Exclusive: Inside America’s ISIS Air Strike Center in Iraq
ERBIL, Northern Iraq — The morning after the attacks in Paris that left 129 dead, the U.S. officers manning the coalition’s control room hadn’t yet heard that the killings had been claimed by ISIS, the same foe they were pounding with munitions from warplanes in the sky above Iraq.
“I don’t think they [ISIS] are gaining strength,” President Obama told ABC before the Paris attacks, while also admitting that “What we have not yet been able to do is to completely decapitate their control and command structures.”
The Daily Beast visited the operations room on Saturday, the day after the Kurds had recaptured the city of Sinjar from ISIS with close Americans air support. During the battle for Sinjar, U.S. and coalition special forces advisers were positioned on Sinjar Mountain above the city where the fight was taking place to help the Kurds pick targets, a demonstration of how closely the Americans are working with the Kurds to take and hold ISIS territory.
The attack against Paris and the ISIS-claimed bombing which brought down a Russian plane over Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula will likely mean an increase in military operations against ISIS.
During the Sinjar operation, the GPS coordinates of ISIS fighters or attack positions were sent back up to the Erbil nerve center where U.S. officers and Kurdish officials from the Kurdistan Region’s Security Council made the final checks before agreeing to hit.
In the control room, the battle captain sat on a desk with a mug of coffee emblazoned with the 82nd Airborne logo. With the target in mind he called across to ask the Kurdish officials to check with their GPS officers that there were no civilians or friendly forces in the area. Next he used a classified phone on his desk to call the Joint Operations Command room down the hall, where an American military lawyer and other Air Force members sat monitoring drone footage and speaking to the pilots.
The lawyers, one working the day shift and the other the night shift, look at the screens to make their assessments. “They are making sure everything falls within the rules of engagement,” said Major Thomas Campbell, public affairs officer with the Combined Joint Forces Land Component Command Iraq.
“From the Joint Operations Command room all sorts of checks and balances take place,” he said. “We have very detailed map systems and we understand well each munition that will be dropped, and what the blast radius is, to help us do collateral damage estimates, so we know what the effects will be of what we drop and we try and minimize collateral damage.”
Then the word came in that the pilots were ready. He called across to his colleagues again. This is the final moment that the strike can be called off. In Baghdad there is a similar room where Iraqi staff work with the Americans.
“We have challenges, sometimes we may have a disagreement over a target with the Kurdish officials, but we work it out,” said Major Campbell, speaking about the close coordination.
The young, blond battle captain told The Daily Beast he uses some Kurdish in the control room out of courtesy to his local colleagues. Right before the strike he said he shouts “firoke amadeye,” a rough approximation of “strike posture set.” In the aftermath, the Kurdish officials feed back via information on the ground “peshmerga selamete,” or “peshmerga safe.” A cultural adviser is also based in the room to make sure there are no misunderstandings.
Strikes carried out during the battle vary in what approval they need from more deliberate, longer-term strikes. Depending on what is being targeted, the major said some strikes are approved at the one-star general level, and some must be approved at the two-, three-, or four-star levels.
He gave an example of a one longer-term strike targeting an ISIS-held oil refinery in Qayyarah, south of Mosul, that took over a month of planning.
“We have a certain amount of hours we watch the targets through drones,” he said to The Daily Beast just outside the nerve center. “We are looking for patterns of life: people coming and going, are they good guys or bad guys; when are they coming and going, what are they doing and where is the best place to strike. If it was the oil refinery there are probably multiple targets, but where are the best places to strike to have the effect that we want to achieve.
“We have people who just watch the reconnaissance assets nonstop. That’s what they do—that’s their job. They are keeping an eye on these surveillance assets, and that’s where the peshmerga GPS officers come into play—they are on the ground watching these things.”
The Kurdish peshmerga are gaining in battlefield confidence and proving to be an important ally for the Americans, as are the neighboring YPG in Syria, to the annoyance of the Turkish government, who fought a three-decade war with their sister group the militant Kurdish PKK, who were battling for rights and more autonomy. The PKK are on the U.S. and EU list of terrorist groups, but the U.S. is supporting the YPG with airpower, showing the difficulty for the U.S. of finding allies on the ground.
At the end of October, Obama announced that up to 50 U.S. special operations troops would be sent to Syria as advisers, expanding the scope of the war against the militants, which began in August 2014 with targeted strikes in defense of the besieged Yazidis on Sinjar Mountain, and the city of Erbil. Since then the U.S. and the coalition have conducted over 8,000 strikes in Iraq and Syria out of 57,301 sorties at a cost of $5 billion, according to the Department of Defense. The coalition estimates that 20,000 ISIS fighters have been killed across Iraq and Syria.
A deadly side effect is the number of civilian casualties to the air war. Monitoring group Airwars reported that between 653 and 932 civilians are likely to have been killed by nearby coalition airstrikes. U.S. Central Command so far have announced (PDF) that strikes in the Harim area of Syria last year “likely resulted in the deaths of two civilians.”
Between 40 and 50 strikes were conducted during the Sinjar offensive. In the month leading up to the attack there were 250 strikes, said Colonel Steve Warren, a Department of Defense spokesman, in a press briefing last week.
That afternoon, after The Daily Beast left the control room on a cold but bright Saturday in Erbil, pilots above Iraq carried out another strike near Sinjar targeting an ISIS vehicle, one of four strikes in the area that day, even though victory in the battle had already been announced.
There were 12 strikes in total carried out across Iraq that day and six in Syria. According to Cent Com, the strikes in Sinjar hit “three separate tactical units and destroyed three ISIL vehicles, an ISIL fighting position and wounded an ISIL fighter.” They may have been run out of town, but the ISIS fighters were not giving up just yet.