By MJ Lee, Zachary Cohen, Evan Perez and Jennifer Hansler, CNN
Washington (CNN) — The Biden administration is still searching for concrete details about the condition of the handful of Americans believed to have been taken hostage by Hamas, including exactly how many the terror group may be holding captive in Gaza, or if they are currently being held together in one place, a US official told CNN.
National Security Council coordinator for strategic communications John Kirby told reporters Wednesday that, of the 17 known Americans unaccounted for in Israel at this time, the number believed held hostage by Hamas is “very small– like less than a handful.”
Many of those unaccounted for Americans are thought to be dual Israeli-American citizens. Israeli authorities believe up to 150 total hostages are being held in Gaza.
As the Biden administration continues its work to support Israel and move military assets into the region, US officials across the government are furiously working behind the scenes to piece together an accurate picture on the ground. That includes figuring out how many Americans are being held hostage in Gaza and what can be done about it.
“This isn’t just like any other typical hostage situation, this is an active war zone,” Kirby told CNN’s Jim Sciutto on Wednesday. “And so getting granular information that you can act on is going to be that much harder and the risks will be that much higher for any attempt to recover them.”
In remarks to a roundtable with members of the Jewish community at the White House Wednesday, President Joe Biden pledged the full force of his administration’s commitment to rescuing hostages, saying that while “we’re working on every aspect of the hostage crisis in Israel,” if he relayed in detail what steps the administration was taking, “I wouldn’t be able to get them home.”
“Folks, there’s a lot we’re doing– a lot we’re doing, I have not given up hope of bringing these folks home,” Biden said. “But the idea that I’m going to stand here before you and tell you what I’m doing is bizarre, so I hope you understand how bizarre I think it would be to try to answer that question.”
Further complicating the situation, US officials say, is that Hamas consists of numerous and often competing subgroups and militias that all operate in Gaza. Before the US can put together a plan to recover hostages, officials first have to figure out which of those Hamas sub-groups may be holding them, and for what reason.
“It’s just not clear yet why the hostages were taken. And exactly by who?” said Phil Andrew, co-founder of Pax Group and former FBI hostage negotiator. “Are these little gangs or groups that are not part of the main infrastructure. Were they taken to negotiate? We don’t know yet. That all affects how we deal with this. We can’t make assumptions just yet.”
FBI hostage negotiators in Israel
The US is working closely with Israel to recover hostages in Gaza, with FBI and Pentagon personnel on the ground in Israel providing support to Israeli special operators.
An interagency team of US officials from the State Department, National Security Council, and FBI is receiving input from all over about the Americans who are missing or deceased in Israel, the US official said. Family members and friends have reached out to the embassy about loved ones, and that information has been compiled alongside work that the FBI has been doing.
FBI hostage negotiators and agents, some working in Israel and others in field offices around the US, have been assisting in that effort, according to U.S. law enforcement officials involved in the matter.
These include members of the FBI’s Critical Incident Response Group, which has extensive experience in helping to resolve hostage incidents, including in war zones from Afghanistan to Iraq and across the Middle East. Negotiators and agents are talking to family members, getting proof of life information that can be used in the investigation and for possible questions to be asked if hostage takers reach out.
The agents are “prepping family members in case that phone call comes in or text message from the hostage-takers or from their family member who is being held,” one official said. “That’s hugely important, they have to know what to say if they get that call.”
US intelligence agencies are also trying to assist in helping to determine how hostages were taken, in part by tracking any cell phone signals and social media images that have been made public.
The US official familiar with the efforts say the administration is working through phone calls coming into the US embassy in Israel, the FBI and the White House from family and friends of Americans believed to be missing.
Some of these phone calls have been based on eye-witness accounts of people being taken by Hamas. But one challenge has been trying to verify second-hand accounts, the first US official said.
The government has been in touch with the next-of-kin of any American they are aware of as being missing.
Deputy Special Envoy for Hostage Affairs Steve Gillen is traveling to Israel with Secretary of State Antony Blinken, who left for the region on Wednesday.
Gillen’s presence is a stark illustration of how the Biden administration is prioritizing dealing with the hostage situation. Blinken has urged partner countries who have the ability to get messages to Hamas to urge the terrorist group to release all hostages immediately.
CNN previously reported that Qatar is among the countries in talks with Hamas over hostages. A senior Turkish official also told CNN that Turkey is also actively working to try to secure hostages taken by Hamas.
At least 22 US citizens have died in Israel, a State Department spokesperson said Wednesday. It was not immediately clear if the additional deaths were Americans previously considered to be unaccounted for.
Biden had previously said at least 14 American citizens had died.
Much of the information about the deceased Americans has come from the Israel Defense Forces as they make identifications, as well as from family members who have been notified, the first US official said.
US special forces units
Along with a handful of FBI and military personnel on the ground, the US is moving a carrier strike group into the region as both a show of support for Israel and message of deterrence.
US special forces who were in Israel before the attack are offering their expertise on hostage situations. But US sources stressed to CNN that those forces are not engaged in any mission to physically extract American hostages at the moment.
Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin said on Tuesday that the US has special operators in Israel who “are going to help” the Israeli military “with intelligence and planning” for potential operations regarding hostages taken by Hamas.
“Not only are we offering to help, we have people on the ground that have a small cell, the liaison cell that has established contact with [Israeli Minister of Defense Yoav Gallant’s] special operators, and we’ll continue to help with intelligence and planning as things go along,” Austin told reporters at a press gaggle after landing in Brussels, Belgium, on Tuesday.
Austin said he has offered “help from our special operators, our intelligence community in planning and developing intelligence to help in this endeavor” to Israel since speaking with their defense minister on Sunday.
House Foreign Affairs Chairman Michael McCaul, who moderated a classified briefing Wednesday morning for congressional lawmakers, noted that the US is prepared to work with Israel to try and get hostages out of Gaza, but that it will be a difficult task.
“We have obviously our special forces are good at this, we have hostage rescue team, FBI, we will provide assistance to Israel to get them out of there. It’s going to be very difficult, going house to house, like Fallujah in 2005, when they use them as human shields,” he said
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CNN’s Alex Marquardt, Gul Tuysuz, Natasha Bertrand and Oren Liebermann contributed to this report.