WASHINGTON (AP) — The number of Americans the government believes is fighting alongside extremist groups in Syria is almost one-tenth the number cited by government officials and lawmakers for months.
There are about 12 Americans believed to be fighting in Syria right now, FBI Director James Comey said Thursday. There are more than 100 Americans who have either tried to go to Syria and were arrested, or went and came back to the U.S., Comey said without offering more details.
The 100 figure, however, had taken on urban legend status in recent months as the Obama administration made its case for military action in Iraq and Syria. It's unclear what significance the discrepancy has as far as Americans' support for the U.S. military action, which so far has been strong.
"When I use a number of more than 100, that means people who have gone and come back, people who have attempted to go and we locked them up, people who have gone and stayed," Comey said during an interview with reporters at FBI's headquarters. "The figure that I've been operating with is, ballparkish, a dozen still there fighting with terrorist groups."
Those caveats have been absent from other accounts by the Obama administration and members of Congress from both political parties.
"Thousands of foreign fighters have flocked to Syria over the past three years. This includes more than 2,000 Europeans and more than a hundred Americans," the director of the National Counterterrorism Center, Matthew Olsen, said last week.
The head of the House Homeland Security Committee, Rep. Michael McCaul, R-Texas, described it this way: "Coupled with 30,000 of these ISIS fighters, 15,000 are foreign fighters, over 100 American U.S. citizens. Many of these fighters have Western passports."
The senior Republican on the Senate Armed Services Committee, James Inhofe, R-Okla., told Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel during a hearing, "It's estimated that at least 2,000 fighters hold Western passports and at least 100 are U.S. citizens." Hagel never corrected him or clarified the 100 figure.
U.S. intelligence officials estimate there are about 15,000 foreign fighters in Iraq and Syria fighting with extremist groups, including the Islamic State group. Officials have long been concerned that Americans are joining the fight. At least two Americans have been killed in the fighting and at least 13 have been arrested.
While Olsen and others didn't specifically say 100 Americans are currently fighting with extremists in Syria, it has been interpreted that way.
"This figure includes well over 1,000 European citizens, and more than 100 Americans," Rep. William Keating, D-Mass., said last week. Keating said he was citing figures provided by the National Counterterrorism Center.
National Counterterrorism Center spokesman Joe Vealencis said the "more than 100" figure refers to the total number of Americans who have tried to go to Syria to fight, or have gone and come back.
On Sept. 10, the deputy director of the National Counterterrorism Center, Nicholas Rasmussen, offered a little more details about these 100 Americans but did not say how many were believed to be currently fighting in Syria.
"We are aware that a number of persons, more than 100, have either made their way or tried to make their way to Syria over the past few years to join the international foreign fighters," Rasmussen said.
Associated Press writer Amy Forliti in Minneapolis and Stephen Braun in Washington contributed to this report.