One might think that a government that secretly collected everyone’s cellphone records would be able to find out which Americans have joined ISIS. But actually that task is much harder than it would appear.
On Wednesday, Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel told CNN more than 100 Americans have pledged themselves to the group that declared itself a Caliphate in June after conquering Iraq’s second-largest city. Hagel added, “There may be more, we don’t know.” On Thursday, a Pentagon spokesman walked back Hagel’s remarks, saying the United States believes there are “maybe a dozen” Americans who have joined ISIS.
“We don’t know what we don’t know,” a U.S. intelligence official told The Daily Beast when asked if there were more than 12 Americans in ISIS. “We have some identifying information on some of the Americans, it may not be their name but we have enough information. That said, we readily acknowledge that that number is probably low and there are others we don’t know about.”
“I think 12 is probably low only because there is always stuff we don’t know,” said Andrew Liepman, who left his post as the deputy director of the National Counterterrorism Center (NCTC) in 2012 and is now a senior policy analyst at the Rand Corporation. “I would not say that number is hugely low, but we always have to remember what we don’t know.”
So far, the picture of ISIS’s Americans is murky. Last month, two Minnesota natives who had joined ISIS were reported to have died on the battlefield in Syria.Douglas McArthur McCain and Abdirahman Muhamed grew up in Minnesota. This week NBC reported that a 41-year-old former law enforcement officer from North Carolina named Don Martin also joined ISIS.
Liepman’s former boss, outgoing NCTC director Matthew Olsen, said the official estimates for how many Americans had fought with jihadists in Syria were likely a baseline and not a mean. In July, Olsen told the Aspen Institute that the U.S. intelligence community estimated there were just over 100 American citizens who had gone to fight in Syria with extremist groups. “And of course, now we’re talking numbers that are very rough and may well be conservative,” he said. “Because these are some degree of identification we’ve made of these individuals so the number is actually likely to be higher than that.”
(In an appearance on Meet the Press this weekend, Mike Rogers, the chairman of the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence, said that hundreds of Americans were affiliated with the group.)
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