14 November 2015, NYT: Pentagon Says 'Jihadi John' Was Probably Killed in Airstrike
1 October 2015, NYT: Russians Strike Targets in Syria, but Not ISIS Areas
DEC. 19, 2015
In ISIS Strategy, U.S. Weighs Risk to Civilians
By MATTHEW ROSENBERG and ERIC SCHMITT
WASHINGTON -- For months, the United States military has known that the Islamic State uses the city hall in Raqqa, Syria, as an administrative center and a dormitory for scores of fighters. Some American officials even believe that Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the group's leader, may have been in the building at times.
Yet, despite the American air campaign against the Islamic State, the white, three-story building remains standing because it also houses a jail. Its inmates are mainly victims of the extremist group -- men caught sneaking a cigarette, women spotted with clothes that reveal even a hint of skin, shop owners who failed to pay their bills -- and for American officials, the risk of killing any of them in an airstrike is too high.
The same is true of six other nearby buildings, including a mosque and court complex, which, together with city hall, compose the closest thing the Islamic State has to a headquarters.
In the aftermath of the attacks in Paris  in November and the shootings this month in San Bernardino, Calif.,  President Obama and European leaders pledged to intensify the campaign against the Islamic State, also known as ISIS or ISIL. Mr. Obama, speaking last week at the Pentagon, said that the United States-led coalition was hitting the Islamic State "harder than ever," and added that warplanes were "going after ISIL from their stronghold right in downtown Raqqa."
But Mr. Obama also acknowledged the dilemma the United States and its allies face in Raqqa and other urban areas in Syria and Iraq, noting that the Islamic State "is dug in, including in urban areas, and they hide behind civilians."
"So even as we're relentless, we have to be smart, targeting ISIL surgically with precision," he added.
Current and former residents of Raqqa, however, say the group's leaders move constantly, mixing with the civilian population. "The real administrators and commanders and leaders are always on the move and have no specific quarters," said an activist in Raqqa, who was interviewed via direct message and spoke on the condition of anonymity out of fear of retaliation from the Islamic State.
In urging more aggressive action against the group, some Republican presidential candidates, like Donald J. Trump, have expressed a willingness to attack targets even if civilians are present. Senator Ted Cruz seemed to suggest in a Republican debate last week that a Cruz administration would be able to "carpet-bomb" militants without harming civilians.  But White House and Pentagon officials have made it clear that obvious civilian targets are off limits -- and that attacking them would not only violate international law but undermine the effort to defeat the Islamic State.
"We have to be very careful about how we prosecute a campaign that appears to be an indiscriminate attempt to attack ISIL and the population that surrounds it," Gen. Paul J. Selva of the Air Force, the vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told Congress this month.
More than 260 civilians have been killed in coalition strikes in Syria, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a group based in Britain that tracks the conflict through a network of contacts in Syria. And the Islamic State has worked hard to exploit those deaths.
Javier Lesaca, a visiting scholar at George Washington University's School of Media and Public Affairs, said the Islamic State had produced 30 videos in the past two years denouncing the consequences of coalition airstrikes, adding heft to the logic of why the United States is being even more careful.
As the capital of the Islamic State's self-declared caliphate, Raqqa holds a dense concentration of potential targets: The group's top leaders work and live in the city, and the bureaucracy they have created to run the self-declared caliphate is based there. There are financial specialists, computer experts, field commanders and as many as 10,000 foot soldiers, and they congregate in dozens of places, including the headquarters buildings.
Raqqa's city hall is Exhibit A in the difficulties in targeting in an urban environment. Even the most advanced and precise missiles and bombs cannot achieve the surgical precision needed to target only militants in the city hall building, American officials said.
The top floors are a dormitory for fighters from across the region, residents of Raqqa said, estimating that there are about 150 men, most of them from Saudi Arabia or Tunisia. But the rest of the building is used by civilians.
There are said to be 25 cells in the jail, and they are often cold and packed full of people, according to the activist. On the ground floor is a court that hears cases of those jailed below, and administrative offices that by Raqqa's residents visit, inquiring about friends or relatives detained by the militants, or dealing with minor bureaucratic matters, like replacing identity papers.
Mr. Baghdadi, the Islamic State's leader, may have been in city hall, but according to a senior military official, he "moves constantly, and is in and out of buildings all over" areas the Islamic State controls. Locating Mr. Baghdadi with enough precision to even consider striking him has proved impossible, intelligence officials said, largely because of the care he takes to mask his movements and avoid detection.
The senior military official and a former one said they did not know of any instances in which American forces had had a clear shot at him in Raqqa. The officials, like nearly a dozen others interviewed for this story, spoke on the condition of anonymity because they were discussing operational details and classified intelligence.
But there have been successful American and allied strikes in the heart of Raqqa. Last month, Hellfire missiles fired from a Reaper drone killed Mohammed Emwazi,  the Islamic State's most notorious executioner, near a major traffic circle a few blocks from city hall.
Pentagon officials said Mr. Emwazi, known as "Jihadi John" was targeted in a predawn strike when streets were largely empty to reduce the risk to civilians.
Even so, Mr. Baghdadi is such a valuable target that if the coalition got a clear shot at him it might take it and accept the risk of civilian deaths. "Our threshold for collateral damage increases with the value of the target we're going after," Gen. Joseph F. Dunford Jr., the chairman of the Joint Chiefs, told Congress this month.
Since the air campaign against ISIS began in August last year, the United States and its allies have, according to the Pentagon, conducted about 9,000 airstrikes and dropped about 32,000 bombs and other weapons -- including nearly 3,300 in November alone, more than in any other single month.
And despites its limits, the bombing does appear to have blunted the advance of Islamic State fighters in most areas of Syria and Iraq by forcing them to disperse and conceal themselves. Mr. Obama said at the Pentagon that the Islamic State had lost 40 percent of the territory it originally seized in Iraq in June last year.
The coalition has in recent weeks also increased attacks on the Islamic State's oil wells, refineries and more than 400 tanker trucks that ferry the illicit cargo. American aircraft dropped warning leaflets and made strafing runs near the trucks to persuade the civilian drivers to abandon their vehicles before the bombing began, military officials said.
"The U.S. has indeed been successful in minimizing civilian harm in its airstrikes against ISIS, and should continue to take precautions even as they intensify airstrikes," said Federico Borello, the executive director of the Center for Civilians in Conflict, an advocacy group.
The three-month-old Russian air campaign has stood in stark contrast to the caution of American military planners. The Russian campaign has mostly targeted rebel groups in northwestern Syria  that are opposed to the government of President Bashar al-Assad, and it has deployed fighter jet that use largely unguided bombs to strike their targets, killing hundreds of civilians, human rights groups say.
The fear among many in Syria and the West is that the Russian campaign is handing the Islamic State and other militants a major propaganda victory. American officials say that if the United States were to go the same route, it would be likely to alienate the local Sunni tribesmen whose support is critical to ousting the militants, and the Sunni Arab countries that are part of the fragile American-led coalition.
"We want to kill terrorists, but not in a way that will help new generations of them," said a senior American military official in Iraq.
Maher Samaan contributed reporting from Paris, and Hwaida Saad from Beirut, Lebanon.