(Bloomberg) -- Senators pressed top U.S. national security officials Tuesday about the country’s vulnerability to terrorism from the Taliban takeover in Afghanistan and from the thousands of evacuees arriving in the U.S.
“These recent events have put a heightened foreign terrorist threat top-of-mind,” Senator Rob Portman, an Ohio Republican, said at a hearing of the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee.
FBI Director Christopher Wray said the bureau is working with state and local agencies to “get in front of any radicalization” of Afghan evacuees in the U.S., relying on more than 200 joint terrorism task forces to monitor potential threats.
“We’re putting a heavy focus on community outreach as the evacuees settle here in the United States,” Wray said.
Defending the ongoing vetting of Afghan evacuees, Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas said “we continue to screen and vet individuals seeking to arrive in the United States.”
“We have not relaxed our vigilance over the years,” Mayorkas added.
More than 60,000 people have been brought into the U.S. from Afghanistan so far, Mayorkas said. About 7% are U.S. citizens, 6% are lawful permanent residents and 3% are Afghans who have received special immigrant visas, Mayorkas said. The rest are vulnerable individuals and those whose applications haven’t yet been approved, he said.
Mayorkas didn’t provide any new information on vetting, reiterating past points that the U.S. gathers biographic and biometric information and relies on experts to conduct screening and vetting before allowing people into the country.
“We have not found many people with derogatory information relative to those who qualify for admission to the United States,” Mayorkas said. The Homeland Security Department would seek to remove any Afghan evacuees who raised red flags, possibly to a third country, he said.
The officials also cited concern about the possibility that Afghanistan will become a safe haven for terrorist groups.
Monitoring emerging threats from Afghanistan is a top priority of the National Counterterrorism Center, its director, Christine Abizaid, said. The agency is evaluating how quickly terrorist groups in Afghanistan will be able to plot, inspire or launch attacks in the U.S. or other countries, she said.
Wray, Mayorkas and Abizaid all said they have security concerns that the Taliban have named Sirajuddin Haqqani, the leader of the Haqqani Network, as acting interior minister.
He’s on the FBI’s most wanted list for terrorism, and the U.S. still offers a reward for his capture.
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