Congress seeks to punish countries that fail to hinder foreign fighters

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Article Summary
The House Foreign Affairs panel will vote this week on a plan to combat international travel by terrorists.

Congress is starting the new year with a clear warning that the Middle East and Europe need to do a whole lot more to prevent jihadis from moving around the globe.

The House Foreign Affairs Committee is scheduled to vote Jan. 7 on legislation to create a plan to combat international travel by terrorists and other foreign fighters. The bill, from panel member Lee Zeldin, R-N.Y., notably requires the State Department to single out at-risk countries that fail to meet “minimum standards” for combating travel by foreign fighters.

“The vulnerabilities that currently exist with international security abroad pose a concerning threat to our homeland,” Zeldin said in a statement. “The development of international border security standards is critical. With the rise of terrorism at home and around the world, it’s essential that we work together as a global community to monitor and stop the movement of terrorists.”

The preliminary panel vote comes as Congress has been clamoring for action in the wake of last month’s deadly shooting in San Bernardino, which the FBI on Jan. 5 said appeared to be foreign “inspired” but not “foreign-directed.” Just before their Christmas break, lawmakers made it harder for Europeans and others with ties to Iran, Iraq, Syria and Sudan to benefit from visa-free travel to the United States.

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Zeldin’s bill tracks closely with the conclusions of a September 2015 House Homeland Security Committee report whose very first recommendation was the creation of a national strategy to combat terrorist travel. The State Department would have six months to craft such a plan, with a special focus on foreign nations’ needs and shortcomings.

In addition, the State Department and Homeland Security Department would be instructed to cooperate on an annual report tracking foreign countries’ progress in preventing travel by foreign fighters. Those nations that fail to make “significant efforts” to comply with the standards set forth in the bill would be at risk of losing US economic and military assistance.

The threat of a US aid cut is particularly concerning for Middle East nations such as Tunisia and Jordan — and, to a lesser extent, Morocco — that receive millions in US aid every year. Those three countries ranked first, third and seventh, respectively, among the top 10 nations of origin of foreigners fighting in Syria and Iraq, according to data compiled by the Homeland Security panel (oil-rich Saudi Arabia, which doesn’t get any substantial US aid, ranked second).

To help foreign countries better control their borders, Zeldin’s bill would also authorize the Department of Homeland Security to provide them with “excess nonlethal equipment and supplies.” The bill specifically instructs the agency to “accelerate the provision” to foreign governments of its automated global targeting system to evaluate travelers along with the State Department’s system to securely compare and evaluate personal identification.

The Department of Defense is already authorized to share excess weapons with foreign countries as part of a program that came under scrutiny after protesters in Ferguson, Missouri, were met by heavily armed police forces in 2014. The Department of Homeland Security did not respond to a request for comment.

Separately, the House panel is also scheduled to vote Jan. 7 on legislation from Rep. Steve Russell, R-Okla., that would restrict the Obama administration’s ability to remove Iranian individuals and institutions from a US list of sanctioned entities.

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Found in: tunisia, terrorism, syrian conflict, san bernardino attack, morocco, jordan, iran sanctions, congress

Julian Pecquet is the Editor of Special Projects for Al-Monitor, where he supervises the award-winning Lobbying Tracker as well as managing long-form stories. Before that he covered the US Congress for Al-Monitor. Prior to joining Al-Monitor, Pecquet led global affairs coverage for the political newspaper The Hill.

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