Pentagon: 2 Paris attack facilitators killed in US airstrike in Raqqa, Syria

The Department of Defense announced today that three Islamic State “external attack operatives” were killed in a “precision airstrike” in Raqqa, Syria on Dec. 4.

All three “were part of a network led by Boubaker Al-Hakim,” a French-Tunisian jihadi who was killed in another airstrike on Nov. 26. Al-Hakim was a notorious veteran of the jihad who first fought alongside Abu Musab al Zarqawi during the Iraq war. He had extensive ties to jihadi networks in both Europe and North Africa and admittedly helped assassinate a prominent Tunisian politician in 2013.

[For more on Boubaker al-Hakim, see FDD’s Long War Journal report: US confirms death of high-profile Tunisian Islamic State assassin.]

The Pentagon says that al-Hakim’s three comrades were plotting against the West when they were struck down earlier this month.

Two of the three targeted, Salah Gourmet and Sammy Djedou, helped facilitate the Nov. 13, 2015 attacks in Paris, according to a statement released by Pentagon Press Secretary Peter Cook. A team of terrorists dispatched by the so-called caliphate killed 130 people and wounded dozens more during that multi-pronged assault on the French capital.

Both Gourmet and Djedou “were close associates of Abu Muhammad al Adnani,” who served as both the Islamic State’s chief spokesman and “external operations leader.” Adnani met his demise in a US airstrike in the Aleppo province in August.

Cook identified the third jihadist killed in the airstrike as Walid Hamman, “a suicide attack planner who was convicted in absentia in Belgium for a terror plot disrupted in 2015.”

All three Islamic State “leaders” were “directly involved in facilitating external terror operations and recruiting foreign fighters,” according to Cook.

The Defense Department also connected the successful airstrike to actionable intelligence acquired on the battlefield.

“Our recent efforts have been aided by the rapid exploitation of intelligence material collected in territory formerly held by ISIL [Islamic State] and by close coordination within the international coalition and with our local partners,” Cook said in his statement.

Secretary of Defense Ash Carter made a similar point during a press conference on Oct. 23. Carter said at the time that preventing “external operations,” meaning plots targeting the West, is “our highest priority.” He said the assault on Mosul, Iraq would lead to “more intelligence, more information about how they’re operating and therefore get new opportunities to attack external plotters.”

Repeatedly targeting the Islamic State’s external attack planners

The US and its allies have repeatedly targeted the Islamic State’s external operations arm in Iraq and Syria. Members of this wing of the so-called caliphate are responsible for training operatives and planning traditional terrorist attacks, as well as directing “remote-controlled” plots online.

In mid-2015, both the US and UK systematically targeted British nationals believed to be instigating terror in the West. Reyaad Khan and Junaid Hussain, both of whom were allegedly plotting terror, were killed in Aug. 2015. Hussain, in particular, had developed a widespread network of contacts in the West, including inside the US.

In Dec. 2015, Operation Inherent Resolve (OIR) announced that 10 Islamic State “leadership figures” had been targeted in the preceding weeks. Several of them were “external attack planners” and some of these jihadis had ties to the Paris attack. One of them was Charaffe al Mouadan, who was killed on Dec. 24 and had multiple ties to the Paris assault team. Abdul Qader Hakim, an expert in document forgery who had his own connections to the Paris attack network, was bombed two days later, on Dec. 26.

In March, the US announced that Abu Ali al Anbari, one of the Islamic State’s most senior leaders, had been killed. According to US officials, Al Anbari had a hand in the group’s external operations, in addition to his many other roles. The US military has stressed that there is “an overlap between” the Islamic State’s leadership in Mosul and Raqqa and its external operations arm.

Abu Isa Al Amriki, an Islamic State recruiter and external attack planner who was communicating online with would-be jihadis in the West, was killed in an airstrike near Al Bab, Syria on Apr. 22, 2016. Abu Isa’s wife, an Australian national known as Umm Isa Amriki, was also involved in recruiting efforts and perished in the bombing. The Pentagon accused the couple of seeking “to inspire attacks against Western interests.”

In August, the US carried out the aforementioned airstrike that killed Abu Muhammad al Adnani.

Last month, Operation Inherent Resolve (OIR) spokesman Colonel John Dorrian announced the death of an Iraqi national known as Abd al-Basit al-Iraqi. According to Dorrian, al-Iraqi was the “emir” of the Islamic State’s “Middle East external networks,” which are involved in plotting against American, Turkish and European targets.

Pentagon Press Secretary Peter Cook said in his statement that five “top” Islamic State “external plotters” have been killed since mid-November. Although he didn’t list them, Cook may have meant al-Iraqi, al-Hakim and the three jihadis whose deaths were announced today: Gourmet, Djedou and Hamman.

The US military has warned that Abu Bakr al Baghdadi’s men continue to plot attacks in the West even while they are embroiled in heavy fighting.

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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