The seven countries affected by President Donald Trump's new travel ban are among at least 11 countries where a clandestine U.S. special operations task force is hunting ISIS operatives who could hatch terrorist plots or make their way to the United States as they flee the "caliphate" in Syria and Iraq, counterterrorism officials tell ABC News.
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The Counter-External Operations Task Force, or Ex-Ops, was devised by the Obama administration last fall, when then–Defense Secretary Ash Carter quietly announced that he had put America's most covert black ops troops in charge of tracking ISIS fighters moving beyond the boundaries of established war zones in Southwest Asia.
Syria, Iraq and five other countries affected by the Trump executive order last Friday are also the responsibility of Ex-Ops forces under the U.S. Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC), as well as at least four more countries not subject to his order regarding harsher immigration restrictions for foreign travelers — Saudi Arabia, Turkey, the United Arab Emirates and Egypt — officials said.
Trump's White House has compared his executive order with the Obama administration's halting Iraqi refugee admissions almost entirely in 2011 because two al-Qaeda insurgents from Baiji, Iraq, were found to be living in Kentucky and giving support to a weapons smuggling plot in an FBI sting, as ABC News exclusively reported in 2013.
As he did during his presidential campaign, Trump singled out Syria and said granting Syrian refugees entry to the U.S. would be "detrimental to the interests of the United States."
What the Trump White House hasn't disclosed publicly, likely for reasons of operational security, is that "a small number of refugees settled here are under FBI investigation for ties to IED [improvised explosive device] networks overseas," a senior counterterrorism official told ABC News this week.
Trump also has yet to discuss publicly continuing the secret JSOC program focused on the same countries identified in his immigration executive order — which began as a program under Obama aimed at preventing ISIS operatives from becoming threats outside the Iraqi and Syrian conflicts.
"The idea is to figure out where they're going, why they're going there, all of their logistics, tie them together and figure out how to empower allies to act on it," a counterterrorism official familiar with the planning for Ex-Ops told ABC News recently.
Besides "squirters" leaving the caliphate — military slang for enemies who flee a large U.S. counterterrorism operation — the new task force under JSOC commander Army Lt. Gen. Austin "Scotty" Miller is tracking terrorism money trails around the Middle East, Asia and Europe, officials said.
"The big takeaway is to understand why they're doing what they're doing, in order to mitigate it in the future," the counterterrorism official added.
The Obama administration established the 11 countries as U.S.-military-led counterterrorism priorities months before Trump won the 2016 election in November, officials said. The prioritization was based on intelligence on where ISIS operatives have been known to relocate and where major clusters of fighters are gathering, such as in Libya — where Obama in his last hours as president approved a massive B-2 stealth bomber airstrike on 100 jihadis who the Pentagon said were plotting attacks on Europe.
A senior administration official declined to comment to ABC News about the 11 countries where the special operations task force is focused or about its military priorities in combating ISIS.
In October on a trip to Paris, Carter hinted at the new task force but not its size, scope or authorities, in little-noticed remarks.
"We have put our Joint Special Operations Command in the lead of countering ISIL's external operations. And we have already achieved very significant results both in reducing the flow of foreign fighters and removing ISIL leaders from the battlefield," he said.
Some in counterterrorism operations view the controversy over Trump's move to temporarily halt immigration from seven countries — which are either war-torn countries or state sponsors of terrorism such as Iran — as ironic, since it focuses on some of the very countries where Obama focused counterterrorism operations for months until he left office.
Though outside the authority of the Ex-Ops task force, last weekend's raid in Yemen by the Navy's SEAL Team Six unit to seize al-Qaeda documents on plots against the West also was an operation planned for months by the Obama administration but launched with Trump's approval once moonlight was minimal and other conditions favorable to American commandos. Several SEALs were critically injured, and one operator, William "Ryan" Owens, was killed in action.