U.S.-backed forces capture Syria suspects tied to American deaths

WASHINGTON, March 19 (Reuters) - U.S.-backed forces have captured Islamic State fighters tied to a January suicide bombing in Syria that killed four Americans, U.S. officials say, generating concrete leads for Washington about the deadliest attack to date there against U.S. personnel.

The bombing killed Army Chief Warrant Officer 2 Jonathan Farmer, Navy Chief Cryptologic Technician Shannon Kent and Scott Wirtz from the Defense Intelligence Agency. It also killed Ghadir Taher, a naturalized U.S. citizen working as a civilian interpreter for a U.S. contractor.

One of the officials told Reuters the number of people detained was in the "single digits." A second official said there were several "initial detentions" made in February, without offering a specific number. The detentions have not been previously reported.

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Reaction to Trump ordering strikes against Syria
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Reaction to Trump ordering strikes against Syria

**Click through the following slides to see reaction to President Donald Trump's announcement that strikes were underway in Syria.**

(MANDEL NGAN/AFP/Getty Images)

President Trump is right to assert that the Assad regime’s evil acts cannot go unanswered, and the nations that ena… https://t.co/TdJYCTMZmk
Praying for our armed forces who are in harm’s way, and their families. Yes I am. This is a very serious moment we… https://t.co/rxrHykfmXH
While Bashar al-Assad must be held accountable for his unlawful use of chemical weapons against civilians, the stri… https://t.co/hwK0KJRCES
These offensive strikes against Syria are unconstitutional, illegal, and reckless. The next speaker of the House mu… https://t.co/JUAePSU7Y3
Congratulations to the Trump administration for adopting the same failed foreign policy and ignoring of the constit… https://t.co/2s2F8Vq9vc
I haven’t read France’s or Britain’s “Constitution,” but I’ve read ours and no where in it is Presidential authority to strike Syria.
Sen Markey says tonight’s attack on Syria neither constitutional nor wise. https://t.co/9oGiPtLgVl
The use of chemical weapons on civilians, including children, is one of the most abhorrent acts imaginable, and the… https://t.co/dmvYyfUExz
The barbarism from the Assad regime will not be tolerated. America and its allies are together to deliver the conse… https://t.co/vwmXHVNiPR
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"Those initial detentions have provided some leads and opportunities that we are continuing to exploit," the second official said, speaking on condition of anonymity and declining to offer additional details.

"The investigation is ongoing as are efforts to bring all of those terrorists responsible to justice."

The attack was the worst single incident involving U.S. personnel in Syria since they deployed on the ground there in 2015 and took place at a cafe in the town of Manbij, which was controlled by a militia allied to U.S.-backed Kurdish forces.

The bombing occurred nearly a month after President Donald Trump confounded his own national security team and allies with a surprise decision on Dec. 19 to withdraw all 2,000 U.S. troops from Syria, declaring Islamic State had been defeated there.

Critics seized on the killings as clear evidence that the Islamic State still posed a threat.

Trump backtracked in February, agreeing to leave a small U.S. presence to help keep pressure on Islamic State during what the U.S. military believes will be a critical stabilization phase in Syria. The United States is seeking contributions from allies including Britain and France to remain in Syria.

INSURGENCY THREAT

The U.S. military has warned that Islamic State may still count tens of thousands of fighters, dispersed throughout Iraq and Syria, with enough leaders and resources to present a menacing insurgency in the months ahead.

The Pentagon's own internal watchdog released a report last month saying Islamic State remained an active insurgent group and was regenerating functions and capabilities more quickly in Iraq than in Syria.

"Absent sustained (counterterrorism) pressure, ISIS could likely resurge in Syria within six to 12 months and regain limited territory," the report from the Pentagon's inspector general said. The report, citing information from U.S. Central Command, said Islamic State would portray the withdrawal as a "victory" and conduct attacks on American personnel during the pullout process.

A report by United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres warned that Islamic State has transformed into a covert network, but is still a threat with centralized leadership, up to $300 million at its disposal and thousands of fighters. It said the group was interested in attacking aviation and using chemical, biological, radiological and nuclear materials and that there were up to 18,000 Islamic State militants in Iraq and Syria, including up to 3,000 foreign fighters. (Reporting by Phil Stewart Editing by Tom Brown)

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