NEW YORK — U.S. President Barack Obama called for united action to confront violent extremism as he addressed the United Nations General Assembly on Wednesday, after a second day of U.S. airstrikes in Syria.
Airstrikes were carried out overnight Tuesday into Wednesday against five more targets: four in Iraq and one in Syria, the U.S. Central Command said.
In Syria, a U.S. aircraft and coalition plane struck an ISIS staging area near the Iraqi border, northwest of Al Qa’im, damaging eight ISIS vehicles.
In Iraq, two airstrikes west of Baghdad destroyed two ISIS armed vehicles and a weapons cache. Two airstrikes southeast of the city of Irbil destroyed ISIS fighting positions.
The latest raids come on the heels of major airstrikes in Syria early Tuesday.
Speaking in New York, Obama told of the need to confront the threats that face the world today, including the violent extremism embodied by the radical group ISIS.
“It is no exaggeration to say that humanity’s future depends on us uniting against those who would divide us along fault lines of tribe or sect; race or religion,” he said.
“This is not simply a matter of words. Collectively, we must take concrete steps to address the danger posed by religiously motivated fanatics, and the trends that fuel their recruitment.”
Obama said he had made clear that U.S. foreign policy would not focus only on fighting terrorism, but on targeted action against al Qaeda and other terror groups.
“At the same time, we have reaffirmed that the United States is not and never will be at war with Islam,” he said.
Obama also rejected any notion of a clash of civilizations between Islam and the U.S. “When it comes to America and Islam, there is no us and them. There is only us, because millions of Muslim Americans are part of the fabric of our country.”
Obama faces questions over his decision to bomb terror groups in Syria without approval from the U.N. Security Council or Congress.
And as the President takes the world stage, U.S. law enforcement agencies are looking out for possible lone-wolf attack plots to retaliate for the bombings.
Why not strike the regime?
While some Syrians celebrated the U.S. airstrikes on radical militants, others expressed frustration that President Bashar al-Assad’s regime, which world leaders blame for thousands of civilian deaths, goes unscathed.
“I am just wondering why the U.S. didn’t bomb the regime’s brigades,” Aleppo resident Foaad Hallak said.
“If the international community is willing to show their good intentions to Syrians, they have to bomb the regime and its militias and also ISIS, and also they have to supply FSA (the rebel Free Syrian Army) with anti-aircraft missiles.”
Muhammad al-Dleby said he was frustrated that after three years and more than 100,000 deaths in Syria, the international community stepped in only because radical militants were “a threat to its interests.”
“Assad is the biggest terrorist in Syria, and he did crimes that even … extremists didn’t do,” he said.
Kerry: Strikes effective but will take time
So far, U.S. Central Command has conducted 198 airstrikes across Iraq against ISIS and, along with partner nations, another 20 airstrikes against the group across Syria.
Conceding that airstrikes haven’t flushed out ISIS in Iraq, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry said that U.S airpower may nonetheless have prevented the fall of Baghdad and Irbil to the militants.
“What we’ve done is we’ve stopped the onslaught,” he told CNN’s Christiane Amanpour.
“That was what we were able to achieve with air power. They were moving towards Irbil. They were moving towards Baghdad. Baghdad could well have fallen. Irbil could have fallen.”
The fight against ISIS will also include efforts to counter foreign fighters, cutting off financing, and a major effort to “reclaim Islam by Muslims,” Kerry said.
U.S. airstrikes aren’t designed to defeat ISIS by themselves, he said. “You and others should not be looking for some massive retreat in the next week or two,” he said.
The airstrikes early Tuesday in Syria came in three waves, with coalition partners participating in the latter two, Army Lt. Gen. William Mayville Jr. said Tuesday.
The first wave mostly targeted the Khorasan Group, whom Obama described as “seasoned al Qaeda operatives in Syria.”
The second wave of airstrikes Tuesday involved planes striking ISIS targets in northern Syria, including the town of Raqqa.
The third wave involved planes targeting ISIS training camps and combat vehicles in eastern Syria, Mayville said.
Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Jordan took part in airstrikes on the ISIS targets, the U.S. military said, while Qatar played a supporting role.
In all, 200 pieces of ordnance were dropped by coalition members, a U.S. official told CNN.
It’s too early to say what effect the U.S. strikes had against the Khorasan Group, Mayville said.
U.S. officials said the group was plotting attacks against the United States and other Western targets. The intelligence community discovered the plots against the United States in the past week, an intelligence source told CNN.
The source did not say what the Khorasan Group’s target may have been, but said the plot may have involved a bomb made of a nonmetallic device like a toothpaste container or clothes dipped in explosive material.
The attacks on ISIS, however, destroyed targets including training compounds, command-and-control facilities, a finance center and supply trucks, the U.S. Central Command said.
The airstrikes apparently took a toll on another terror group, killing the leader of the al Qaeda-linked al-Nusra Front, according to a statement from the group.
Al-Nusra Front identified the leader as Abu Yousef al-Turki, also known as “The Turk.” It posted a statement on Twitter, accompanied by a so-called proof-of-death — a photograph — of al-Turki.
But the United States has not identified al-Nusra as a group targeted in the strikes.
Activist: ISIS fighters keep low profile
An activist from Raqqa, who uses the pseudonym Maher al-Ahmad, told CNN he’d gone back to the town after the airstrikes.
“It’s the first time I didn’t see ISIS in the streets, that I was able to walk around, because I am wanted by them,” said al-Ahmad, who moves between Raqqa and Turkey’s Gaziantep province.
He said people who were there during the strikes described them as feeling like earthquakes.
Some 20 to 25 vehicles filled with ISIS fighters, including people he believes were senior leadership because of the level of security around them, left the city within hours of the attacks, the activist said.
After keeping a low profile during the day, the ISIS fighters were out in the streets again by Tuesday evening but in lower numbers than usual, he said.
They set up ad hoc checkpoints and detained anyone they thought was suspicious — including at least five people suspected of passing on information or taking video in the streets on their phones, he said.
ISIS fighters began moving into the homes of civilians in the past two to three weeks, al-Ahmad said, raising fears that the civilians may be used as human shields or fall victim to future airstrikes.
Hassan al-Halabi, an activist from Aleppo, voiced similar fears, saying residents there have two main concerns about upcoming strikes in Syria.
“The first is that they are afraid of having civilian casualties because ISIS’ members and fighters are among civilians,” al-Halabi said.
“And the second concern is that what will happen after that? Who will replace ISIS, especially that the regime is ready to take control of ISIS’ areas?”
Concern over possible backlash by the terror groups against the United States has prompted the Department of Homeland Security to warn law enforcement agencies of potential lone-wolf terror attacks on American soil, a U.S. law enforcement official with knowledge of the warning told CNN.
The bulletin calls for vigilance as well as scrutinizing social media for anyone encouraging violence in response to the strikes. It points to the use of social media as a tactic by ISIS to spread its message and call for violence.
It also advises agencies to look for changes in appearance or behavior in those they’re tracking, the official said.