"We think there's an imperative to get isolation in place around Raqqah because our intelligence feeds tell us that there is significant external operations attacks planning going on, emanating central in -- centralized in Raqqah,” Lieutenant General Stephen Townsend told Pentagon reporters via a video link from Baghdad.
"We know they're up to something," he continued. "And it’s an external plot. We don't know exactly where, we don't know exactly when."
He cited the recent capture of the Syrian town of Manbij where "we found links to individuals and plot streams to France, the United States, other European countries." Located a few miles south of the border with Turkey, Manbij was a key ISIS location for foreign fighters coming in and out of Syria.
"So we know that this is going on in Raqqah, as well. And so I think that's why it's necessary to get down there to Raqqah," Townsend added. "We know that it's a focal point of ISIL external operations, planning, plotting.”
ISIL is another acronym used to describe ISIS.
He described "a sense of urgency about what we have to do here because we're just not sure what they're up to, and where, and when. But we know that this plot planning is emanating from Raqqah.”
"We've begun laying the groundwork with our partners to commence the isolation of Raqqah," said Carter. "As we meet here, we're hoping to generate the local forces that will do so."
In Syria, 300 American Special Operations forces have been advising the Syrian Democratic Front (SDF) in the fight against ISIS. The force of 30,000 is mainly made up of Kurdish forces, but also has a sizable Syrian Arab contingent known as the Syrian Arab Coalition.
The idea of Kurdish forces potentially being used in an offensive on Raqqah is a sensitive matter for Turkey, which is wary of a strong Kurdish military presence on its border.
Given those sensitivities, Townsend said the isolation of Raqqah would be primarily undertaken by the Syrian Arab forces aligned with the Syrian Democratic Forces. Townsend believes there are currently enough of those forces available to begin encircling the city in the near future.
But he anticipates that the battle for Raqqah will take longer than the current battle for Mosul given that the anti-ISIS partners in Syria do not have the resourcing available to the Iraqi military. He added that the 300 American military advisers in Syria will also have a light footprint as part of a Raqqah operation.
According to Townsend, the timing of the offensive to retake Raqqah was not precipitated by the potential of an overseas terror plot.
“We want to pressure Raqqah so that the enemy doesn't have a convenient place to go," said Townsend.