U.S. Continues to Limit Airstrikes Against ISIS Camps

Only 20 camps struck since May

ISIS training camp
ISIS training camp / Screenshot from YouTube
December 17, 2015

President Obama said for the first time this week that U.S. and allied airstrikes are targeting ISIS training camps in Iraq and Syria, but new figures reveal only 20 camps were hit in recent months.

Since May, U.S. and allied air forces conducted 17 attacks hitting a total of 20 camps in Syria and Iraq, according to the U.S. military command in Iraq.

Critics in the Obama administration and U.S. military say ISIS has been operating more than 60 training camps since 2014 in areas of Syria and Iraq. The camps are said to be producing an estimated 1,000 fighters a month.

The officials voiced frustrations that ISIS training camps are not being vigorously struck.

"These camps give them a continuous, fresh flow fighters," said one official, "and little is being done to destroy them."

According to the officials, the U.S. military has been constrained from attacking the camps because many are located in or near residential areas and population centers and the White House fears strikes will produce civilian casualties.

Additionally, the flow of trained fighters from the camps is assisting ISIS efforts to expand its operations into placed such as Libya and Yemen.

France’s Le Figoro newspaper reported Dec. 12 that ISIS has set up two major training camps in the Libyan desert near Houn, about 135 miles south of the coastal city of Sirte.

ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi was reported to be in Sirte Dec. 3, according to Libyan press reports.

Long War Journal reported in June that the number of terrorist training camps in Syria and Iraq continues to increase, for both ISIS and al Qaeda. The journal reported that more than 100 training camps have been identified in the two Middle East states.

"The proliferation of training camps in Iraq and Syria speaks to the strength of the Islamic State and its ability to continue to gather and instruct recruits despite the U.S. and allies' air campaign," said Bill Roggio, editor of the Long War Journal.

"It is unclear if U.S. airstrikes have significantly set back the Islamic State's training program," he told the Washington Free Beacon. "We may not be hitting the training facilities quick enough to make a difference."

Obama, under pressure from critics at home and abroad over the limited military strategy against ISIS, on Monday vowed that the U.S. strategy is "moving forward with a great sense of urgency" following ISIS-linked attacks in Paris and San Bernardino, California.

"Every day, we destroy as well more of ISIL's forces—their fighting positions, bunkers, and staging areas; their heavy weapons, bomb-making factories, compounds and training camps," Obama said at the Pentagon on Monday following a National Security Council meeting.

French military forces have conducted airstrikes in recent weeks against ISIS training camps in Syria where French ISIS fighters were believed to be training.

The public affairs office at the Combined Joint Task Force—Operation Inherent Resolve said in a statement to the Free Beacon that the 17 strikes included five airstrikes in Iraq and nine in Syria.

"In some of these strikes, the training area was not the primary target, so it may not have been specified in our strike releases," the statement said.

Between May 20 and Dec. 8, the attacks included several strikes near Raqqah, where ISIS headquarters is located, against a training camps and staging areas; attacks also were conducted against a training area and logistics site near Dayr Az Zawr; and strikes on a training camps near Kobani, Mosul, Albu Hayat, and Abu Kamal.

A military statement issued Dec. 17 said a training camp was bombed near Raqqah.

Asked about the low number of training camp attacks, Army Col. Steven Warren, a coalition spokesman, said, "We have struck training camps and will continue to do so."

Sebastian Gorka, the Horner distinguished chair of military theory at Marine Corps University, said final victory in the current anti-ISIS campaign will not be measured by the number of body bags but that "taking out jihadi camps right now is the number one priority."

"Victory will come when we and our allies have delegitimized the ideology of global jihadism, but at the moment ISIS is powerful and growing and must be met with decisive force," he said.

"The rate of U.S. strikes today is infinitesimal in comparison to the First Gulf War and our pilots' incredibly restrictive rules of engagement mean that they often return to base with ordinance still on their wing struts," Gorka said. "As long as ISIS has ten of thousands of fighters in theater, this in inexcusable."

Rep. Mike Turner (R., Ohio) said during a House Armed Services Committee hearing last month that key targets, including training camps, are not being bombed.

"There's great frustration in the American public as we hear that there are attacks now happening to ISIS, and ISIL training camps that we've known where they are but no one's attacking them," Turner said Nov. 18.

"Logistic, supply lines, sales of oil, other operations of ISIS and ISIL are going without challenge," he added. "So clearly the strategy that we're doing is not working and is threatening our national security."

The Pentagon recently began hitting oil facilities and transportation vehicles.

Ryan Crocker, former ambassador to Syria and Iraq, testified at the committee hearing that the U.S. and allied forces should "amp up significantly the air campaign against Islamic State."

"Paris changed a lot of things and I think it should certainly change how we look at a target list, let's look at it again," Crocker said. "If there are key facilities for Islamic State that we've identified, we need to go nail them."