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U.S. intelligence agencies believe ISIS plotting attacks on West from Raqqa in Syria

WASHINGTON - U.S. intelligence has detected signs that the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) is planning attacks against the West from their Syrian stronghold at Raqqa, adding urgency to coalition plans to encircle and eventually assault the city, a senior American general said Wednesday.

“We know this plot-and-planning is emanating from Raqqa,” Army Lt. Gen. Stephen Townsend said. “We think we’ve got to get to Raqqa pretty soon.” He declined to be more precise about a timeline but said there is “a sense of urgency.”

Reclaiming Mosul 03:48

Speaking to Pentagon reporters from his headquarters in Baghdad, Townsend said the coalition already is “trying to head it off,” referring to unspecified ISIS plans to attack in the West, by watching the Raqqa area and using airstrikes against available targets.

“We’re going to do those kinds of suppressive fires until we’re ready to mount an approach and isolation of Raqqa,” he said.

Townsend is commander of the U.S.-led coalition that is fighting ISIS in both Iraq and Syria. Unlike in Iraq, where the coalition is supporting Iraqi government forces, the U.S. and its coalition partners in Syria are relying on a hodge-podge of local Arab and Kurdish opposition groups to do the fighting.

Townsend acknowledged that a ground offensive to retake Raqqa is politically fraught, given the diverse and competing ethnic groups in Syria, the presence of Russian and Syrian government forces and demands by Turkey that the Syrian Kurdish fighting force known as the YPG, which the Turks regard as an enemy, not participate in the Raqqa assault.

He said plainly that the YPG will necessarily be part of the offensive.

“The facts are these: The only force that is capable on any near-term timeline is the Syrian Democratic Forces, of which the YPG are a significant portion,” Townsend said. “So, we’re negotiating, we’re planning, we’re having talks with Turkey and we’re gonna take this in steps. And 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, centralized in Raqqa.”

Once the isolation phase is accomplished, then the conflicts with Turkey will be addressed to enable the ground assault to proceed, he said.

Townsend gave a mostly upbeat assessment of the Iraqi-led assault on Mosul that began last week. He described ISIS resistance as “pretty stiff,” to include the use of suicide bombers, car bombs and other disruptive attacks.

“They’re pulling out all stops,” he said, adding that he expects ISIS forces to mount a similar defense of Raqqa.

Townsend spoke the day after U.S. Defense Secretary Ash Carter said the groundwork was being laid to “isolate” Raqqa. Carter was speaking after a coalition of defense chiefs met in Paris to discuss the aftermath of the planned capture of Mosul.

CBS News correspondent Margaret Brennan reports that, while the Obama administration  has prioritized Iraq in part because of U.S. history there, the Europeans are eager to launch the Raqqa offensive as it is ISIS’ headquarters, and also the place where the Paris and Brussels attacks were plotted.

The one-year anniversary of the Paris attack will be on Nov. 13.

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