Known Unknowns

How Many Americans in ISIS? No One Knows

Senior officials have been giving wildly disparate estimates of how many Americans are fighting for ISIS—because U.S. intelligence doesn’t really know the answer to the question.

09.05.14 9:55 AM ET

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 44-year-old former law enforcement officer from North Carolina named Don Morgan expressed allegiance to ISIS on twitter and had tried and failed to travel to Syria. 

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.)

The problem for the U.S. intelligence community in part is that Syria itself is a bit of a black hole. Syria remains what’s known as a “denied area” for U.S. intelligence agencies, meaning any military or intelligence officer that operates inside Syria does so at great risk of being killed or captured.

“To have a SOF operator captured even though they don’t mind taking the risk, would be a big strategic defeat,” a senior U.S. intelligence official told The Daily Beast, using the acronym for special operations forces.

While the U.S. military was able to work closely with Sunni Iraqi tribes in western Iraq to help track foreign fighters that traveled to Iraq from Syria in the last decade, the Obama administration largely ended contacts with these tribes after 2011, when the last U.S. troops left Iraq.

A senior U.S. intelligence official said in the last two years the American intelligence community has developed plans for working more closely with those tribes and other Syrians, but there were disputes over whether these operations would be handled by the military or the CIA.

“Special operations guys are great at what they do, they are not quite as clandestine as the agency,” said Liepman, who is himself a former senior CIA analyst. He added that intelligence community’s visibility into Syria had diminished since the closing of the U.S. embassy in Damascus in 2012. “Syria is one of the most difficult places to conduct human operations in, it’s both denied and dangerous,” he said.

Bruce Riedel, the director of the Intelligence Project at the Brookings Institution and a retired CIA analyst, said counting the numbers of individuals inside insurgent and terrorist organizations has always been a challenge for intelligence agencies.

“Counting numbers of insurgents and terrorists is an inherently difficult problem,” he said. “Go back to the Vietnam war, the CIA’s estimates of the Viet Cong were notoriously low. It got to the point where if those estimates were right and the estimates of how many Viet Cong were killed were right, then the Viet Cong would have been destroyed 10 times over.”

Riedel added that not all Americans who went to join ISIS start out looking to become Islamic militants. “Not every American who goes to fight Bashar Assad necessarily joins ISIS, not all of them end up fighting, some become hospital workers, and then some who go to become hospital workers end up becoming ISIS fighters. It’s a very difficult problem.”

But it’s not a completely insurmountable one. Some of the Americans joining ISIS are less than circumspect, especially online.  They often give up their locations on social media, according to Liepman. “Sometimes they tweet their locations,” he said. “They are not the cleverest clandestine operators in the world. One way to follow them is on social media.”