A YouTube video that shows Rep. Tim Bishop telling a business group a week ago that 40 Americans who went to join the Islamic State militant group have returned to the United States has created a splash on the web, especially on conservative news sites.
It made news because Bishop, a Southampton Democrat seeking re-election to a seventh term, is the first U.S. official to put the number 40 to the much-feared infiltration of U.S. citizen Islamic State fighters into this country.
“One of the concerns is the number of U.S. citizens who have left our country to go to join up with ISIS,” Bishop said at a Sept. 12 meeting of the Long Island Metro Business Action Group, according to the video highlighted by the Washington Free Beacon and picked up by the Fox News website.
“It is also believed that some 40 of those who left this country to join up with ISIS have now returned to our country Those 40 are under FBI attention and surveillance. So they are known and they are being tracked by the FBI,” Bishop said in the video.
So far, Bishop is the only one to use that figure, and he won’t come to the telephone to explain where he got it.
A U.S. official familiar with the estimates told Newsday that the figure of 40 was “wildly inaccurate,” indicating it was much lower but refusing to be specific.
The estimates of U.S. citizens involved with ISIS have bounced around as public officials have talked about them over the past six weeks, at times ranging up to 300.
Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel, for example, on Sept. 3 put the figure of U.S. passport holders fighting with ISIL forces at “over 100.” But the next day a Pentagon spokesman clarified, “We believe there are approximately 100 American passport-holders inside Syria. We believe there are maybe a dozen inside ISIL.”
White House spokesman Josh Earnest on Sept. 8 said, “It is believed by some analysts that there are dozens of individuals with American passports who have traveled to the region and taken up arms to fight alongside ISIL.”
On Wednesday, National Counterterrorism Center Director Matthew Olsen told the House Homeland Security Committee: “More than 100 U.S. persons from a variety of backgrounds and locations in the United States have traveled or attempted to travel to Syria.”
Olsen indicated it’s not always easy to track their movements, saying U.S. and international counterterrorism and law enforcement agencies are making an “effort to resolve the identities of potential violent extremists.”
Today, Susan Rice, the president’s national security adviser, also talked about the difficulty of identifying U.S. citizens in Syria.
“It’s something we track closely,” Rice told a White House press briefing. “And we are doing obviously all that we can to both gather the necessary information and take the appropriate precautions to the greatest extent that we possibly can. And obviously, that also entails consultation and collaboration with other countries, because in many instances, they transit to and through third countries.“
The estimates of those returning to the United States are considered secret.
Rep. Peter King (R-Seaford) who is privy to confidential briefings as a member of the Homeland Security and Intelligence committees in the House said through his spokesman: “I can’t talk about it.”
The FBI, the National Counterterrorism Center and the Department of Homeland Security would not comment.
But the U.S. official familiar with the numbers, who would only speak on the condition of anonymity, offered this break down of the estimates:
About 100 Americans have attempted to go or have gone to the Syrian and Iraq region. Of that number:
- About a dozen have been arrested and prosecuted before they left for material support for terrorism.
- A number have been killed, but that number is not being made public.
- A number are fighting with other designated foreign terrorist organizations.
- About a dozen are believed to be fighting with ISIS.
- A number have left that region and gone elsewhere.
- And a number have returned.
The official would not say exactly how many are believed to have returned. But the official said, “There is a 100 percent chance that 40 ISIS fighters have not returned to the United States.”