WASHINGTON – Current and former members of Congress charge that amid ISIS threats to the U.S. homeland, the Obama administration is failing to counter "domestic radicalization" of Muslims and the potential for terrorists to infiltrate the border.
Rep. Michael McCaul, R-Texas, chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee, said in a statement to WND the Obama administration "is far behind the curve in scaling up programs to counter domestic radicalization, and it has struggled to explain to Congress whether it has a strategy to combat terrorist travel."
The potential for ISIS infiltration into the U.S. is great, the congressman said, especially from Europe, which U.S. extremists are using as a transit hub to join ISIS and al-Qaida.
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Former Rep. Pete Hoekstra R-Mich., chairman of the House Intelligence Committee from 2004 to 2007, affirmed to WND in an interview that a "real ISIS threat to the United States exists."
"There's going to be an attack. And there will be handwringing after the attack, and there will always be the accusation that we could have done more," Hoekstra said. "The United States is such a target-rich environment."
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He noted ISIS is a "very brutal enemy," as has been seen in the Middle East, Africa and France.
"Their behavior tells me they clearly at some point – I think in the relatively near future – want to have some type of attack in the United States to go with what they're doing in the Middle East, what they're doing in Africa, what they're doing in Europe," Hoekstra said. "It's kind of like to show that they're a global player we need to have some kind of attack in the United States."
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Hoekstra said ISIS is unlike al-Qaida, which has seemed to be "constrained by the past," since its attack on the United States Sept. 11, 2001. Whatever al-Qaida did subsequent to that attack had to at least be on the scale of 9/11, or bigger, he explained. Otherwise, it would be "an indication of weakness or diminishment of their ability."
The former House Intelligence Committee chairman, who left office in 2011, said ISIS has been fairly successful, despite recent setbacks, taking over vast amounts of territory in Syria and Iraq and in parts of North Africa and Nigeria.
"Clearly, they are going to try to solidify their gains and hold their gains in the areas where they have made progress," he said.
"But I also believe that they think they can be expansionist, not only in terms of territorial gains but also in the propaganda war that if there were a series of successful attacks in Europe, Africa and the United States."
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It would enable ISIS, he said, "to generate the resources of recruitment that they need to maintain and perhaps expand in the areas where they've made significant progress."
McCaul's criticism comes on the heels of a general federal alert last weekend of an unspecified threat of attack by ISIS on the U.S. homeland as new reports emerge of an ISIS presence in Mexico linked with the drug cartels that have tentacles into the U.S.
The alarms come on the heels of recent comments by Federal Bureau of Investigation Director James Comey that his agency has opened cases of ISIS suspects in all 50 U.S. States.
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McCaul said that most concerning are the European Union citizens "who have joined violent extremist groups and whose passports can get them into the United States with relative ease."
"If European authorities cannot identify these fighters to begin with or detect them when they travel, they are more likely to reach our shores unnoticed, too," he said.
To respond to the growing concern, McCaul said he recently launched a bipartisan Congressional Task Force on Combating Terrorist and Foreign Fighter Travel to examine U.S. security gaps.
"But we should not be playing defense at our one-yard line," McCaul stressed. "To protect America, we must push our border security outward. That means working with our foreign partners in Europe and beyond to urgently fix their security deficiencies – before more extremists leave the battlefield and set their sights on our city streets."
The classified warnings last weekend by the Department of Homeland Security's Transportation Security Agency centered on airports in California, even, though officials admitted there was no specific threat.
The notice out of TSA's Transportation Security Operations Center, according to sources who have seen it, didn't identify a location or type of attack. It specified only the timing, a 48-hour period that began last Friday afternoon.
TSA deployed its Visible Intermodal Prevention and Response, or VIPR, teams to various locations across the country. The VIPR teams not only go to airports but also train stations and other busy transportation sites.
Call for 'lone-wolf attacks'
U.S. intelligence and law enforcement officials who spoke on condition of anonymity believe such threats are imminent, pointing to a recent ISIS call for lone wolf attacks on soft targets, including the homes of Americans.
FBI Director Comey recently said his agency has "investigations of people in various stages of radicalizing in all 50 states.
"This isn't a New York phenomenon or a Washington phenomenon," Comey said. "This is in all 50 states and in ways that are very hard to see."
A WND request to the FBI for comment on the alert of an ISIS attack went unanswered.
The FBI has made a number of recent arrests, with the latest publicly announced apprehensions of six young men who had conspired to join ISIS in Syria. All six were members of Minnesota's community of Somali immigrants.
Last September, an ISIS leader called for attacks on the U.S. homeland, as well as in other western countries, particularly France and Britain.
A statement released by ISIS specifically called for lone-wolf attacks, especially in the U.S. and France which have been conducting airstrikes against ISIS in Iraq.
ISIS already has taken credit for one such attack, in France last January on the French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo and a Jewish delicatessen led by Al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula. ISIS took credit because elements of AQAP have joined, with the prospect of becoming part of the ISIS caliphate.
U.S. intelligence and law enforcement officials confirm that AQAP is one of the most serious Sunni jihadist groups capable of launching attacks on the U.S. homeland.
"Hinder those who want to harm your brothers," the ISIS statement said. "The best thing you can do is to strive to your best and kill any disbeliever, whether he be French, American or from any of their allies."
The unidentified ISIS spokesman went on to say that civilians will not be exempt from attack.
"Do not ask for anyone's advice and do not seek anyone's verdict," the spokesman said. "Kill the disbeliever whether he is civilian or military, for they have the same ruling. Both of them are disbelievers. Both of them are considered to be waging war.
"Oh Americans, and oh Europeans, the Islamic State did not initiate a war against you, as your governments and media try to make you believe," the ISIS spokesman said. "It is you who started the transgression against us, and thus you deserve blame and you will pay a great price."
The ISIS spokesman went on to give details to followers on how to carry out the attacks.
"Rig the roads with explosives for them. Attack their bases. Raid their homes. Cut off their heads. Do not let them feel secure. Hunt them wherever they may be. Turn their worldly life into fear and fire. Remove their families from their homes and thereafter blow up their homes."
Taking threats seriously
Sources tell WND that while al-Qaida in the past has made similar overtures, the ISIS threats are being taken very seriously. They are bing given more weight, because ISIS' radical support base believes its leaders are the rightful sovereign leaders of all Muslims worldwide.
A senior U.S. Defense Department official said ISIS is a major threat, because of its recent declarations and track record of carrying out threats.
"The United States remains vigilant about threats to U.S. citizens at home and abroad," a State Department official said. "Ensuring the safety of our citizens is a top priority. Our security posture will continue to respond appropriately to protect the American people."
Last July, WND was one of the first to report concerns about the long history of links between al-Qaida and the drug cartels and the MS-13 gang. The cartels and MS-13, which are in some 1,200 U.S. cities, could become ISIS proxies to launch attacks.
Sen. Tom Cotton, R-Ark, and Rep. Duncan Hunter, R-Calif., recently expressed similar concerns. Then, earlier this month, Judicial Watch issued a report saying its sources had claimed ISIS has established a base around eight miles, just west of Ciudad Juarez in the Mexican state of Chihuahua.
Judicial Watch identified its sources as a Mexican Army field grade officer and a Mexican federal police inspector."
"According to these same sources," Judicial Watch said, "coyotes engaged inhuman smuggling – and working for Juarez Cartel – help move ISIS terrorists through the desert and across the border between Santa Teresa and Sunland Park, New Mexico.
"To the east of El Paso and Ciudad Juarez, cartel-backed 'coyotes' are also smuggling ISIS terrorists through the porous border between Acala and Fort Hancock, Texas," the Judicial Watch statement said. "These specific areas were targeted for exploitation by ISIS because of their understaffed municipal and county police forces, and the relative safe-havens the areas provide for the unchecked large-scale drug smuggling that was already ongoing."
Judicial Watch said Mexican intelligence sources said ISIS intends to exploit the railways and airport facilities in the vicinity of Santa Teresa, New Mexico, a port of entry.
The sources also say that ISIS has "spotters" located in the East Potrillo Mountains of New Mexico, largely managed by the Bureau of Land Management), to assist with terrorist border crossing operations.
The Judicial Watch report was denied by the DHS, the U.S. Northern Command and the Texas Department of Public Safety.
Rep. Beto O'Rourke, D-Texas, who represents the border city of El Paso and the surrounding area, said he had contacted DHS, the Mexican government and Northern Command, all of whom said there was no intelligence to mirror what Judicial Watch claimed.
However Hoekstra, the former House Intelligence Committee chairman, said such reports need to be taken seriously.
"ISIS is much more creative, and if they can see an opportunity on a temporary basis and make an alliance with the drug cartels or gangs or whatever to enable them to carry out an attack, I think they are very open to doing it," he said.
He said that the "proxies" of cartels and the gangs such as MS-13 in U.S. cities "are there to facilitate the infiltration for an attack for the money.
Hoekstra said the proxies ask: "Do you want to do something in New York? Do you want to do something in Chicago? We'll help expedite it."