|WASHINGTON — Rep. Mike Rogers (R-Ala.), ranking member of the House Homeland Security Member, questioned National Counterterrorism Center (NCTC) Acting Director Russell Travers about how recent developments in Syria have affected the threat landscape ISIS poses to the homeland.
On ISIS leadership:
Rogers: When we look at the deaths of al Baghdadi and Muhajir, what does that mean for the rest of the senior leadership? Do you see anybody in particular emerging to fill that void of the number one and number two ISIS leaders? How big of a leadership organization is below that tier of leadership?
Travers: There’s no question that the losses over the weekend were significant to ISIS. At the same time, it’s a deep bench. [Muhajir] was one of the individuals that could have ascended to the top, Abdul is another one. We need to remember that the United States and the coalition overall has had tremendous success in eliminating leadership over the years of al Qaeda and ISIS. Yet, the bench tends to rise to the top. …if history is any judge over the next couple of days and a couple of weeks, we’ll see a new leader announced. There will be eulogies, even from al Qaeda. I suspect al-Zawahiri will play elder statesman and issue his own. We will see calls for attacks against western interests. Typically, that doesn’t amount to a great deal in the near term. Then we’ll see requests for the branches and the affiliates to swear allegiance to the new leader. That’s what we’ll be watching carefully to see how this individual consolidates control moving forward.
Rogers: During this period of time before that happens, how effective do you think ISIS will be at carrying out attacks? Or do you think they’ll be in a pause period?
Travers: I don’t think it will have much impact. If there were significant attacks that were in the planning, that planning will continue. It won’t have that much effect.
On SDF prisons:
Rogers: Can you give the committee about how large a number of fighters comprise ISIS and how many of those are in prisons?
Travers: As I mentioned, there are 20 odd ISIS branches and affiliates around the globe. They may be as few as hundreds, they maybe have as many of thousands. We believe that within Syria and Iraq there are at least 14,000 ISIS fighters.
That’s an important number because five, six years ago when ISIS was at its low point, they were down under a thousand. This tells us the insurgency has a lot of options. Within the prisons, the SDF had roughly 10,000 ISIS prisoners in 15-20 prisons in Syria. Roughly 2,000 of those were foreign fighters.
Rogers: There was some faulty reporting recently about ISIS fighters being released from prisons and or escaped. Can you tell us what’s true and what’s not true?
Travers: We know of no instance of where ISIS fighters were released from prisons. There have been some prison breaks. Not so much the last few days. I think we were something over 100 individuals broke out of prisons. There’s a lot of fog of war as individuals are being relocated. We think the SDF has been incredibly professional about this, trying to relocate prisoners and they’re trying to keep control of the prisons. It’s going to be very interesting to watch over the coming weeks with the Turkish-Russian accord and the Syrian move into east of the river. How those prisoners—how those prisons are being managed going forward.