center, also testified Wednesday and said the numbers are far from clear.
“We know what we know, but that comes from a wide variety of sources and we have always assessed that there is likely more information out there that we have not yet been able to collect … And that is possible there are greater numbers of foreign fighters and potentially even greater numbers of individuals from Western countries who have traveled to the conflict zones.”
Steinbach agreed the numbers could be much greater than the 150 or so Americans suspected of fighting for ISIS, also called ISIL.
“I would not be truthful if I told you we knew about all the returnees. We know what we know. There is a number that we don’t know about,” he told the committee. “The ones we know about, that have returned from Syria and the conflict zone. … Regardless of the intelligence that we started with, we build a case to disrupt. … And we seek to determine the root cause of their travel, what they did in Syria, and then ultimately if it was in support of a foreign terrorist organization such as ISIL we look for prosecution or some other type of disruption.”
McCaul said he does not believe the U.S. has “sufficient human intelligence in Syria to properly identify these individuals and hopefully the administration will move forward to do that.”