TIME Military

19-Year-Old Marine Is First Soldier to Die Fighting ISIS in Iraq

A member loyal to the ISIL waves an ISIL flag in Raqqa
Reuters

Marine Lance Cpl. Sean Neal of California died in Baghdad on Thursday

The U.S. has lost its first soldier in the fight against the Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria (ISIS) in Iraq.

The Pentagon announced Friday that Marine Lance Cpl. Sean Neal, 19, died in Baghdad during a noncombat incident on Thursday, the Washington Post reports. No further details about his death were available.

Neal’s death is the first in Iraq since the U.S. military began the mission Inherent Resolve, which targets the extremist group that has rapidly expanded its control over parts of Iraq and Syria this year.

More than 4,000 members of the military died in Iraq in the years following the 2003 invasion. President Barack Obama has said that the U.S. will not send troops back to the country after withdrawing forces in 2011, though the U.S. has begun air strikes and some ground operations as it tries to stop ISIS.

[Washington Post]

TIME Syria

Coalition Air Strikes Have Killed More Than 500 Militants Across Syria

Smoke and dust rise over Syrian town of Kobani after an airstrike, as seen from the Mursitpinar crossing on the Turkish-Syrian border in the southeastern town of Suruc
Smoke and dust rise over Syrian town of Kobani after an airstrike on October 22, 2014. Kai Pfaffenbach —Reuters

Monitors say that dozens of civilians have also been killed by the aerial onslaught

The U.S.-led air campaign to degrade and destroy the Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria (ISIS) has killed more than 500 Islamic militants as well as dozens of civilians throughout Syria, the British-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said Thursday.

The Observatory claims in a new report that the coalition’s air offensive had killed 464 ISIS troops, in addition to 57 fighters allied with the Syrian al-Qaeda affiliate al-Nusra Front. At least, 32 civilians have also been killed since the offensive commenced in early September, the report said.

However, analysts say that the air strikes have only eliminated a fraction of ISIS’s troops on the ground. On Thursday, Charles Lister, a Syria expert and visiting fellow at the Brookings Doha Center, remarked on Twitter that the coalition’s aerial offensive in Syria had killed just 1.47% of ISIS’s estimated manpower, based on data supplied by the Syrian Observatory and the CIA.

A majority of the coalition strikes have targeted ISIS forces massed in and around the embattled city of Kobani in northern Syria. Besieged Kurdish militia forces have battled the Sunni extremist group for more than a month near the Turkish border and are believed to have regained momentum on the contested battlefield thanks largely to the air strikes.

Earlier in the week, U.S. C-130 cargo planes dropped light weapons, ammunition and medical supplies to the Kurdish militia forces in Kobani. However, one of the 28 bundles reportedly fell into the hands of the enemy. The Pentagon was quick to dismiss the error as inconsequential.

“One bundle worth of equipment is not enough equipment to give the enemy any type of advantage at all,” Army Colonel Steve Warren told reporters in Washington, D.C., on Wednesday. “It’s a relatively small amount of supplies. This is stuff [ISIS] already has.”

In northern Iraq on Wednesday, the semiautonomous Kurdish parliament passed a resolution to send peshmerga troops to fight alongside their fellow Kurdish fighters in Kobani, following Turkey’s decision earlier this week to allow reinforcements to cross the border into the besieged enclave.

TIME isis

How to Financially Starve ISIS

A member loyal to the ISIL waves an ISIL flag in Raqqa
A fighter from the Islamic State in Iraq and Greater Syria (ISIS) waves a flag in Raqqa, Syria on June 29, 2014. Reuters

Air strikes will help but to ruin the extremist organization the U.S.-led coalition will have to cut off ISIS's sources of funding

The U.S.-led air assault in Iraq and Syria on the extremist group the Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria(ISIS) is just one front in the battle being waged against ISIS. The U.S. Treasury recently confirmed plans to try to bankrupt the militant group by targeting its oil businesses and imposing sanctions on those financing them. But how easy will it be to financially ruin a group now considered by analysts to be the best-funded terrorist organization in recent history?

“Like all organizations, money matters to ISIS,” says Fawaz Gerges, the Emirates chair in Contemporary Middle Eastern Studies at the London School of Economics. “Napoleon once said ‘An army marches on its stomach’ and even ISIS needs to feed and arm its soldiers, to provide for their families. If you follow the trail of money and starve ISIS financially, you begin the process of degrading and ultimately paralyzing it.”

Yet following this trail of money is difficult. Experts speaking to TIME say hard figures are difficult to come by, partly because of a lack of independent researchers and journalists in the area. ISIS also deals mainly in cash and operates outside the legitimate channels that can be traced by the Treasury, says Valérie Marcel, a Middle East energy and resources expert at London-based think-tank Chatham House. As a result, estimates of ISIS’s daily revenue vary between $1 million and $3 million a day. Gerges says that ISIS has estimated funds of tens of millions of dollars, and that in the last few months the group has reportedly tried to limit its spending as much as possible to counter the coalition’s efforts to cut off its funding.

As ISIS has grown in size and taken control of large parts of Syria and Iraq, its sources of income have also shifted. Justin Dargin, a Middle East energy specialist based at the University of Oxford, says that “while funding from wealthy Gulf patrons assisted the group’s early rise, currently individual donations are not of major importance” since ISIS has developed more independent sources of income. David Butter, a Chatham House expert in the politics and economy of the Middle East, agrees, noting that ISIS benefits from being far less reliant on funds from abroad than other Islamist and Salafist jihadist groups, who made themselves overly dependent on the one-off nature of such fundraising. In fact, experts say one major difference between ISIS and other jihadist groups is ISIS’s more pragmatic outlook. Whereas al-Qaeda was more focused on setting up cells to finance anti-Western terrorist operations, ISIS has concentrated on expanding its area of control, taking hold of natural resources and commercial centers, as well as tens of thousands of tons of weapons and ammunition.

In June of this year, ISIS seized more territory in Northern Iraq, including Mosul, the country’s second-largest city. It declared itself the “Islamic State” and developed revenue streams more typically associated with a government than a jihadist group. Though it’s difficult to establish how well ISIS is running the areas under its control, Paul Rogers, a global security consultant to Oxford Research Group, says that information from social media suggests that “ISIS seem quite competent to run things in Syria” and most areas seem to be functioning reasonably well. Since ISIS has continued to provide services like water and electricity, Gerges says the group has been able to impose taxes on farmers, retail businesses and even fuel. He adds that we should not underestimate the importance of this “social income” in both Iraq and Syria, since ISIS “have been able to generate sources of income to run the provinces under their control and also to generate extra income to wage their battles.”

Yet while ISIS might attempt to act like a state, much of its money is brought in by criminal tactics, including extortion, theft and plundering. For instance, senior U.S. government official Brett McGurk told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee in July that even before ISIS took control of Mosul, he and other U.S. diplomatic and military officials who had visited the city shortly before it fell to ISIS had been concerned about Mosul “as it had become the primary financial hub” for ISIS, “generating nearly $12 million per month in revenues through extortion and smuggling rackets.” Hostage-taking has also played a part in filling ISIS coffers. According to an investigative report from The New York Times, kidnapping Europeans has earned al-Qaeda and its affiliates at least $125 million in ransom payments in the past five years alone. Although ISIS formally split from al-Qaeda in February, the group has continued the practice and both Gerges and Marcel have sources confirming that ISIS has received large sums of money from citizens of Saudi Arabia, other Gulf states and Syria in exchange for hostages. As well as Western hostages, the “kidnapping of locals is a big business”, says Gerges, and has generated tens of millions of dollars for ISIS and other militant groups like al-Nusra front, the branch of al-Qaeda operating in Syria.

But the majority of ISIS’s revenue appears to come from the territory it controls, much of which is “very rich agriculturally”, says Rogers. For instance, the United Nations estimates that land in Iraq under ISIS control accounts for up to 40 percent of the country’s annual production of wheat. Crucially, the militant group also holds a number of oil fields in both Iraq and Syria and analysts speaking to TIME estimate that the daily revenue from ISIS oil production lies between $1 and $3 million a day. Though this is barely a fraction of the global oil trade, the income is very useful in funding ISIS’s soldiers, who number between 20,000 and 31,500 according to the CIA. As ISIS took hold of more territory in Iraq and Syria in June, it gained more opportunities to sell both crude oil and refined products through well-established smuggling networks. “There are a lot of grey market buyers of crude in the region and a large network of individuals that benefit financially. It’s harder to dismantle because – whether it’s in the KRG [Kurdish Regional Government], in Turkey or in Iran – border guards and municipal authorities have to be paid well enough and given incentives to crack down,” says Marcel.

If the U.S. and its allies continue to bomb ISIS’s oil facilities, however, the group will begin struggling to fund itself. The Paris-based International Energy Agency said in a report released Tuesday that the aerial campaign has brought ISIS oil production down to around 20,000 barrels per day, from a high of around 70,000 a couple of months ago. If oil installations continue to be hit, ISIS will not be able to use its own military vehicles that run on the diesel and gas produced by small, local refineries. Yet it is the civilian population – between 6 and 8 million people in ISIS-controlled territory – that will most acutely feel the effects of the air strikes as winter approaches. The local population relies heavily on diesel for heating, agricultural machinery, bakeries and generators. The U.K.-based monitoring group the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights has already reported that the air strikes have led to an increase in the price of diesel and petrol. Butter says that if the ISIS economy is “degraded” by the bombings, there is likely to be a nationwide fuel and electricity crisis, as well as agricultural shortages exacerbated by the lighter than normal rainfall in 2013. In addition, Marcel points out that ISIS “depends to a large extent on the willingness of the population to have them there. In the battle to win hearts and minds, you do have to provide heating fuel and petrol.”

But if the group is to lose this battle any time soon, the coalition will have to succeed in cutting all the strands of ISIS’s vast financial web. Until then, ISIS will likely remain a threat to the region and beyond.

TIME Syria

U.S. Aircraft Resupply Kurdish Fighters Battling ISIS in Kobani

TURKEY-SYRIA-CONFLICT-KURDS
Kurdish people watch jet-fighters fly over Kobani from the Turkish border in the southeastern village of Mursitpinar on October 19, 2014. Bulent Kilic — AFP/Getty Images

Kurdish troops on the ground in northern Syria appear to be gaining the upper hand against ISIS with the help of American air strikes

U.S. aircraft delivered weapons, ammunition and medical supplies to Kurdish forces in the besieged Syrian border town of Kobani who’ve been battling the Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria (ISIS) for more than a month.

American C-130s made multiple airdrops over the embattled city on Sunday and met no resistance from ISIS forces on the ground, according to officials.

“These airdrops were conducted in support of Operation Inherent Resolve, the operation to degrade and defeat the terrorist group [ISIS] and the threat they pose to the region and the wider international community,” read a statement released by U.S. Central Command late Sunday.

During a conference call on Sunday night, a senior administration official confirmed that the White House had given the green light for the operation in order to provide the embattled Kurdish militia forces with the badly needed supplies.

“The President determined to take this action now,” the official told reporters.

To date, coalition aircraft have launched 135 air strikes targeting ISIS forces in Kobani. The aerial onslaught is believed to have helped reverse the battlefield momentum in favor of the Kurdish fighters holed up near the Turkish border.

Hundreds of ISIS fighters have been killed as a result of the air raids, thus allowing Kurdish forces to begin pushing the Sunni extremist group outside the city. However, scattered ISIS fighters are believed to be holding out in pockets of Kobani.

“[ISIS] is going to suffer significant losses for its focus on Kobani,” said the administration official.

The reinforcement of the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG), as they’re known locally, by U.S. aircraft is likely to infuriate officials across the border in Turkey. Ankara has repeatedly refused to allow Kurdish reinforcements to enter Kobani because of the YPG’s ties to separatist rebels inside Turkey.

— With reporting by Zeke Miller / Washington

TIME conflict

Watchdog Group Says ISIS Has Warplanes

Ex-Iraqi army officials are reportedly training ISIS fighters to fly them

Militants from the Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria (ISIS) have acquired three “warplanes that can fly and maneuver,” a watchdog Syrian opposition group said in a new report.

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said former Iraqi army officials who have joined ISIS are training militants to operate the planes at an airbase near the contested Syrian city of Aleppo. The report, which has not been verified, cites anonymous “reliable” sources. The U.S. military said it’s not aware of ISIS gaining air capability.

“We’re not aware of [ISIS] conducting any flight operations in Syria or elsewhere,” U.S. Central Command spokesman Colonel Patrick Ryder told Reuters.

TIME Syria

ISIS Retreating from Kobani, Says Kurdish Official

Smoke rises from the Syrian town of Kobani, seen from near the Mursitpinar border crossing on the Turkish-Syrian border in the southeastern town of Suruc
Smoke rises from the Syrian town of Kobane, seen from near the Mursitpinar border crossing on the Turkish-Syrian border, on Oct. 14, 2014 Umit Bektas—Reuters

The radical Islamist militants now reportedly control only 20% of the border town, as opposed to about 40% before

The Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria (ISIS) has suffered setbacks and has begun retreating from parts of the Syrian border town of Kobani, according to a local official, who said Kurdish forces were advancing against the militant group.

Idris Nassan told the BBC that ISIS had previously controlled almost half the town but currently occupies “less than 20%.”

The retreat comes after the U.S. stepped up the intensity of air strikes in the region, with al-Jazeera quoting U.S. officials as saying Western coalition forces had launched about 40 air strikes in the past two days. “We know we’ve killed several hundred of them,” said Rear Admiral John Kirby, a Pentagon spokesman, while admitting that the strategically important Syrian-Turkish border town could still fall to the radical Islamist group.

Air strikes have also been launched in parts of neighboring Iraq, where ISIS is rapidly making inroads into the Anbar province, and is reportedly advancing on a town just 25 miles from the capital Baghdad.

“That’s probably ISIS’s key victory here,” Matthew Gray, a senior lecturer at the Australian National University’s Centre for Arab and Islamic Studies, tells TIME. Gray is of the opinion that although Kobani’s location on the border with Turkey — and thus with NATO and the Western world — makes it important to defend, Anbar’s proximity to Baghdad and the economic advantages it represents make it far more significant strategically. “If I were ISIS, I’d probably be happy to let Kobani go as long as I have Anbar,” he says.

Despite the recent achievements of Operation Inherent Resolve, as U.S. President Barack Obama has now termed the battle against ISIS, Gray says there’s a limit to how much air strikes — even with helicopters as opposed to fixed-wing aircraft — can achieve without ground troops.

Even so, the current retreat is “significant,” says Gray, “especially if they’ve lost several hundred.”

“It doesn’t neutralize the other observation that to completely destroy or thoroughly degrade ISIS will require substantial action from troops on the ground,” he adds.

Read next: More Americans Say Boots Are Needed on the Ground to Fight ISIS

TIME Iraq

Three Dutch Bikers Have Joined the War Against ISIS

The men, from Netherlands-based motorcycle club No Surrender, have military backgrounds

Three members of a motorcycle club from the Netherlands have joined Kurdish fighters in Iraq to help in the fight against the Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria (ISIS).

Fellow biker Klaas Otto told Dutch media that the trio all have military backgrounds and were motivated to travel to the war-torn country after seeing the atrocities committed by ISIS, according to the BBC.

“They wanted to do something when they saw the pictures of the beheadings,” Otto said.

There is a significant Kurdish population in the Netherlands.

The three men hail from Rotterdam, Amsterdam and Breda, and the gang they are a part of — No Surrender — is reportedly the biggest biker group in the country.

Dutch officials said that joining the Kurdish forces would not be illegal. However, joining terrorist organizations like ISIS is forbidden.

[BBC]

TIME National Security

More Americans Say Boots Are Needed on the Ground to Fight ISIS

Syrian Kurds Battle IS To Retain Control Of Kobani
Smoke billows following an airstrike by US-led coalition aircraft in Kobani, Syria, during fighting between Syrian Kurds and militants from Islamic State, on October 14, 2014 as seen from the outskirts of Suruc, on the Turkey-Syria border. Gokhan Sahin—Getty Images

Many believe the air campaign is not enough, a poll finds

More and more Americans say combat ground troops need to be deployed to take the fight to the Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria (ISIS), according to a recent poll conducted by NBC News and the Wall Street Journal.

Approximately 41% of Americans surveyed said the military campaign against ISIS should include “air strikes and combat troops,” compared with the 35% who said the offensive should be constrained to aerial bombardments. Of the individuals polled, just 15% said they believed no military action should be taken against the radical Islamist group.

The findings represent a reversal in public opinion since a similar poll was taken in September, when 40% of those surveyed only backed air strikes and 34% were in favor of the use of aerial assaults and combat troops together.

Coalition bombers and fighter jets continued to batter ISIS positions across Iraq and Syria this week. U.S. Central Command confirmed that American aircraft and those from partner nations launched 22 strikes in Syria and at least one aerial assault in Iraq on Tuesday.

Read next: The FBI Wants Your Help IDing American ISIS Fighters

TIME Iraq

Report: U.S. Kept Mum After Finding Old Chemical Weapons in Iraq

US Army soldiers wearing their full chemical protection suits walk inside the courtyard of an industrial complex they secured which they thought was a possible site for weapons of mass destruction in the central Iraqi town of Baquba in May 2003.
US Army soldiers wearing their full chemical protection suits walk inside the courtyard of an industrial complex they secured which they thought was a possible site for weapons of mass destruction in the central Iraqi town of Baquba in May 2003. Roberto Schmidt—AFP/Getty Images

Based on 17 U.S. service members and seven Iraqi police officers who claimed they were exposed to mustard or nerve agents after 2003

American and Iraqi troops came across and, in some cases, were wounded by aged or abandoned chemical weapons between 2004 and 2011, according to a New York Times investigation published late Tuesday.

The report, which is based on redacted intelligence records and dozens of interviews with American and Iraqi officials — and, notably, 17 U.S. service members and seven Iraqi police officers who claimed they were exposed to mustard or nerve agents — analyzes how the U.S. apparently suppressed information about the discoveries and barred the injured from receiving proper recognition and medical care.

The investigation also notes that militant group Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria, which has seized large swaths of Iraq and Syria over the past year, controls a former production site that Iraq told the United Nations over the summer still held about 2,500 corroded munitions.

[New York Times]

TIME world affairs

Why We Should Send Vets Back to Iraq and Afghanistan

Jake Wood is a Marine veteran of Iraq and Afghanistan, CEO of Team Rubicon and author of Take Command. Ken Harbaugh is a former Navy pilot and COO of Team Rubicon.

With over 2 million veterans from these wars, the U.S. is sitting on a reservoir of ready and able humanitarians

When we heard the news of Peter Kassig’s capture by ISIS terrorists, it felt like a punch in the gut. While we don’t know Peter, the organization he founded, SERA (Special Emergency Response and Assistance) is much like our own, Team Rubicon. Since 2010, we have been recruiting, training and deploying thousands of military veterans to serve communities afflicted by disasters. Our members are ideally suited for these missions, bringing such skills as strong leadership, effective decision-making and the ability to operate in austere environments with limited information.

As effective as Team Rubicon has become at assisting victims of disasters, the service itself has had a profound impact on our members. During one of our missions to Pakistan in 2010, former Marines and SEALs delivering lifesaving aid realized that the villagers they were helping had never before seen Americans in that light. Those veterans were able to return to a part of the world that had taken something from them– a friend, a limb, a notion of innocence–and replace it with something entirely good. We suspect Peter was driven by a similar impulse.

Imagine if, over the coming decades, the United States could shift the mindset of rural villagers in Pakistan or Iraq or Yemen by sending highly skilled aid workers to serve and teach alongside them. Who better than military veterans to fill that role? How much farther could we get with an army of humanitarians than with ever expanding fleets of drones? With over 2 million veterans of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the U.S. is sitting on a reservoir of ready and able humanitarians. The challenge is finding a way to re-deploy them not as warriors, but as peacemakers.

To start with, the broader public should know that 92% of returning veterans want to continue serving their country. Tapping into this talent is a no-brainer. Privately funded organizations like Team Rubicon are a good start. With nearly 20,000 members, we have deployed to more than 70 disasters across the globe. But any comprehensive solution will require government support. To that end, agencies such as the Peace Corps and USAID should create fast-track programs that enable military veterans to transition seamlessly into humanitarian positions.

We understand the risks involved. One of us, a former Navy pilot, served as a human rights advocate in Afghanistan upon leaving the military. The other, a former Marine sniper who led teams in both Afghanistan and Iraq, helped lead combat medics and doctors down to Haiti four days after the earthquake. As veterans who served during wartime, and chose to return to the front lines as humanitarians, we appreciate better than most that our military is the world’s largest disaster response organization. More importantly, we know that we carry those skills into civilian life.

Every member of Team Rubicon signed up because of his or her time in uniform, not in spite of it. They too know the risks, but still ask “If not me, then who?” Peter Kassig did the same. His bravery and compassion bear witness to an entire generation of veterans who wish to serve humanity. We, his brothers in arms, long for the day when all might answer as he did, “Send me.”

Jake Wood is a Marine veteran of Iraq and Afghanistan, CEO of Team Rubicon and author of Take Command. Ken Harbaugh is a former Navy pilot and COO of Team Rubicon.

TIME Ideas hosts the world's leading voices, providing commentary and expertise on the most compelling events in news, society, and culture. We welcome outside contributions. To submit a piece, email ideas@time.com.

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