Fall of Raqqa Key to Disrupting Terror Plots: US General

This undated file image posted on a militant website on Jan. 14, 2014, which has been verified and is consistent with other AP reporting, shows fighters from the al-Qaida linked Islamic State in Raqqa, Syria. Militant site via AP
This undated file image posted on a militant website on Jan. 14, 2014, which has been verified and is consistent with other AP reporting, shows fighters from the al-Qaida linked Islamic State in Raqqa, Syria. Militant site via AP

The U.S. urgently needs to rally feuding local forces for an attack on the Islamic State's Syrian stronghold in Raqqa to disrupt terror plots against the U.S. and Europe, a top U.S. general said Wednesday.

"We think there's an imperative to get isolation in place around Raqqa because our intelligence feeds tell us that there is significant external operations attacks planning going on, emanating, centralized in Raqqa," Army Lt. Gen. Stephen Townsend said.

"I don't want to characterize the intelligence too much," Townsend said, and "we actually aren't sure how pressing it is -- and that's what's worrying us." However, "we know they're up to something and it's an external plot."

"There's, I think, a sense of urgency about what we have to do here because we're just not sure what they're up to, and where, and when. But we know that this plot planning is emanating from Raqqa," said Townsend, commander of Combined Joint Task Force-Operation Inherent Resolve.

To disrupt terror planning in Raqqa, the self-proclaimed capital of the ISIS "caliphate," Townsend said the U.S. is ready to back any local force with the willingness to fight ISIS, despite the likelihood of friction with NATO ally Turkey.

In a video briefing from Baghdad to the Pentagon, Townsend said, "I think it's very important to get isolation in place around Raqqa, to start controlling that environment on a pretty short timeline. So, we're going to take the force that we have" and "we will go to Raqqa soon."

The assault would be carried out primarily by the Syrian Democratic Forces, whose most effective fighting unit is the Kurdish YPG, or People's Protection Units.

Turkey and local forces it supports have been attacking the YPG, which Turkey views as a terrorist organization.

The mechanics of a Raqqa attack are "still to be determined between our government, our local partners and the Turkish government, and I don't know how that will work out," Townsend said.

The Turks have "expressed an interest to be involved in that," Townsend said of the attack on Raqqa. "We'll work through that later. But I think that we'll move soon to isolate Raqqa with the forces that are ready to go soon."

The Raqqa operation would be carried out in concert with the ongoing offensive by the Iraqi Security Forces and Kurdish Peshmerga fighters against Mosul in Iraq, which has reached the outskirts of the city against heavy resistance by ISIS.

Last week, Army Gen. Joseph Votel, commander of U.S. Central Command, said that the U.S. was planning a Raqqa offensive while the Mosul operation continues to apply "simultaneous pressure" against ISIS.

On Tuesday, Defense Secretary Carter told a meeting of the anti-ISIS coalition in Paris about the planned joint offensives against the two ISIS strongholds and later told NBC News that the Raqqa offensive could begin "within weeks."

-- Richard Sisk can be reached at Richard.Sisk@Military.com.

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