(CNN) — The United States is doing what it must to “take the fight to terrorists,” leading a coalition of Arab nations in a series of airstrikes against the so-called Islamic State terror group in Syria, U.S. President Barack Obama said Tuesday.
At the same time, the United States took action — on its own — against another terrorist organization, the Khorasan Group. Obama described its members as “seasoned al Qaeda operatives in Syria.”
U.S. officials said the group was plotting attacks against the United States and other Western targets.
The plots against the United States were discovered by the intelligence community in the past week, an intelligence source with knowledge of the matter told CNN. The source did not say what the target may have been, but said the plot potentially involved a bomb made of a nonmetallic device like a toothpaste container or clothes dipped in explosive material.
A plot involving concealed bombs on airplanes “was just one option they were looking at,” a U.S. official said.
“Once again, it must be clear to anyone who would plot against America and try to do Americans harm that we will not tolerate safe havens for terrorists who threaten our people,” Obama said in televised remarks from the White House.
But Syria warned the United States not to repeat the “fiasco in Iraq by undertaking the same kind of blind military attacks,” Bashar Ja’afari, Syria’s ambassador to the United Nations, told CNN.
The airstrikes in Syria began early Tuesday morning local time. Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Jordan took part in airstrikes on ISIS targets, the U.S. military said. Qatar played a supporting role, the U.S. military said.
Noting that he had “made clear that America would act as part of a broad coalition,” the President said: “That’s exactly what we’ve done.”
“The strength of this coalition makes it clear to the world that this is not America’s fight alone,” Obama said at the White House. “Above all, the people and governments in the Middle East are rejecting ISIL and standing up for the peace and security that the people of the region and the world deserve.” ISIL is another acronym referring to the terrorist group, which calls itself the Islamic State.
While the President touted the coalition, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security issued a bulletin warning law enforcement agencies to be on heightened alert for lone-wolf terror attacks on U.S. soil in wake of the airstrikes, a U.S. law enforcement official told CNN.
There is bipartisan support in Congress for the U.S. military actions, Obama said, adding that “America is always stronger when we stand united. And that unity sends a powerful message to the world that we will do what’s necessary to defend our country.”
Strikes came in three waves
The airstrikes “were only the beginning,” Pentagon spokesman, Navy Rear Adm. John Kirby, said. He declined to comment about future military operations.
The airstrikes came in three waves, with coalition partners participating in the latter two, Army Lt. Gen. William Mayville Jr. said Tuesday. The first wave, which mostly targeted the Khorasan Group, started at 3:30 a.m. (8:30 p.m. ET Monday) and involved U.S. ships firing missiles into eastern and northern Syria.
The second wave, 30 minutes later, involved planes striking northern Syria, with targets including ISIS headquarters, training camps and combat vehicles. The third wave, begun shortly after 7 a.m., involved planes targeting ISIS training camps and combat vehicles in eastern Syria, Mayville said.
It’s too early to say what effect the U.S. strikes had against the Khorasan Group, Mayville said.
However, the airstrikes killed the leader of al Qaeda-linked al-Nusra Front, according to a statement released by the group. It identified the leader as Abu Yousef al-Turki, also known as “the Turk.”
The al-Nusra statement posted on Twitter was accompanied by a so-called proof-of-death — a photograph — of the former fighter. CNN cannot independently verify al-Nusra’s claims, but the monitoring group the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights (SOHR) reported the terror group was among those targeted during the airstrikes.
The strikes marked the first time the United States used F-22 Raptor stealth aircraft in a combat role. The military has previously run into problems with the aircraft.
Monitor group estimates at least 70 ISIS militants killed
The airstrikes against ISIS focused primarily on the city of Raqqa, the declared capital of ISIS’ self-proclaimed Islamic State.
The operation began with a flurry of Tomahawk missiles launched from the sea, followed by attacks from bomber and fighter aircraft, a senior U.S. military official told CNN.
The goal: Taking out ISIS’ ability to command, train and resupply its militants.
In all, 200 pieces of ordnance were dropped by coalition members, and four dozen aircraft were used, a U.S. official told CNN. About 150 weapons used were precision-guided munitions. The United States fired 47 Tomahawk missiles, eight of them against Khorasan targets.
The number of casualties was not immediately clear. But U.S. Central Command said the strikes damaged or destroyed ISIS targets including fighters, training compounds, command-and-control facilities, a finance center and supply trucks.
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said at least 70 ISIS militants were killed and more than 300 were wounded. But CNN and other news outlets were unable to confirm the figures.
CNN national security analyst Fran Townsend said these attacks focused on infrastructure, but were just the beginning.
Eventually, she said, there will likely be “a real campaign to go after leadership targets.”
Celebration amid fear
For months, civilians in Raqqa have been living under the harsh rule of ISIS after militants took over their city, which had been one of Syria’s most liberal cities. The group now controls much of their lives, imposing a strict brand of Sharia law and doling out barbaric punishments, such as beheadings and crucifixions.
Abo Ismail, an opposition activist inside Raqqa, said Tuesday that residents were elated to see the U.S. attacking ISIS targets there.
But at the same time, he said, ISIS has increased security in the city.
“I would dance in the streets, but I am too afraid,” Ismail said.
A U.S. intelligence official said that while law enforcement is aware the airstrikes against ISIS in Syria could incite a response, there is no evidence to suggest any terrorist strike is in the works against the United States.
U.S., Arab coalition sends a message
The inclusion of Sunni-majority countries fighting a radical Sunni militant group sends a strong message, former CIA counterterrorism official Philip Mudd said.
“Prominent religious leaders have said ISIS is not representative of Islam, and now you have countries that are coming to the fore to attack it,” he said.
Iran lashed out at the air campaign. Meeting with journalists at the United Nations, where world leaders are gathering for the General Assembly this week, Iranian President Hassan Rouhani said there was no legal basis for the strikes without U.N. authorization or an invitation from the Syrian government.
But U.S. Deputy National Security Adviser Tony Blinken told CNN that a number of countries, including Iran, were told the United States would be taking action.
“We obviously didn’t say exactly when or where. We wanted to make sure that nobody got in our way,” he said.
The United States defended its actions in a letter to the U.N. secretary-seneral, invoking Article 51 of the U.N. charter — acting when a country is unwilling or unable to handle a threat itself.
“The Syrian regime has shown that it cannot and will not confront these safe havens effectively itself,” Samantha Power, the U.S. ambassador to the U.N., wrote in a letter obtained by CNN. “Accordingly, the United States has initiated necessary and proportionate military actions in Syria.”
The United States did not seek the regime’s permission, nor did it coordinate with the Syrian government, the source said.
But Syria’s U.N. Ambassador Bashar Ja’afari was informed in advance by Power, before the strikes, Syria’s U.N. mission told CNN.
On state-run media, Syria said its foreign minister, Walid al-Moallem also “received a letter from his American counterpart delivered by the Iraqi foreign minister which informed him that ‘the U.S. will target the positions of the ISIS terrorist organization, some of which are in Syria.'”
The senior State Department official said Secretary of State John Kerry did not send a letter to the regime.
A ‘punch in the nose’
Until now, ISIS has been able to take over cities and operate in Syria with near impunity. Now, it’s coming under attack.
“This is the punch in the nose to the bully that we talked about on the playground,” former Delta Force officer James Reese said. “ISIS is the bully, and we just punched him in the nose.”
The United States has been conducting airstrikes against ISIS in Iraq, but never before against the militant group in Syria.