The Complex

U.S. Launches New Airstrikes in Iraq

The United States on Saturday air dropped humanitarian aid and conducted airstrikes against Islamic State targets in and around Amerli, a town 100 miles north of Baghdad that's been under siege for over two months.

The U.S. Air Force delivered aid alongside aircraft from Australia, France, and the United Kingdom, according to the Pentagon.

The U.S. dropped 109 bundles, according to U.S. Central Command. Carrying out the drop were two C-17s and two C-130s, delivering approximately 10,500 gallons of fresh drinking water and approximately 7,000 meals ready to eat.

To support the humanitarian assistance mission, the U.S. military also conducted three airstrikes in coordination with the Iraqi security forces responsible for protecting Amerli, Centcom said in a statement.

Fighter aircraft struck and destroyed three Islamic State Humvees, one armed vehicle, one checkpoint, and one tank near the town. This bring the total number airstrikes conducted by the United States in Iraq since Aug. 8 to 118. Both operations Saturday were requested by the Iraqi government.

"The operations will be limited in their scope and duration as necessary to address this emerging humanitarian crisis and protect the civilians trapped in Amerli," Pentagon press secretary Rear Adm. John Kirby said in a statement Saturday night.

Amerli, home to at least 13,000 Shiite Turkmen, has been under siege for over two months. Islamic State militants surrounded the town, and cut off food, water, and medical supplies to the thousands of people who live there.

Holding back the militants have been a few hundred local men, but without outside help they had little chance to hold them off much longer.

Calls for help in Amerli began earlier this month, and on Aug. 23, Nickolay Mladenov, the head of the U.N. Assistance Mission in Iraq, warned that immediate action was needed to "prevent the possible massacre of its citizens."

On Tuesday, Iraqi warplanes reportedly started bombing the area while Iraqi forces, aided by Shiite militias, prepared to launch a counteroffensive to break the Islamic State's siege.

The Defense Department said it was monitoring the situation and ready to assist, if needed.

Local fighters had seen U.S. warplanes and drones flying over the besieged town for days but not striking, according to Hayder al-Khoei, an expert on Iraq at Chatham House, a policy institute based in London.

"Nobody's taken our eye off of that township and the struggles in that township," Kirby told reporters at the Pentagon Friday.


The Complex

Is the ISIS Laptop of Doom an Operational Threat?

Weapons of mass destruction are the holy grail for terrorist groups, and over the years a number of organizations have announced their intentions to acquire chemical, biological, and radiological weapons. But the discovery of a laptop purportedly belonging to a member of the Islamic State is raising new questions about whether the terrorist group, which U.S. officials say is more dangerous than al Qaeda, is poised to launch a WMD attack.

U.S. officials and terrorism experts said that the discovery of the laptop raises troubling questions about the Islamic State's intentions and its ability to conduct a WMD strike. But they urged caution, noting that the presence of documents on building biological weapons does not necessarily add up to an actual capability to use them.

"I wouldn't dismiss the idea of a WMD attack by terrorists," said Daveed Gartenstein-Ross, a senior fellow with the Foundation for Defense of Democracies. "It's something we should guard against. But in terms of something I worry about, it's far down the list."

Still, the laptop and its more than 35,000 files provide a rare and unsettling window into the Islamist State's inner workings. One U.S. official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss developing intelligence, said the files on the laptop offer some of the most precise information to date on the Islamic State's WMD aspirations. The information indicates that the Islamic State likely now has the ability to build at least some form of biological or chemical weapon, the official said.

The laptop, which was examined by correspondents for Foreign Policy, contains thousands of files related to planning and launching terrorist attacks. Most troubling is a document that discusses how to weaponize bubonic plague. But turning that knowledge into a working weapon requires particular expertise, and it's not clear that the Islamic State has it.

"That they have the capabilities and intentions [to build some WMD] is beyond dispute," Gartenstein-Ross said. But the Islamic State would still face considerable obstacles if it actually attempted to build a weapon with bubonic plague. "It's a very dangerous thing to try to harness as an offensive weapon, in part because you might kill all your own guys in the process," Gartenstein-Ross said.

But the risk of building WMD hasn't blunted terrorists' ambition. Only last year, Iraqi officials broke up an al Qaeda cell in Iraq that attempted to build chemical weapons for attacks in the West. Chemical weapons are potentially less dangerous than weaponized biological agents, which is what makes the files on the Islamic State's laptop so concerning.