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Terror attack at Ohio State University prompts Senators to rethink 'extreme vetting'

FILE - In this Nov. 28, 2016 file photo, crime scene investigators collect evidence from the pavement as police respond to an attack on campus at Ohio State University, in Columbus, Ohio. (AP Photo/John Minchillo, File)

The violent attack at Ohio State University (OSU) on Monday, being investigated as an act of terror by a Somali refugee living legally in the United States, has led some in Congress to look favorably at the policies of the incoming Donald Trump administration, including the "extreme vetting" of individuals seeking entry to the country.

On Monday, an Ohio State student identified as Abdul Razak Ali Artan, drove his car into a group of people on the main campus in Columbus before attacking bystanders with a butcher knife. Artan was subdued by an Ohio State police officer who fatally shot him after he had injured 11 people.

As the event was unfolding on Monday, Trump issued a brief message of support to the students and faculty at OSU and first responders. As information about the apparently radicalized Somali-born suspect came in, it prompted many to reflect on Trump's campaign promises to strengthen the vetting of individuals coming to the country and also initiate a "total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States."

Prior to Trump's early campaign statement calling for an end to Muslim immigration to the United States (until U.S. representatives "can figure out what is going on"), Senator Rand Paul (R-Ky.) introduced a bill to officially pause the resettlement of refugees entering the United States from 33 terror-prone countries, including Somalia. The bill also proposed strengthening the system of background checks.

On Tuesday, Paul told Sinclair Broadcast Group, "I am still for putting a pause" on resettlement. He explained that the pause should relate to specific goals, including putting in place a better system to monitor individuals who come into the country as immigrants or on a U.S. visa.

Even though his proposal to block terrorists from taking advantage of the U.S. visa and immigration system was defeated back in December 2015, Paul now sees an opportunity to revisit the proposal under a new administration that is "more inclined" to enforce laws that prevent the abuse of immigration and visa laws.

"[Trump] talked about 'extreme vetting,' and I think there needs to be more significant vetting of those who want to come to our country," Paul insisted. "We need to get a better handle on this."

Former Trump rival, Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.) reacted to the the incident at Ohio State University, saying it is a reminder that the United States government "should not be letting people in this country who are security risks." Cruz noted that unlike the Obama administration, the incoming Trump administration is likely to work harder to prevent terrorists from entering the United States.

"I am optimistic that the new administration will put, as a far higher priority, keeping this country safe and protecting us against radical Islamic terrorism," Cruz said.

For Senate Homeland Security Committee chairman, Ron Johnson (R-Wis.), Trump's pledge to secure the border is even more important than implementing a stricter vetting process for refugees.

"I am far more concerned about Islamic terrorists potentially coming through our incredibly porous southern border" Johnson said. "Which is why I am completely supportive of President-elect Trump's commitment to secure the border."

With little information about the suspect in the Ohio State University attack, now is not the time prejudge the incident or make broad-reaching policy decisions, according to some lawmakers.

Only 24 hours after the attack, it is just too soon to jump to conclusions about the suspect, says Ohio Democrat, Sherrod Brown.

"These attacks are always a tragedy for our community," he stated. "I want to know more about this young man's journey to the U.S., and his background... before making a judgment," Brown added.

For others, like Georgia Senator Johnny Isakson (R), now is also not the right time to be reactive or push major policy changes. Although Isakson supported previous legislative efforts to curb refugee resettlement from Syria and Iraq, he advised on Tuesday not to let one incident determine changes in existing policy.

The OSU attack "certainly raises the question about Somali refugees," Isakson noted, but the overall policy towards refugees should be reexamined on "an ongoing basis," not just in response to particular events.

Law enforcement officials have indicated that they are still a long way from establishing Artan's motives in carrying out the Monday assault. According to media reports, prior to carrying out the attack, Artan posted an anti-American rant on Facebook, where he praised the U.S. citizen turned Islamist cleric, Anwar al-Awlaki, as a "hero," and referred to American officials' inability to stop "lone wolf attacks."

Law enforcement officials have not made any official findings connecting Artan to the Islamic State, but in a Tuesday internet posting, ISIS claimed the attacker was a "soldier" of the terrorist group. Earlier this month, ISIS issued instructions to its adherents abroad to carry out attacks using knives and cars.

Preliminary reports indicate that Artan was born in Somalia and lived there until 2007, when he and his family resettled in Pakistan. Around 2014, the family arrived in the United States as refugees, staying in Dallas temporarily before relocating to Columbus, Ohio, a city with a sizable Somali community. Artan attended Columbus State Community College and graduated last spring before enrolling at OSU.

As the identity of the Ohio State attacker was revealed by state law enforcement officials, Ohio's openness to refugees, particularly of Somali origin, came under fire. Even though the states have little power to control refugee flows into their borders, many took to social media to blame Ohio Governor John Kasich, saying that the attack "is on you."

Though critical of the Obama administration's plan to accept additional Syrian refugees into the United States, Kasich has generally spoken favorably about integrating new citizens into his state. According to the Somali Association of Ohio, there are at least 38,000 Somali immigrants and refugees living in the Columbus metropolitan area, with an addition 200 immigrants expected to arrive monthly within the next four years.

Earlier this year, the Obama administration announced new targets for resettling refugees after settling 85,000 in FY 2016 and aiming for 110,000 in 2017. Obama's announcement followed on the heels of a heated reaction from the public and lawmakers to revelations that one of the suspects in the Nov. 2015 terrorist attacks in Paris has reportedly entered Europe as a refugee.

The Paris attack, which left 130 civilians dead, triggered U.S. officials to begin rethinking federal policies, it prompted changes in visa waiver laws, and a reconsideration of visa-free travel from Europe. It also led to dozens of state governors openly rejecting the resettlement of Syrian refugees in their states.

In a prescient testimony before the Senate Homeland Security Committee in 2015, national security analyst Peter Bergen warned that acts of violence perpetrated by homegrown extremists posted "a more immediate challenge" than the threat of foreign terrorists. He warned that the "more likely threat" to the United States came from individuals inspired by ISIS or other militant groups, and who may never even come into direct contact with these groups.

The threat of homegrown extremism prompted Obama's Department of Homeland Security to work on a new phase of domestic counter-terrorism efforts. In 2016, DHS stood up a number of community engagement programs, designed to work with members of at-risk communities, including American-Muslim communities, to identify and redirect potential lone wolf attackers, or individuals who could be heading down the path of radicalization.

Sen. Tom Carper (D-Del.), a graduate of OSU, commented on the importance of the community engagement programs in the aftermath of the Ohio attack. The programs were started under the umbrella of Obama's countering violent extremist (CVE) efforts and focus on enlisting the help and support of leaders in the Muslim community to prevent radicalization.

"Every terrorist attack against the American [homeland] since 9/11 has been conducted by an American citizen or someone who is here on a legal status," Carper advised, noting it is "highly unlikely at best" that an ISIS or other terrorist supporter would use the U.S. refugee resettlement program to gain access to the country.

According to the State Department, it takes the typical refugee up to two years before he or she finally resettles in the United States. The Department of Homeland Security has asserted that refugees are subject to "the highest level of security checks of any category of traveler to the United States."

Still, President-elect Trump has warned that the existing process for vetting refugees is inadequate. He has emphasized what he views as the need for "extreme vetting," ideological tests for citizenship, and when he takes office on January 20, U.S. immigration and naturalization policy will be his to shape.

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