Texas Gov. Rick Perry warned Thursday that Islamic terrorists might already have crossed the southern border into the United States with the intent of attacking Americans.
In a fiery speech delivered before a conservative audience at the Heritage Foundation in Washington, Perry, who's eying another presidential run in 2016, said the federal government's failure to secure the southern border has created "great concern" that militants representing the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) might already have arrived from Mexico.
"There's the obvious great concern that, because of the condition of the border from the standpoint of it not being secure, and us not knowing who is penetrating across, that individuals from ISIS or other terrorist states could be [crossing]," Perry said. "There's a very real possibility that they may have already used that [strategy]."
Perry emphasized that authorities have "no clear evidence" that ISIS or any other terrorist groups have infiltrated the country. But, citing a case of three Ukrainians apprehended on a ranch in west Texas earlier this summer, he warned that illegal immigration from countries with links to terrorism is at record highs.
"We've seen historic high levels of individuals from countries with terrorist ties over the course of the last months," he said.
By marrying the two hot-button issues of immigration and terrorism, Perry is hoping to bolster his image as a hard-liner on both. During his unsuccessful run at the White House in 2012, the Texas governor was dogged by accusations he was too soft on illegal immigrants because he backed a state law granting students living in the U.S. illegally in-state tuition rates — a charge he is taking pains to quash as he eyes another presidential bid in 2016.
"Until the border is secure, there will be no conversation in this country about any immigration reform," he said. "Americans do not trust Washington to deal with comprehensive immigration reform until that border is secure."
Perry's proposed solution to the alleged terrorist threat is two-fold: First, he wants Congress and President Obama to take greater steps to secure the southern border by increasing the number of border agents, drones and other enforcement-based deterrents at the point of entry. And second, he wants the Obama administration to intensify its direct attacks on ISIS forces in both Iraq and Syria. He accused the administration of being too cautious in its "limited" approach.
"This terrorist army must be confronted with overwhelming force," Perry said. "Clearly, more airstrikes are necessary. Nothing less than a sustained air campaign to degrade and destroy ISIS forces is required. … Even though these killers have seen glimpses of our superior power and technology, they need to see a lot more of it."
Perry urged the Obama administration and other U.S. allies to "launch an immediate airlift" of heavy weapons and supplies to the Kurdish Peshmerga militia, a group he characterized as "a fierce and a ready force on the ground," and he did not rule out the notion of returning U.S. troops to the battlefields of Iraq.
"All your options have to be open from the standpoint of dealing with this terror and this force in that country. I think signaling to your enemy what you are not going to put on the table is very, very bad — both strategical and tactical errors by this administration," he said. "We need to have all of our options open."
A failure to "eliminate" ISIS by taking the fight to the group overseas, Perry warned, leaves Americans wide open to possible terrorist attacks at home.
"It may be a team of terrorists arriving with their passports and papers all in order, just like before [surrounding the 911 attacks]. Or it may be when one or more of them slips across our unsecured border. But what rational observer doubts that such an attack is not part of their plan?" he asked.
"They should have us thinking about the possibility of another terrorist attack in this country," he added. "We have been put on notice."