ISIS Is A Threat To U.S. Interests, Top Official Says. Here’s What’s Being Done About It


Kathleen Miles is the executive editor of Noema Magazine. She can be reached on Twitter at @mileskathleen.

U.S. Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson said Wednesday that the extremist group the Islamic State, also known as ISIS or ISIL, is a threat to America and must be confronted.

“ISIL has shown a level of danger that constitutes a threat to our vital interests as a nation and to others in our coalition that is being assembled right now — such that the only responsible thing to do is to take them on,” Johnson said during a speech at the Council on Foreign Relations.

“This type of terrorist threat simply has to be engaged,” he added. “You can’t avoid it.”

Johnson said that the Islamist militant group has an estimated 10,000 fighters, engages in 30 to 40 attacks a month and takes in as much as a million dollars a day from oil sales, smuggling and ransom payments. He also noted that President Barack Obama will be giving a speech Wednesday night outlining his plan to “degrade and destroy ISIL as part of a broad international community.”

Johnson outlined five steps that the Department of Homeland Security is taking to combat the Islamic State and other terrorist threats:

1. Increasing aviation security, especially at overseas airports

Johnson said that he has overseen an enhanced screening process since July at about 25 oversees airports that offer direct flights to the U.S. “I’d much rather defend our end zone from the 50-yard line than from our 1-yard line,” he said.

2. Stepping up efforts to track Syrian fighters who seek to enter the U.S.

Johnson said that there are more than 12,000 fighters who have traveled to Syria over the last three years, including more than 1,000 Europeans and more than 100 Americans. “Not only may these foreign fighters join ISIL, they may also be recruited by these extremist groups to leave Syria and conduct external attacks,” he said.

The FBI has arrested a number of individuals who have tried to travel from the U.S. to Syria to support terrorist activities, Johnson added.

3. Improving information sharing with other governments to track foreign fighters in Syria

Under the U.S. visa waiver program, citizens from 38 approved countries can travel to the U.S. for 90 days without a visa. Johnson said that the U.S. is enhancing information sharing with these countries because some of them have a large number of citizens who are fighting in Syria.

He added that DHS is reviewing safeguards in the U.S. visa waiver program and encouraging more countries to join the U.S. in using advanced screening tools, such as systems that maintain a record of passenger names. President Obama will lead a discussion on this topic at a U.N. Security Council summit in two weeks, Johnson said.

4. Enhancing information sharing between the FBI, CIA and DHS

Johnson and the directors of the FBI and CIA are increasing the amount of information they share about suspicious individuals, he said.

5. Addressing homegrown domestic terrorist threats

DHS is on guard against domestic lone-wolf threats, such as the Boston marathon bombers, Johnson said. This effort includes coordinating with local police and encouraging the public to look for suspicious behavior and report it. This week, he added, DHS is sending a list of suspicious materials, such as ones that make bombs, to retailers and asking them to report individuals who purchase a lot of of them.