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A Project of The Annenberg Public Policy Center

Not ‘Twitter Intel’

National Security Adviser Robert O’Brien dismissed as “Twitter intel” the suggestion that more than 100 captured Islamic State fighters escaped from prisons in Syria amid fighting between Turkish soldiers and Syrian Kurds. But that was a figure provided by the secretary of defense and a top official in the State Department.

O’Brien, who was tapped by President Donald Trump as his new national security adviser in mid-September, made the comment on NBC’s “Meet the Press” on Oct. 27.

Host Chuck Todd asked about the “supposedly at least 100, ISIS fighters that escaped” during the fighting in northeast Syria. (ISIS is another name for the Islamic State.) “What do we know about those folks?” Todd asked.

O’Brien replied, “Yeah. I think that’s Twitter intel. I’ve seen that on Twitter as well. So I think the SDF’s doing a pretty good job of keeping the ISIS fighters in the camps,” referring to the Syrian Democratic Forces — a coalition of U.S.-backed militias that is led by the Syrian Kurdish People’s Protection Units, or YPG.

“You don’t believe we’ve lost many of these ISIS fighters from these prisons?” Todd asked.

“Look,” O’Brien said, “there were several thousand ISIS fighters that are under control, under SDF and Turkish control. We’ve made it very clear to the Turks, we’ve made it clear to the Kurds and to others in the region that we need to keep those folks under lock and key. And so you know I think it’s a — and we’re continuing to do that.”

On a call with reporters on Oct. 23, a senior White House official was similarly dismissive of the reported number of escaped ISIS fighters, saying, “There are a lot of different numbers that are floating around in the press. I’m not sure where they’re coming from — you know, 100 fighters were released, 20 fighters were released or escaped; 10 fighters were out there.”

But it’s actually no mystery at all where the “at least 100” figure comes from.

In an interview on CNN on Oct. 22, Defense Secretary Mark Esper said, “Based on the intelligence we have, the reporting we have, of the 11,000 detainees who were in Syria, we’ve only had reports of a little bit more than 100 that have escaped.”

Given the large number of ISIS detainees in Syria, Esper said, the number of reported escapees is “good news.”

“So right now, we have not seen this big prison break we all expected,” Esper said.

In a hearing before the House Foreign Affairs Committee on Oct. 23, the U.S. special envoy for Syria, James Jeffrey, cited the same figure. “As Secretary Esper said, we would say that the number is now over a hundred,” Jeffrey said. “We do not know where they are.”

Jeffrey also noted that the escapees represented a small percentage of the ISIS prisoners being held in Syria.

“Almost all of the prisons that the SDF were guarding are still secured,” Jeffrey said. “The SDF still has people there. We are monitoring that as best we can. We still have forces in Syria working with the SDF and one of the top priorities is these prisons.”

During a speech the same day, Trump said he had just spoken to Gen. Mazloum Kobani, the SDF military commander, and was assured “that ISIS is under very, very strict lock and key, and the detention facilities are being strongly maintained.”

“There were a few that got out — a small number, relatively speaking — and they’ve been largely recaptured,” Trump said.

As we said, Jeffrey and Esper both cited a number — more than 100 — that is far more than “a few.” And neither confirmed that “they’ve been largely recaptured.” To the contrary, Jeffrey said, “We do not know where they are.”

In testimony before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on Oct. 22  — during which Jeffrey put the number of escaped ISIS fighters at “dozens” — Sen. Chris Coons asked, “Do we have any idea how those escaped ISIS fighters will be tracked, accounted for and recaptured?”

At the moment, we don’t,” Jeffrey responded.

We reached out to the State Department to see if it could update the number of captured ISIS fighters who have escaped, as well as provide information on how many may have been recaptured. A State Department spokesperson responded, “The State Department does not have any further information to provide at this time.” We also reached out to the Defense Department press office, but we did not hear back.

We can’t confirm whether the number of escaped ISIS fighters is over 100, or how many may have been recaptured, but the figure did not arise from social media speculation. It came from two top Trump administration officials.

Who will oversee the ISIS detention facilities in the future? The White House said, “Turkey will now be responsible for all ISIS fighters in the area captured over the past two years.” But, according to the New York Times, “Turkey has given no public sign that it has agreed to take over that headache.” The Times report said it is possible the Syrian government could take over some of the prisons.