The French defense ministry announced Sunday that its air force is attacking the capital of ISIS in Raqqa, Syria. Twenty sites were struck, France says, including a command post and training camp. The attack comes hours after it was reported that the Paris terrorists communicated with ISIS command in Syria and that the men were trained, not merely inspired, by ISIS. The news was first reported on the Twitter feed of Raqqa is Being Slaughtered Silently, a local activist group.
French forces previously struck Raqqa on Oct. 8 in an effort to forestall the very kinds of attacks that unfolded in Paris last weekend.
Two French Rafale jets bombed what officials said was an ISIS training camp. It was believed to also house one of the country’s most-wanted jihadists, Salim Benghalem, who is responsible for supervising French jihadists who come to Syria to train with ISIS.
It was only the second French airstrike in Syria. And while officials didn’t mention Benghalem, he is believed to have survived.
“We struck because we know that in Syria, particularly around Raqqa, there are training camps for foreign fighters whose mission is not fight Daesh on the Levant but to come to France, in Europe to carry out attacks,” Jean-Yves Le Drian, France’s minister of defense, said at the time.
It's unclear whether any specific information prompted the rare French airstrike. But on Sunday, unnamed Iraqi officials told the Associated Press that they had passed along to France intelligence about an imminent attack on the country prior to the Paris assaults.
But two sources familiar with the intelligence told The Daily Beast that it was vague and general and didn’t offer any clear indication of when terrorists might strike.
France has experience striking inside Syria, but statistics from the U.S. military suggest not very much. Of the 1,772 coalition strikes conducted inside Syria since the air campaign began, only 146 have been by nations other than the United States, France being one of the eight nations.
Assuming that each of those eight countries are contributing evenly, France conducted an estimated 18 strikes before Sunday in Syria. That’s only an approximation, of course. And it is unclear how many of those 146 strikes were in Raqqa, but a U.S. defense official told The Daily Beast the last French strike in that city was Oct. 8. (The only other publicized French strike was on Sept. 27.) In recent weeks, the coalition effort has focused on northern Iraq and helping Kurdish forces reclaim the city of Sinjar, in part to cut off the supply route from Raqqa and western Iraq.
That said, France enters this effort with a large advantage that likely allowed its pilots to conduct strikes just two days after the assault on Paris: access to U.S. and coalition intelligence on Raqqa.
Since June 2014, the U.S.-led coalition has kept a watchful eye over Raqqa, mostly with drones. That’s allowed the coalition to draft a long list of potential targets that it has conducted and France may now use in its war.
“This is a coalition effort. The French are conducting strikes with coalition support,” U.S. Central Command spokesman Air Force Col. Patrick Ryder told The Daily Beast.
During his phone calls with his French counterpart since Friday’s attack, Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter discussed how the French could use U.S. intelligence for potential strikes, according to a U.S. defense official.
The last French military air campaign was during the 2011 Libyan intervention. But during that effort, which was initially designed to stop Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi’s forces from killing civilians in the city of Benghazi, the French struggled to support its airstrikes logistically and eventually sought U.S. help.
But before Friday, France did not consider itself at war in Libya or Syria. Then came the attacks that snuffed out 132 souls.
— Shane Harris and Nancy A. Youssef