Fact Checking Trump's False Claims on ISIS Prisoners in Syria

From Syria to ISIS, a look at some fake Trump claims and the reality over the past week

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President Donald Trump is joined by Gordon Sondland, the U.S. ambassador to the European Union, second from right, as he arrives at Melsbroek Air Base, in Brussels, Belgium, July 10, 2018.
President Donald Trump is joined by Gordon Sondland, the U.S. ambassador to the European Union, second from right, as he arrives at Melsbroek Air Base, in Brussels, Belgium, July 10, 2018. Credit: Pablo Martinez Monsivais/AP

Seeing U.S. forces track down and kill the Islamic State’s leader wasn’t enough for President Donald Trump. He puffed up and told a story about the raid that is unfamiliar to the military leaders who mounted it.

In recent days, Trump also related details from Syria that the Pentagon and diplomats contradicted.

A look at some claims and the reality over the past week:


ROBERT O’BRIEN, Trump’s national security adviser, asked about at least 100 captured ISIS fighters who escaped from prisons in Syria: “I think that’s Twitter intel. I’ve seen that on Twitter as well.” — interview Sunday on NBC’s “Meet the Press.”

TRUMP: “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.” — remarks on Syria on Oct. 23.

THE FACTS: The 100 or so captured ISIS prisoners who were said to have escaped aren’t “Twitter intel” and speculation, but an estimate coming from the Defense Department. There’s also no evidence those prisoners have been recaptured as Trump stated. The administration has said their whereabouts aren’t known.

It’s been a hanging question since Turkey’s military incursion, which began Oct. 9: Would ISIS fighters held by U.S.-allied Kurdish fighters known as the Syrian Democratic Forces escape in large numbers? As they push the Kurds out, the Turks are supposed to take control of the prisons.

Esper told CNN on Oct. 22 that of about 11,000 detainees in Syria, “we’ve only had reports of a little bit more than 100 that have escaped.”

And in a House hearing the next day, James Jeffrey, the U.S. special envoy for Syria, cited the same figure. “Now over 100,” he said. “We do not know where they are.”


TRUMP, on the conflict between Kurds and Turks: “They’re fighting for 1,000 years, they’re fighting for centuries. — news conference Oct. 27.

TRUMP: “Let them fight their own wars. They’ve been fighting for 1,000 years.” — remarks on Oct. 16.

THE FACTS: Not true that they’ve been fighting for a millennium.

There has been a 100-year effort to create a Kurdish state after the fall of the Ottoman Empire, not a conflict extending 1,000 years.

After Turkey’s founding in 1923, the state pursued a policy emphasizing Turkish identity, and the Kurd minority staged a string of revolts and insurgencies, prompting bloody reprisals against their push for self-rule and Kurdish identity. Fighting has persisted since then.

Prior to Turkey’s creation, the Ottoman Empire — which rose in 1299, or 720 years ago — saw some tension with its Kurdish population and a period in the mid-1800s when some Kurdish chieftains revolted.


TRUMP, on ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi: “He died whimpering and crying.” —interview Thursday with Britain’s LBC Radio.

TRUMP: “He died after running into a dead-end tunnel, whimpering and crying and screaming all the way. ...He died like a dog, he died like a coward. He was whimpering, screaming, and crying.” — news conference Sunday.

THE FACTS: His top military leaders don’t know what Trump is talking about.

Gen. Mark Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, watched the U.S. military raid with Trump in the Situation Room.

“I don’t know what the source of that was,” Milley said when asked about whimpering and crying. He offered that Trump might have talked directly to members of the unit, though it is inconceivable that they would not have briefed their commanders, too.

Gen. Frank McKenzie, head of U.S. Central Command who oversaw the U.S. raid on the Islamic State leader, did not support the commander in chief’s story.

“He crawled into a hole with two small children and blew himself up while his people stayed on the grounds,” McKenzie said of al-Baghdadi at a Pentagon briefing Wednesday. “I’m not able to confirm anything else about his last seconds.”

Defense Secretary Mark Esper, who also was in the Situation Room, demurred when asked about Trump’s comments. “I don’t have those details,” he said on ABC’s “This Week.”

White House officials have declined to say how the president got his information about al-Baghdadi’s alleged last moments’ meltdown.

Al-Baghdadi died during the raid in Syria after he detonated a suicide vest.

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