Militants from the so-called Islamic State stand behind what are said to be Ethiopian Christians in Libya, in this still image from an undated video posted to a social media website on April 19, 2015.
Militants from the so-called Islamic State stand behind what are said to be Ethiopian Christians in Libya, in this still image from an undated video posted to a social media website on April 19, 2015.

CAPITOL HILL - U.S. officials are warning of Islamic State’s ability to inspire violent deeds around the world, including in the United States, without commanding or having any direct contact with terrorists.

“We are in a new phase of the global terrorist threat,” Homeland Security Deputy Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas told a U.S. Senate panel Thursday.

“We have moved from a world of terrorist-directed attacks to a world that increasingly includes the threat of terrorist-inspired attacks, one in which the attacker may never have come face to face with a member of a terrorist organization, but instead is inspired by the messages and propaganda of ISIL," Mayorkas said, using an acronym for the Islamic State group.

“By their nature, such inspired attacks are harder for intelligence and law enforcement to detect, and could occur with little or no notice,” he added.

A poster showing all 14 victims is displayed duri
FILE - A poster showing all 14 victims is displayed during an interfaith memorial service at the Islamic Center of Redlands for the victims of the San Bernardino mass shooting, Dec. 6, 2015 in Loma Linda, California.

Battling 'twisted message'

The top Democrat on the Homeland Security Committee agreed with the assessment, noting last year's terrorist attack in San Bernardino, California, that left 14 people dead.

“We could shut down all travel and immigration to this country and still not be safe from terrorist threats,” said Senator Tom Carper of Delaware. “Unfortunately, ISIS [another Islamic State acronym] knows all too well the best way to attack America is to have Americans do it [for them]. That’s why ISIS has put an emphasis on using social media and the Internet to radicalize Americans at home.

“We have to make sure that when ISIS makes its recruitment pitch to Americans, their twisted message falls on deaf ears.”

The hearing was held one week after the crash of EgyptAir Flight 804 into the Mediterranean, the cause of which remains a mystery. Whether or not terrorism was involved, lawmakers expressed deep concern about Islamic State’s reach around the globe.

'Very effective opponent'

“I think there’s not a sense of urgency here,” Republican Senator Rob Portman of Ohio complained. “I think it’s hard for us to sit here and say that ISIS is, in fact, being contained. We are facing a very effective opponent online. They have a very slick narrative. They are reaching out to alienated youth in the West and elsewhere.”

While the challenges are daunting, the picture is not entirely bleak, according to Justin Siberell, the State Department's acting coordinator of counterterrorism.

“I think their [Islamic State’s] message has been blunted,” Siberell said. “That message of victory they relied upon so successfully in their early period, in the 2014-2015 era — there have been significant losses that ISIL has suffered."

Furthermore, he said, "they are not delivering effectively on governance [in Syria and Iraq].”

French police patrol at the Monument a la Republiq
FILE - French police patrol at the Monument a la Republique, in the Place de la Republique in Paris, where people are gathering on Nov. 15, 2015, two days after a series of deadly attacks.

Republican Senator Kelly Ayotte of New Hampshire sought assurances that terrorists in Europe would be prevented from reaching the United States.

“Those that were involved in the Paris attacks or the Brussels attacks, were any of those individuals not on our terror watch list or our no-fly list or our other databases?” Ayotte asked. “If they are nowhere [on U.S. lists], it’s a lot less likely that we are going to discover them.”

Stronger protocols

Mayorkas said he did not know offhand whether all perpetrators of the Paris and Brussels attacks were on lists that would have prevented their travel to the United States. But he stressed the systems in place have been strengthened and are designed to flag potential evildoers.

“We vet every single application of a visa waiver traveler, every single one,” he said. “The ease with which an individual might travel from one European country to another is very different from the difficulty with which someone might travel from a European country to the United States. Our security protocols at last-point-of-departure airports are extraordinarily robust.”

Senators of both parties said they expected a long battle against violent extremism.

“This tragedy [EgyptAir] reminds us that securing our homeland is likely to remain an ongoing challenge for some time to come, and our efforts must adapt as groups like ISIS evolve their tactics,” Carper said.

“The solutions are very, very difficult. And they are going to take some time to finally, in the end, defeat Islamic terror,” said the committee’s chairman, Senator Ron Johnson, a Wisconsin Republican.