Islamic State continues to plot against the West, US military warns

The US military warned today that the Islamic State continues to plot attacks against the West from its headquarters in Raqqa, Syria.

“We know this plot and planning is emanating from Raqqa,” Army Lt. Gen. Stephen Townsend said, according to the Associated Press.

Townsend didn’t provide any specifics, but the Islamic State has orchestrated multiple attacks from its safe havens in the past. American and European officials are constantly working to disrupt the group’s logistical support networks and uncover cells.

“We aren’t sure how pressing it is. We know they are up to something,” Townsend said, according to Townsend added that “we’ve got to get to Raqqa pretty soon” because of this anti-Western plotting.

US officials have indicated in recent days that the battle for Raqqa will commence soon, but the details are murky. It is unclear when the offensive against Raqqa will get underway.

During a press briefing on Oct. 23, Lt. Gen. Townsend and Secretary of Defense Ash Carter connected the so-called caliphate’s leadership in Mosul and Raqqa to Western attack planning, or “external operations.”

In the “top tier” of the Islamic State, Townsend said, “there’s an overlap between leadership in Mosul, leadership in Raqqa and external operations.” The “top tier of leaders do all those” and are “involved in all of those things.”

“So by killing those individuals,” Townsend argued, “we affect both sides of this theater and external operations, as well.”

The US military’s assessment illustrates that there is no firm dividing line between the jihadists’ warfighting over there and planning attacks over here. The US government has been inconsistent on this point in the past. For instance, in Nov. 2014, CENTCOM claimed that there was some clear demarcation between al Qaeda’s guerrilla warfare in Syria and its plotting against the West, even though senior al Qaeda figures have been involved in both. [See LWJ report, Analysis: CENTCOM draws misleading line between Al Nusrah Front and Khorasan Group.]

But American officials are not trying to draw the same misleading distinction with respect to the Islamic State. Instead, they are emphasizing the connectivity between the jihadists’ various operations.

Secretary of Defense Carter said earlier this week that preventing “external operations” is “our highest priority.” He said the assault on Mosul will lead to “more intelligence, more information about how they’re operating and therefore get new opportunities to attack external plotters.”

“Also, as they get squeezed down in their territory, they get more concerned about their own security and are less free to orchestrate complex attacks against either this country or externally, including, very importantly, obviously, to me and to all of us, the United States,” Carter said. He added that the offensive against Mosul “will give us yet more opportunities” to thwart the Islamic State’s external operations.

The Islamic State’s leaders wear multiple hats, just as Townsend and Carter claim. For example, the Defense Department said earlier this year that Abu Ali al Anbari, one of the group’s most senior figures, had a hand in external attack planning prior to his demise. Similarly, the Islamic State’s spokesman, Abu Muhammad al Adnani, oversaw external operations in addition to his other duties. Adnani was killed in an airstrike in August.

The US has repeatedly targeted the Islamic State’s external attack planners in both Iraq and Syria. The UK has bombed operatives in this wing of the group as well. The external operations arm orchestrates plots involving professionally-trained terrorists, such as the Nov. 2015 assault on Paris, and also oversees “remote-controlled” attacks in which Islamic State supporters and members are guided by online handlers.

Thomas Joscelyn is a Senior Fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and the Senior Editor for FDD's Long War Journal.

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