U.S., allies strike ISIS, Khorasan in Syria

U.S., allies strike ISIS, Khorasan in Syria

Lt. Gen. William Mayville. briefs reporters at the Pentagon on the three waves of strikes in Syria.
by CNN's Steve Almasy

The Pentagon has released details on airstrikes in Northern and Eastern Syria, which began early Tuesday.  In addition to Tomahawk cruise missiles, the U.S. and its coalition also employed fighter jets, bombers and drones in the campaign to destabilize two separate terror groups in Syria: ISIS and the Khorasan Group, which consists of "senior al Qaeda operatives" who were actively plotting against a U.S. homeland target and Western targets, a senior U.S. official said Tuesday. Follow this live blog for the latest updates on the strikes. You can also read our full story.

    Which area was hit?

    The bombing has focused on the ISIS stronghold of Raqqa, a city in northern Syria. ISIS has had control of Raqqa for more than a year, imposing its brutal interpretation of Islamic law on the city's residents.

    The extremists have made the city, which sits on the banks of the Euphrates River, the de facto capital of their self-declared "Islamic State" that stretches across large areas of Syria and Iraq.

    Other locations in Syria were also hit in the strikes, a senior U.S. official said, without providing details.

    What was struck?

    Most of the places hit were hard targets, like buildings, a senior U.S. official told CNN.

    "Usually the first part of any air campaign are strategic targets -- fixed locations, big buildings, things that you don't need a guy on the ground to laser-designate," said retired Lt. Col. Rick Francona, an Air Force veteran intelligence officer and CNN military analyst.

    A building in the governor's compound, a post office and a recruitment center were among sites hit, activists reported.

    There was no immediate word on casualties.

    Why is Raqqa the focus of the initial strikes?

    The city is known as a place where ISIS houses training centers, weapons depots and accommodations for fighters. During the Syrian conflict, the group has also seized military bases from the Syrian regime near the city and in the wider Raqqa province.

    The targets hit by the airstrikes are intended to hurt ISIS' ability to command and control, resupply and train, a senior U.S. military official told CNN's Jim Sciutto.

    ISIS has made Raqqa the flagship for its model of governance, providing food, fuel and security to people struggling to survive after years of civil war. But it also imposed hardline Islamist law there and metes out harsh punishment to those who don't follow orders. Locals started calling the city Tora Bora last year, saying it felt as if the Taliban of Afghanistan had taken over.

    Who is taking part in the airstrikes?

    All the foreign partners participating in the strikes with the United States are Arab countries, a senior U.S. military official told CNN. Those nations are Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Jordan.

    Diplomatic sources told CNN that Qatar was also involved in the operation, although it wasn't clear whether it actually carried out airstrikes.

    "It's a remarkable diplomatic achievement," said CNN Political Commentator Peter Beinhart. "I don't think it was expected that there would be this much Arab support."

    How long will the attacks go on?

    For a while.

    The first wave of strikes was expected to last into the early hours of Tuesday morning in Syria, CNN's Sciutto reported.

    It is aimed at striking a strong initial blow, a senior U.S. official told CNN. The aerial campaign on ISIS targets in Syria is expected to continue beyond Tuesday.

    Counterterrorism expert Philip Mudd said Tuesday's attacks were "just the start."

    "This is not a definitive blow," said Mudd, who previously worked for the CIA. "When this gets interesting to me as a former practitioner is six months down the road, when a second-tier ISIS commander starts to create some sort of cell to recruit foreigners from Europe or the United States or Canada into Syria, do we still have the will and capability, and the intelligence, to locate that person, or that group of people, and put lead on the target?"

    What happens next?

    U.S. military officials will be trying to assess the effectiveness of the first night of bombing.

    Some analysts have suggested that ISIS had already started dispersing its assets and fighters following Obama's warning of action in Syria earlier this month.

    The response of ISIS fighters to the initial strikes may give military officials clues on what to target next.

    "The follow-up to some of these strikes is -- what are their actions now?" said retired Lt. Gen. Mark Hertling, a CNN military analyst. "There is intelligence that flows from the initial strike," he said.

    The Arab governments involved in the strikes could also face discontent among their own people.

    "Parts of the population do not agree with Sunni (Muslims) going against Sunni," Hertling said.

    The United States is also pushing for a binding resolution at the U.N. General Assembly this week that aims to prevent and track the travel of foreign fighters to Syria.

    How has ISIS reacted?

    There was no immediate confirmed comment from the militant group on the strikes.

    ISIS' official Bayan Radio tweeted a photo that it claimed showed damage to a communications tower in Raqqa. CNN wasn't immediately able to independently verify the image.

    ISIS has previously linked the U.S. campaign of airstrikes in Iraq to its decision to execute three of its Western hostages -- two Americans and one Briton. It also recently called for attacks against the United States and its allies.

    How have Syrian opposition groups reacted?

    Hadi al Bahra, the President of the Syrian Opposition Coalition, welcomed the strikes.

    "Tonight, the international community has joined our fight against ISIS in Syria," he said in a statement. "We have called for airstrikes such as those that commenced tonight with a heavy heart and deep concern, as these strikes begin in our own homeland. We insist that utmost care is taken to avoid civilian casualties."

    Did the U.S. consult with the Syrian government beforehand?

    A U.S. official says it didn't coordinate nor warn President Bashar al-Assad about the attacks. But the regime claims it was given a heads-up.

    "According to the Syrian Foreign Ministry, the American side informed the Syrian representative to the U.N. yesterday that the U.S. will carry out airstrikes targeting the terrorist organization (ISIS) in Raqqa," said a banner on the website of the Syrian government's official news agency, SANA.

    Beinhart said al-Assad's regime may end up as "the real winner" from the airstrikes on ISIS, since the moderate U.S.-backed rebels aren't "in a position to take this territory that we are pulverizing from the air."

    What are U.S. lawmakers saying?

    When the strikes began, Congress had already left town to campaign for the midterm elections, and most of the reaction came from those who had pressed the administration to act sooner. Privately, many of them conceded they were relieved not to have to take a vote on a controversial issue just weeks before voters went to the polls in November.

    No. of airstrikes? At least 20

    Airstrikes have hit at least 20 different targets in Raqqa city and surrounding areas, a Syrian rights
    monitor reported Tuesday.

    Jordan: 'We are part of the strike'

    The scene in Raqqa: 
    ISIS has increased security in the city, an activist said. They're not in their offices but doing patrols on the streets. "I would dance in the streets," the activist said, "but I am too afraid. 

    Stay tuned 2 @cnn 4 the latest on the #US led airstrikes on #ISIS in #Syria & the 5 #Arab nations involved. Details @http ://www.cnn.com/
    Attack details

    Here's CENTcom's statement on the airtsrikes. It's rather long, but has some interesting details.

    -- All the planes in the attack left safely
    -- The attacks damaged multiple ISIS targets: training compounds, headquarters, storage facilities,   supply trucks and armed vehicles.

    "U.S. Military, Partner Nations Conduct Airstrikes Against ISIL in Syria

    TAMPA, Fla. - U.S. military forces and partner nations, including the Kingdom of Bahrain, the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan, the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates, undertook military action against ISIL terrorists in Syria overnight, using a mix of fighter, bomber, remotely piloted aircraft and Tomahawk Land Attack Missiles to conduct 14 strikes against ISIL targets.

    The strikes destroyed or damaged multiple ISIL targets in the vicinity of Ar Raqqah, Dayr az Zawr, Al Hasakah, and Abu Kamal and included ISIL fighters, training compounds, headquarters and command and control facilities, storage facilities, a finance center, supply trucks and armed vehicles.

    To conduct these strikes, the United States employed 47 TLAMs launched from USS Arleigh Burke and USS Philippine Sea operating from international waters in the Red Sea and North Arabian Gulf, as well as U.S. Air Force, Navy and Marine Corps fighter, remotely piloted and bomber aircraft deployed to the U.S. Central Command area of operations. In addition, the Kingdom of Bahrain, the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan, the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates also participated in or supported the airstrikes against ISIL targets.  All aircraft safely exited the strike areas.

    Also, in Iraq yesterday, U.S. military forces continued to attack ISIL terrorists, using attack aircraft to conduct four airstrikes. The airstrikes destroyed two ISIL Humvees, an ISIL armed vehicle and an ISIL fighting position southwest of Kirkuk. All aircraft exited the strike areas safely. To date, U.S. Central Command has conducted a total of 194 airstrikes across Iraq against ISIL.

    The United States conducted these strikes as part of the President's comprehensive strategy to degrade and ultimately defeat ISIL.  Going forward, the U.S. military will continue to conduct targeted airstrikes against ISIL in Syria and Iraq as local forces go on the offensive against this terrorist group.

    Separately, the United States has also taken action to disrupt the imminent attack plotting against the United States and Western interests conducted by a network of seasoned al-Qa'ida veterans - sometimes referred to as the Khorasan Group - who have established a safe haven in Syria to develop external attacks, construct and test improvised explosive devices and recruit Westerners to conduct operations. These strikes were undertaken only by U.S. assets.

    In total, U.S. Central Command conducted eight strikes against Khorasan Group targets west of Aleppo to include training camps, an explosives and munitions production facility, a communication building and command and control facilities."

    CNN's Joe Johns talks about the types of targets and the ammo used in the airstrikes
    Hostage speaks

    In a video released last night, John Cantlie, the British journalist held captive by ISIS, said he has been abandoned by his government and accuses Western governments of moving toward all-out war.

    “It’s all quite a circus," he says. "Not since Vietnam have we witnessed such a potential mess in the making.”

    He appears calm and it is unclear what portions of his statement were made under duress. The video has no date, but it appears to have been produced prior to the bombing campaign against ISIS and Khorasan.

    He further asserts the West is underestimating the strength of its enemy and says, “Current estimates of 15,000 troops needed to fight the Islamic State are laughingly low. The State has much more mujahideen than this, and this is not some undisciplined outfit with a few Kalashnikovs.”

    He explains his statement is part of a series and closes the six-minute video by saying, “Join me again for the next program.”

    British journalist John Cantlie spoke in a video released by ISIS.

    Details on threat against homeland

    A U.S official says the reported plot by the al Qaeda-linked group in Syria was in the advanced stage and targeted the U.S. homeland and European allies. There was no known specific target, the official said.

    The plot was not imminent or expected within the next few weeks, the official says, but militants were discussing the plot and indicated that they had obtained the necessary materials.

    The group was known to be working on new improvised explosive devices that would be difficult to detect, including in common handheld electronic devices and carry-on toiletry items. U.S. officials feared the plot would be difficult to head off when it reached an operational stage, the official says.

    Syria received warning, U.S. State Department says

    Through its ambassador to the U.N., the United States advised the Syrian regime of its intent to take action against ISIS and other terrorists in Syria, and it warned Syria not to engage U.S. aircraft, State Department spokeswoman
    Jen Psaki said.

    However, the U.S. did not request Syria's permission or coordinate its plans with the Syrian government, she said. There was no advanced notice at the military level, and the U.S. did not provide any information regarding timing or specific targets, Psaki said.

    Syrian opposition speaks

    “Tonight, the international community has joined our fight against ISIS in Syria. We have called for airstrikes such as those that commenced tonight with a heavy heart and deep concern, as these strikes begin in our own homeland. We insist that utmost care is taken to avoid civilian casualties," said Hadi al Bahra, president of the Syrian Coalition.
    Scope of strikes

    U.S. Central Command has released information on how it utilized fighter jets, bombers, remote-controlled aircraft and Tomahawk missiles to hit 14 targets in Syria overnight.

    Among the other highlights:

    The strikes destroyed or damaged multiple ISIL targets in the vicinity of Ar Raqqah, Dayr az Zawr, Al Hasakah, and Abu Kamal and included ISIL fighters, training compounds, headquarters and command and control facilities, storage facilities, a finance center, supply trucks and
    armed vehicles.


    In total, U.S. Central Command conducted eight strikes against Khorasan Group targets west of Aleppo to include training camps, an explosives and munitions production facility, a communication building and command and control facilities.

    President Barack Obama addresses campaign in Syria

    Pentagon briefing

    Rear Adm. John Kirby said, "Last night's strikes were only the beginning."

    He added, "The initial indication is that these strikes were very successful."
    UAE statement on airstrikes

    The United Arab Emirates confirmed that its air force launched its first strikes against ISIS targets Monday evening, according to state news agency WAM.
    ''The operation was conducted in coordination with other forces participating in the international effort against the ISIL," the ministry said in a statement.
    Pentagon points to precision

    Lt. Gen. William Mayville,
    director for operations with the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said the strikes in Syria came in three waves, launched between 8:30 a.m. and midnight ET and targeting locations in Northern and Eastern Syria.

    Using before-and-after slides, Mayville showed a "communications array" on an ISIS finance center in Raqqa, an ISIS command-and-control building in Raqqa and a residence in
    al-Bukamal that Mayville said was used for training and logistics.

    In the "after" slides, Mayville pointed out that strikes took out each of the targets without causing significant damage to the surrounding area.
    Bashar al-Assad meets with Russian, Iraqi officials

    In a meeting with Faleh Fayyad, the Iraqi national security adviser, and envoy to the Russian prime minister, Haider al-Abadi
    , President Bashar al-Assad said Russia was "proceeding resolutely" in its war against terrorism and that Syria supports "any international counter-terrorism effort," according to state-run SANA.
    "The President stressed that the success of such efforts isn’t just linked to military action which is important, as it’s also linked to states committing themselves to relevant international resolutions and what they entail in terms of stopping all forms of support for terrorist organizations,"  the news agency reported.
    Kerry at the U.N. Counter-Terrorism Implementation Task Force

    Secretary of State John Kerry defended the U.S. policy on hostage negotiations:

    "(Hostages) become ripe for the picking for the next round of negotiation and payment. The United States for decades has had a policy of not paying ransom and the reason is simple: We know that it leads to more kidnappings and ultimately more kidnappings lead to more killing. We have argued that the only way to dry up the market for kidnapping in the first place is to take away the profits and to hold the kidnappers accountable...

    "Ours is obviously a hard policy, and it is a hard policy to look at and live by when you are looking at a parent of one of those hostages and you are trying to explain it. But it is not why ISIL kidnaps. It is not why ISIL kills. It is why ISIL must be stopped. And it is why we will never stop working to set our citizens free and to bring them home to their families."

    Pentagon briefing

    Here are U.S. military leaders discussing the strikes in Syria.

    Turkish president speaks on strikes

    Outside the United Nations, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan called the strikes against ISIS "positive" and said Turkey will do what it can to help in the fight.
    Text of President Obama's letter to House Speaker John Boehner re: Syria

    Dear Mr. Speaker:

    As I have repeatedly reported to the Congress, U.S. Armed Forces continue to conduct operations in a variety of locations against al-Qa'ida and associated forces. In furtherance of these U.S. counterterrorism efforts, on September 22, 2014, at my direction, U.S. military forces began a series of strikes in Syria against elements of al-Qa'ida known as the Khorasan Group. These strikes are necessary to defend the United States and our partners and allies against the threat posed by these elements.

    I have directed these actions, which are in the national security and foreign policy interests of the United States, pursuant to my constitutional and statutory authority as Commander in Chief (including the authority to carry out Public Law 107-40) and as Chief Executive, as well as my constitutional and statutory authority to conduct the foreign relations of the United States. I am providing this report as part of my efforts to keep the Congress fully informed, consistent with the War Powers Resolution (Public Law 93-148). I appreciate the support of the Congress in this action.

    U.N. chief on Syria

    Speaking at a climate summit, U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said he welcomed "international solidarity" in battling ISIS.

    "Confronting terrorist groups operating in Syria requires a multi-faceted approach. Now, this approach should be designed to address the immediate security risks to stop atrocity crimes, and over the longer term, to eliminate the conditions in which these groups take root," he said.

    Ban also stressed that while extremist groups pose serious threats to international security, nations taking part in the strikes must respect international law.

    "I regret the loss of any civilian lives as a result of strikes against targets in Syria. The parties involved in this campaign must abide by international humanitarian law and take all necessary precautions to avoid and minimize civilian casualties," he said.

    U.S. Central Command releases strike videos, Part One

    U.S. Central Command releases strike videos, Part Two

    U.S. Central Command releases strike videos, Part Three

    Saudi Arabia confirms it took part in strikes

    According to the state-run Saudi Press Agency, "The Royal Saudi Air Force participated in military operations in Syria against [ISIS] to support the Syrian moderate opposition within an international coalition to combat terrorism, which is a deadly disease, and to support the Syrian people to restore security and unity of this devastated country."
    Twitter broke news of strikes

    CNN's Laura Smith-Spark reports that it was a tweet from a Raqqa man, whose Twitter handle says his name is
    Abdulkader Hariri, that broke news of the airstrikes in Syria. Here's her story.
    Clothes dipped in explosive material?

    That's one of the ways the Khorasan Group intended to attack Western targets, an intelligence source tells CNN. But there's more. Check out this story to learn more about this group of "seasoned al Qaeda operatives" and its plans to orchestrate terror attacks.
    Here's some additional information on the Khorasan Group

    Coming up on #TheLead: @PentagonPresSec, deputy NSA Antony Blinken, @marcorubio on airstrikes in Syria; breaking news on "imminent threat"
    Key figure reportedly killed
    The leader of al Qaeda-linked al-Nusra Front was killed early Tuesday in U.S.-led airstrikes in Syria, according to a statement released by the group. It identified the leader as Abu Yousef al-Turki, also known as "the Turk." The statement posted on Twitter was accompanied by a so-called proof-of-death -- a photograph -- of the former fighter. CNN cannot independently verify al-Nusra's claims, but the monitoring group the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights (SOHR) reported the group was among those targeted during the airstrikes. -- From CNN's Ali Younes, Hamdi Alkshahli and Raja Razek
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