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Top U.S. Envoy: ‘We Do Not Know’ Where Hundred-Plus Escaped ISIS Fighters Are

The U.S. special envoy for Syria and the Global Coalition to Defeat ISIS told the House Foreign Affairs Committee that the United States is in the dark about what happened to Islamic State detainees who escaped after Turkey invaded Kurdish areas of Syria.

“We know from previous briefings, these ISIS detainees are among the most dangerous fighters, intent on attacking the United States and our allies,” said Chairman Eliot Engel (D-N.Y.) at the Wednesday hearing. “So, let me ask you this, how many ISIS detainees have escaped? Does the U.S. have an idea where these individuals are and is the U.S. able to monitor or effectively operate against ISIS given the withdrawal of U.S. forces?”

Echoing an earlier estimate from Defense Secretary Mark Esper, envoy James Jeffrey replied that “the number is now over a hundred.”

“We do not know where they are. Almost all of the prisons that the SDF were guarding are still secured. The SDF still has people there. We are monitoring that as best we can,” he said. “We still have forces in Syria working with the SDF and one of the top priorities is these prisons.”

“I was promised that we are not going to withdraw from Syria, that there would be a residual force to protect the homeland. Is that still the case today?” asked Ranking Member Mike McCaul (R-Texas). “And where would that residual force be in Syria?”

Jeffrey said that the U.S. government is “working on possible options.”

“I can’t commit to a final decision on a residual force in the northeast. The president did decide that we would keep a residual — we would keep our force in Al Tanf” in the far south of the country, he added. “That decision has been taken. We did not take a decision one way or the other on air.” The question of a U.S. presence around oil fields in the northeastern quadrant of Syria, he said, is “still part of internal deliberation.”

Rep. Ted Deutch (D-Fla.) asked Jeffrey, “Do you think it’s more or less likely that ISIS will reconstitute as a result of this decision?”

“If those troops are withdrawn fully, a very important tool we had to keep ISIS under control will be gone,” Jeffrey replied. “That is correct.”

“Did we lose or gain visibility on the location of ISIS and their objectives after this?” asked Rep. Adam Kinzinger (R-Ill.).

“Obviously, there is — when you pull out command and control and communications, you lose certain things,” Jeffrey said. “But, I want to underline, today, we have people out there with the SDF pursuing ISIS.”

“And then, secondly, is this a moral victory to ISIS?” Kinzinger continued. “I guess if you’re a recruiter for ISIS and you say, yeah, the caliphate was defeated, but now we’re going to be reinvigorated, this is exactly what was foretold. We would go through tough times, but we’re going to reinvigorate now. Do you think our pullout actually helped the recruiting efforts or hindered that?”

“ISIS is pitching this as a victory for them,” Jeffrey replied.

Bridget Johnson
Bridget Johnson is the Managing Editor for Homeland Security Today. A veteran journalist whose news articles and analyses have run in dozens of news outlets across the globe, Bridget first came to Washington to be online editor and a foreign policy writer at The Hill. Previously she was an editorial board member at the Rocky Mountain News and syndicated nation/world news columnist at the Los Angeles Daily News. Bridget is a terrorism analyst and security consultant with a specialty in online open-source extremist propaganda, incitement, recruitment, and training. She hosts and presents in Homeland Security Today law enforcement training webinars studying a range of counterterrorism topics including conspiracy theory extremism, complex coordinated attacks, critical infrastructure attacks, arson terrorism, drone and venue threats, antisemitism and white supremacists, anti-government extremism, and WMD threats. She is a Senior Risk Analyst for Gate 15 and a private investigator. Bridget is an NPR on-air contributor and has contributed to USA Today, The Wall Street Journal, New York Observer, National Review Online, Politico, New York Daily News, The Jerusalem Post, The Hill, Washington Times, RealClearWorld and more, and has myriad television and radio credits including Al-Jazeera, BBC and SiriusXM.

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