The U.S. military struck two more targets inside Syria on Tuesday, and one more inside Iraq, a senior defense official told NBC News. The Syria strikes were near Dayr az Zawr in the eastern part of the country.
Earlier Tuesday, administration officials said the U.S. was responding to what it saw as an imminent threat when it conducted airstrikes Monday night against the Khorasan terror group—part of a bombing campaign that also targeted the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS).
“We had very good information that this group, this dangerous group, an offshoot of al Qaeda, was in the final stages of planning an attack on Western targets, we believe either in Europe or here at the homeland,” Rear Admiral John Kirby, a Pentagon spokesman, said on msnbc Tuesday. “It was enough information, solid enough, that we needed to take action when we did.”
The Obama administration described the Khorasan group Tuesday as a network of experienced Islamic extremist fighters who have fought together in Pakistan and Afghanistan, and who lately have flooded into Syria. The U.S. believes the group has recruited westerners to serve as operatives and blend into their home countries.
“These are al Qaeda operatives taking advantage of the conflict in Syria that has provided a safe haven for them to plot attacks against the west,” a senior administration official said in a conference call with reporters.
The Khorasan group has been testing bombs to take on airplanes, NBC News Investigations reported Tuesday.
A U.S. source briefed on the latest intelligence told NBC News the U.S. had “information on specific, concrete plotting” against aviation targets by Khorasan.
Monday night’s strikes against ISIS were the first against the terror group in Syria, rather than Iraq. They targeted ISIS’s command-and-control, training, and re-supply facilities, a senior administration official said, adding that 95% of the munitions dropped were precision-guided munitions.
Initial reports indicate that “these strikes were very successful,” Kirby said at a Pentagon briefing Tuesday morning.
The strikes were conducted by the U.S. and five Arab coalition partners: Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Bahrain, the U.A.E., and Qatar. From the start, the administration has been at pains to stress that the military campaign is a joint venture.
“This makes it perfectly clear that this is not simply a battle between the U.S. and ISIL,” a senior administration official told reporters, using an alternative acronym for the terror group. “This is a battle between the people of the region and the terrorists in ISIL.”
President Obama will meet Wednesday with Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi to discuss U.S. support for Iraqi security forces and the Kurdish Peshmerga, who are battling ISIS on the ground, administration officials said.
The airstrikes came just as world leaders convened for the first day of the United Nations annual meeting. There, Obama was scheduled to chair a Security Council meeting Wednesday afternoon focused on stopping the flow of foreign fighters—some from western Europe and the U.S.—into Iraq and Syria. The president also planned to give a speech to the U.N. General Assembly seeking to mobilize the international community more broadly in the fight against ISIS, as well as the showdown with Russia over Ukraine, and the effort to combat the Ebola virus.
The administration argues that the strikes are justified without explicit authorization from Congress, because ISIS originally was affiliated with al Qaeda, before breaking off amid a dispute. That means it’s covered under the 2001 Authorization for the Use of Military Force that preceded the Afghanistan invasion, the administration contends.
“We’ve been in conflict with them many years and that hasn’t changed,” a senior administration official said. “We don’t think Congress meant to remove authorization just because they [ISIS] had a disagreement with al Qaeda.”
The attacks are the “beginning of a credible and sustainable campaign,” Director of Operations Lt. Gen. William Mayville said in the Pentagon briefing. He noted that the attacks were carried out by “multiple aircrafts and cruise missiles from several countries” but, upon being pressed by reporters, said the vast majority of attacks were carried out by U.S. forces.
“Strikes like this can be expected in the future,” Mayville added, but he noted that ISIS is “very well funded” and a “learning organization” that will adapt. There have been reports for the last two months that ISIS is already using civilians for cover and shelter, but Mayville seemed confident the strikes would still be effective.
Earlier, on “Morning Joe” Kirby offered up details of the strikes.
“We hit depots, training facilities, we actually hit some vehicles, and we certainly believe we hit were headquarter type buildings,” Kirby said. He added that the U.S., acting alone, also struck another terrorist group, the al-Qaida-linked Khorasan group, who were in the “final stages” of planning an “imminent attack” in either Europe or the U.S.
President Obama on Tuesday morning spoke at the White House before leaving for New York, thanking the “extraordinary service of the men and women” who executed the airstrikes and stressed the coalition of support behind the attacks.
“This is not America’s fight alone,” he said in his brief address.
“The overall effort will take time, there will be challenges ahead, but we’re going to do what’s necessary to take the fight to this terrorist group,” he said, celebrating the Arab nations who provided operational assistance to the U.S. in the initial mission in Syria: Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Jordan and Qatar.
“We are proud to stand shoulder to shoulder with these nations,” he said.
“[W]e also took strikes to disrupt plotting against the United States and our allies by seasoned al Qaeda operatives in Syria who are known as the Khorasan Group,” added Obama. “[O]nce again, it must be clear to anyone who would plot against America and try to do Americans harm that we will not tolerate safe havens for terrorists who threaten our people.“
While most of these ISIS bases were evacuated before the airstrikes, 20 ISIS fighters were confirmed dead. The U.S. Navy has released footage of missiles being fired off a warship into Syria.
Monday’s attacks are a part of the president’s military strategy to “degrade and ultimately destroy” ISIS, a brutal terrorist group that aims to create a large Islamic state ruled by Sharia law. They add to the 194 airstrikes the U.S. has fired against ISIS in Iraq since August. The U.S. is backed by a broad coalition of more than 50 countries, the administration said.
The assault on ISIS—and Obama’s return to the Middle East after years of working to extricate Americans from the region—promises to be a key part of the president’s legacy. Obama is expected to try and use the U.N. meeting—in particular his address to the General Assembly on Wednesday—as a rallying cry to gain support and grow the coalition too.
“There’s no doubt in my mind [ISIS] has already undertaken and is planning further plots in Europe and elsewhere,” British Prime Minister David Cameron told Brian Williams of NBC News on Tuesday.
“This is a fight you cannot opt out of. These people want to kill us,” Cameron said. “They’ve got us in their sights and we have to put together this coalition…to make sure that we ultimately destroy this evil organization.”
Former Israeli President Shimon Peres, told msnbc Obama had “just reason” to attack. ”The reason is so alarming that the results must be clear, too,” Peres said.
In an interview with NBC’s Andrea Mitchell, Iran’s President Hassan Rouhani called the U.S-led bombardment of ISIS in Syria “illegal,” arguing that because it wasn’t authorized by the United Nations or the Syrian regime. The attacks in Iraq were lawful, he argued, because that government had requested aid.
ISIS has vowed to retaliate, and particularly blamed Saudi Arabia for allowing the attacks to occur.
“It’s very interesting that they immediately criticized Saudi Arabia because they want to turn it back within the Arab world and say you guys are lining up with the Western and the infidel against Islam,” Blair said. “What we’ve got to do is understand this is a battle of moderation and modernity versus extremism and reactionary politics.”
ISIS has also released a video of another hostage, British John Cantlie, who condemns the American intervention in the video. Cantlie is the fourth hostage to be depicted on video released by ISIS in recent weeks. Two American journalists and a British aid worker were beheaded on camera as retaliation for the American airstrikes against ISIS.
On Wednesday, the president will also make a rare move for a head of state and head up a Security Council meeting on ISIS’ foreign fighters.
ISIS is estimated to have 31,000 fighters, nearly a third of which are foreigners. Approximately 100 Americans are thought to be amongst these forces. American and Western forces greatly fear the risk returning fighters, armed with passports and easy access to their home countries, pose to these nations.
The group the U.S. struck independently, the al-Qaida linked Khorasan group, was also planning low-level “knife and gun” attacks by returning fighters to grow fear and terror, NBC News learned, after British and Australian intelligence agencies intercepted messages about the plans.
Syrians officials were informed of the strikes before they occurred, the State Department said on Tuesday morning, but Kirby noted that they had not yet responded.
“The Syrian regime was notified that the coalition was going to take direct action ISIL inside Syria. We did not seek the regime’s permission, we didn’t coordinate our actions with the Syrian government, and Secretary Kerry did not send a letter to the Syrian regime,” State spokesman Jen Psaki said.