US may review visa waiver to keep ISIS out

WASHINGTON • The United States should review a visa-waiver programme for countries that give European visitors easier access into the country, as foreign fighters with Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) return to Europe and attempt to travel to the US, Homeland Security Secretary John Kelly said.

The expected military defeat of ISIS will decentralise the threat from the terrorist group and put the US at greater risk, as militants with citizenship in Europe return home and plot further attacks, Mr Kelly said in a speech in Washington on Tuesday. It is a concern shared by European allies, he added, as large numbers of fighters are already going back.

"Most of those countries are visa-waiver countries," he said at the event organised by George Washington University. "We have to start looking very hard at that programme - not eliminating it and not doing anything excessive - but look very hard at that programme and say, 'What do we need to do?'"

While foreign fighters with ISIS may initially return to their home countries, Mr Kelly said their "real intent" is to travel to the US, which is "the Super Bowl in terms of terrorists".

Countries in the visa-waiver programme include Belgium, Spain, France, the United Kingdom, Italy and Germany, as well as non-European nations such as Australia, South Korea, Singapore, Chile and Japan. People from the visa-waiver countries aren't eligible if they also hold dual citizenship from Iraq, Iran, Syria and Sudan.

The US administration last month issued new rules barring laptops and other electronic devices in carry-on luggage from eight Middle Eastern countries, including Saudi Arabia, Turkey and the United Arab Emirates. Mr Kelly said his department "will likely expand" on such restrictions.

On reports of people being held up at airports for secondary screening or being refused entry into the US, Mr Kelly said that the reason was not their skin colour, country of origin or religion. Instead, he said an indicator or tip, such as something they said or content on their mobile phone, prompted officials with US Customs and Border Protection to make that decision.

"I can't tell you the number of phone calls I get from members of Congress telling me about how we're refusing someone's entry at LAX or at JFK because they're Muslim or because they're Arab," Mr Kelly said, referring to international airports in Los Angeles and New York. "It's absolutely not true."

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on April 20, 2017, with the headline 'US may review visa waiver to keep ISIS out'. Print Edition | Subscribe