Over the last six weeks, the U.S. has launched nearly 200 airstrikes against ISIS targets in Iraq. This morning, President Obama delivered a short statement to officially announce that the U.S. has launched airstrikes in Syria now, too.
Who are these airstrikes targeting? ISIS, right?
The airstrikes, which began last night, are primarily targeting ISIS, or Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, the Al Qaeda descendant that controls a significant portion of Iraq and Syria. This is the group that mass-murdered Iraqi soldiers, kidnapped aid workers, beheaded American journalists, and has convinced thousands (including American teens) to join them and wage jihad.
Obama wants to "degrade and ultimately destroy" ISIS militants wherever they are. But they're not the only group targeted in these most recent strikes: the U.S. is going after the Khorasan group, too.
Wait—what's the Khorasan group?
The Khorasan group is a terrorist outfit that has closer ties to al Qaeda's many organizations than ISIS. It's based in Pakistan, operates in Iraq and Syria, and still sits within Al Qaeda's hierarchy, which means the group is mainly focused on attacking America. Khorasan militants also work with the Yemeni branch of al Qaeda called al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula.
Are they dangerous?
Yes. While ISIS is only a regional threat, the Pentagon believes the Khorasan group does have the capability to carry out attacks on Western nations. The administration targeted them last night because U.S. officials believe the group posed an "imminent" threat to the U.S.
What kind of threat?
There were indications that the militants had obtained materials and were working on new improvised explosive devices that would be hard to detect, including common hand-held electronic devices and airplane carry-on items such as toiletries.
Are ISIS and the Khorasan group working together? Why did the U.S. attack them at the same time?
No, ISIS and the Khorasan group aren't working together. In Syria, the groups apparently compete for recruits. Muhsin al Fadhli, thought to be a senior member of the Khorasan group, hired one of ISIS's social media managers in order to mimic ISIS's advanced online recruiting efforts.
The U.S. attacked the Khorasan group last night to maintain an element of surprise. The Pentagon feared Khorasan members would scatter if the U.S. attacked ISIS first.
OK, got it. Are other countries helping us out with the airstrike campaigns?
With the Khorasan group, no. The U.S. was the only country to launch airstrikes on Khorasan targets. Five Arab nations did help us attack ISIS in Syria, however. Bahrain, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and United Arab Emirates all participated in the strikes. Getting that coalition together was a foreign policy "win" for Obama.
What about Syrian President Bashar al-Assad? Is he on board?
Assad probably doesn't mind that the U.S. is attacking ISIS in Syria now, since ISIS is targeting his government. U.S. State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki was clear today, however, that the U.S. did not work with Assad's government to carry out the strikes:
We did not request the regime's permission. We did not coordinate our actions with the Syrian government. We did not provide advance notification to the Syrians at a military level, or give any indication of our timing on specific targets.
If you can think back to 2013, you'll remember that Assad is a horrible and inhuman dictator. Obama has called for him to step down multiple times since chemical weapons attacks were launched on Assad's own people in the midst of the Syrian civil war. The U.S. government supports the moderate opposition in Syria, not Assad.
So wait–won't these strikes technically help Assad?
That's the fear. Syrian rebels are worried that Assad's forces will fill the vacuum on the ground where ISIS is wiped out. The U.S. knows this is a possibility and that the moderate Free Syrian Army probably isn't ready to overtake Assad's forces.
Obama weighed the options and ultimately decided that letting ISIS have a safe haven in Syria couldn't go on.
Gotcha. So what was hit? Are the strikes even working?
It's too soon to tell if this campaign is "working," but the strikes on ISIS in Syria are already more intense than those launched in Iraq. Preliminary photos like this one are rolling in now:
— Jim Sciutto (@jimsciutto) September 23, 2014
According to U.S. Central Command, the airstrikes on ISIS targeted militants as well as "training compounds, headquarters and command and control facilities, storage facilities, a finance center, supply trucks, and armed vehicles in the vicinity of Raqqa, Dayr az Zawr, Al-Hasakah and Abu Kamal." The U.S. launched strikes from the air and sea.
Raqqa citizen Abdulkader Hariri live-tweeted the airstrikes last night, if you're looking for a rough timeline of the events.
Breaking: Huge explosions shook the city in what might be the beginning of US airstrikes on ISIS HQs in Raqqa
— Abdulkader Hariri (@3bdUlkaed6r) September 23, 2014
Okay, one more question: Is bombing ISIS really the right strategy?
That's still up for debate. At least one former analyst (Chelsea Manning) thinks it'd be better to contain ISIS and let the group fail on its own. There are also those who worry targeting ISIS in Syria will only cement Assad's position of power. Obama's calculus is that targeting ISIS in Iraq but not Syria doesn't make much sense, since ISIS would enjoy a safe haven in Syria.
U.S. officials say last night's bombing is "just a start." The effectiveness of the campaign now depends on what we do next and how quickly ISIS regroups. Former CIA analyst and counterterrorism expert Philip Mudd told CNN today, "When this gets interesting to me ... 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?"
We'll have to wait and see. For what it's worth, the six-week bombing campaign on ISIS in Iraq has done little to shake the militants. ISIS was prevented from taking Baghdad, but the militants are still "dealing humiliating blows to the Iraqi Army."
[Photo via Getty]