Feb 12, 2018, 8:40 AM ET

US commandos searching Syria for executed hostages' remains: Officials

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American special operations forces and FBI agents on the ground in Syria are actively searching sites where they believe Western hostages, including Americans executed by ISIS, may have been buried, counterterrorism officials told ABC News.

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Three officials briefed on the ground searches by U.S. commandos -- the first real effort to recover the remains of two American journalists and two American humanitarian aid workers killed from 2014 to 2015 -- said they were undertaken on the basis of new intelligence from two ISIS members from London captured last month by Syrian Kurds.

“Intel people are digging hard and directing ground guys to locations,” a counterterrorism official who is not authorized to speak publicly told ABC News.

Two other counterterrorism officials confirmed to ABC News that ground searches have begun and suggested the efforts are limited so far but could be expanded. The remains are believed to be spread out over several sites.

PHOTO: A combination picture shows (L-R) Alexanda Kotey and Shafee Elsheikh, who the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) claim are British nationals, in these undated handout pictures in Amouda, Syria released Feb. 9, 2018.Syrian Democratic Forces/Handout via Reuters
A combination picture shows (L-R) Alexanda Kotey and Shafee Elsheikh, who the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) claim are British nationals, in these undated handout pictures in Amouda, Syria released Feb. 9, 2018.

Alexanda Kotey and El Shafee Elsheikh are two of the most important ISIS figures ever captured on the battlefield. U.S. commanders at Joint Special Operations Command and CIA have had a policy of carrying out targeted killings with armed drones of the terrorist group's senior leadership rather than more risky attempts to capture them.

The two ISIS fighters taken prisoner last month were half of a quartet of British guards — dubbed the "Beatles" by the hostages — who tortured and beheaded their captives. Their leader, Mohammed Emwazi, was called "Jihadi John" and died in a CIA airstrike in Raqqa, Syria, in November 2015. Another member, Aine Davis, was captured in Turkey last year.

The two men are being interrogated by U.S. officials and are providing information about burial sites of American hostages they tormented and executed while running a kidnap and ransom operation for ISIS, which began in 2013. Ransom demands were halted after a July 4, 2014 failed Delta Force rescue raid and the subsequent U.S.-led coalition air campaign against ISIS.

PHOTO: A November 2012 file photo shows journalist James Foley while covering the civil war in Aleppo, Syria. The Islamic State group released a video on Aug. 19, 2014, showing a jihadi beheading Foley, a 40-year-old journalist from Rochester, N.H.AP, FILE
A November 2012 file photo shows journalist James Foley while covering the civil war in Aleppo, Syria. The Islamic State group released a video on Aug. 19, 2014, showing a jihadi beheading Foley, a 40-year-old journalist from Rochester, N.H.

The U.S. Hostage Recovery Fusion Cell has contacted families of the hostages who died -- some of whom were shown having their heads cut off by Jihadi John on video -- many of whom welcomed the capture of the pair and U.S. efforts to find the remains of their loved ones.

Diane Foley, mother of journalist James Foley, the first to die on video in August 2014, told ABC News, that knowing that U.S. forces are searching for burial sites of her son and his fellow captives is emotionally difficult but gratifying.

"I am grateful for all these efforts but bringing these two jihadists to justice gives us more hope and solace than the return of Jim's remains," she said.

Foley's execution was followed by the killings on video of fellow American hostages Steven Sotloff, a journalist, and Abdul-Rahman (Peter) Kassig, a humanitarian medic and former Army Ranger. Five more men — two from Britain, two from Japan and one from Jordan — also died in horrific videos released over several weeks by ISIS into early 2015.

Kayla Mueller was the only westerner whose death did not play out in a Jihadi John video. ISIS announced the death of the humanitarian aid worker from Prescott, Ariz. in a Feb. 6, 2015 tweet, claiming a Jordanian airstrike killed her in Syria. The captors sent her parents three photos of her lifeless face when they asked for proof.

"I don't know what happened to Kayla. I don't where Kayla is. I need her home," said her mother, Marsha, on Friday. "She belongs here."

PHOTO: Kayla Mueller poses after speaking to a group in Prescott, Ariz., May 30, 2016. Matt Hinshaw/The Daily Courier via AP, FILE
Kayla Mueller poses after speaking to a group in Prescott, Ariz., May 30, 2016.

Kayla's father, Carl Mueller, said he appreciates that any effort to recover the remains of his only daughter, whose death is still a mystery. The Muellers recently pressed U.S. hostage recovery officials in a Washington briefing to reveal how their daughter died and were told specific details have eluded investigators.

"Unlike the other families, we don't have the gruesome execution video,” Carl Mueller told ABC News. “We need to know she's gone.”

Beyond the effort to examine sites in Syria, the Muellers want any information about Kayla's last days, when according to fellow captives who later escaped she was forced to be the sex slave of Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the leader of ISIS. Sources have told ABC News that al-Baghdadi is believed to have been most likely killed in a U.S. airstrike in July, though his death was never confirmed.

"I would like anyone who has information about Kayla to share that with us," her mother said.

That includes Kotey and Elsheikh, who may know how she died and where she is buried.

According to J.M. Berger, author of “ISIS: The State of Terror,” Kotey and Elsheikh are the most important ISIS figures captured in several years.

"This is a really big development," Berger said. "ISIS has provided an incredible documentation of its atrocities and we haven’t seen anyone held to account for that. It would be hard to see how these guys could get off. People need to see justice being done."

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  • DrKam67

    Another made up reason to excuse illegal and extended staying in Syria. Just getting worse and worse.

  • yaknowwhat

    I think these two should be turned over to the good citizens of Mosul. Talk about interesting TV!!!
    The ones that are still free could watch the telecast!!

  • Lance

    They've been dropping Chlorine on civilians for over six years and now it's a troubling pattern?

  • john hurley

    ISIL admitted to cannibalizing Hostages who were killed in air strikes or executed by them.

  • Alpha_177

    After the needed info is "squeezed" from them, let the local victims have their way with these two pigs.

  • End of Life Ritual

    I hope they can bring him home.

    But I've got to wonder why we are still there. The goal was to assist in the destruction of ISIS, and that has largely been accomplished. Leave these people alone.

    Assisting the Syrian freedom fighters is not a strong enough reason to remain, either. Assad is a monster but those who are fighting against him aren't necessarily looking to institute a democracy, and certainly not freedom of religion. We should have learned this lesson long ago. We've got no friends there. Spending money propping up one Muslim army over another is a waste of precious money that is needed here at home.

  • Would-be Subversive

    Every once in a while, some exasperated soul wants to know what the heck we are doing in Syria. And now we know. We are looking for bodies.

  • mick pick

    We should ask the Russians for help finding them with Syria military. Oh forget it that's right the democrats don't want no stink in help for nothing from the Russians after they played Obama and Clinton like an idiot with their reset button.

  • Mari Marigold

    I hope for the sake of the families that they find the remains. This is unimaginable.

  • Prophet With Honor

    I worked for 15 years as an advocate for disabled vets. One of worst cases of PTSD I encountered was in a man who never engaged in direct combat. He spent a year in graves registration and casualty recovery. This is a very ugly assignment.

  • Dukedaddy

    War is hell!
    Bad things happen in all wars. This one is no different.

  • Realpshep

    Good job for whatever authorized this. Give those families something to help ease the pain.

  • Prophet With Honor

    When I first came across this story the only picture was of the terrorists. I think it was a good editorial decision to substitute the victims in the lead.

  • sue wo

    I hope they die them up & let pigs eat them

  • Mari Marigold

    How sad not to have the remains of your loved ones.

  • wurldtravlr

    Sad situation, however, if you feel compelled to travel into these dangerous war zones you must realize there may be consequences. Let's hope the families will be able to receive there loved ones remains.