During a talk Dec. 13 with airmen assigned to the 31st Fighter Wing stationed at Aviano Air Base in Italy, Defense Secretary Ash Carter confirmed the deaths of three key leaders of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant in Raqqa, Syria, on Dec. 4.
The secretary told the airmen they were first to know about the confirmed deaths.
“We don't talk about these operations very much,” he said, “but you're the first to know. I can confirm today that we took out three of ISIL's key leaders in the last couple of weeks [in] one strike. These were guys who were linked to plots right here in Europe, and I can’t share all the details with you, but, for example, with the  Paris attacks.”
In a statement released shortly after Carter’s troop talk, Pentagon Press Secretary Peter Cook said the three were killed by a coalition precision airstrike.
“Two of those targeted -- Salah Gourmat, and Sammy Djedou -- were involved in facilitating the Nov. 13, 2015, terrorist attacks in Paris. Both were close associates of Abu Muhammad al-Adnani, the ISIL external operations leader who died in an August coalition airstrike,” Cook said.
The third ISIL leader killed in the strike, Walid Hamman, was a suicide attack planner convicted in absentia in Belgium for a terror plot disrupted in 2015, he added.
“All three were part of a network led by Boubaker al-Hakim, killed in another coalition airstrike on November 16. The three were working together to plot and facilitate attacks against Western targets at the time of the strike,” Cook said.
Since mid-November the coalition has targeted and killed five top ISIL external plotters, he said, further disrupting ISIL's ability to carry out terrorist operations beyond Syria and Iraq.
Carter also was scheduled to visit service members at Camp Ederle in Vicenza, headquarters of U.S. Army Africa and the 173rd Airborne Brigade Combat Team, but the visit was cancelled because of weather.
“I know I'm not going to get -- because of the fog -- to the 173rd over in Vicenza this afternoon but if any of them see this video, you're one of the brigades that is here that comprises the ground component, even as Aviano comprises part of the air component,” the secretary said.
These service members and others stationed or serving on a persistent rotational basis in Europe are part of the European Reassurance Initiative.
In June 2014, President Barack Obama announced the ERI to increase U.S. force presence in Europe, expand exercises and training with NATO allies and partners and boost pre-positioned equipment for use in joint exercises.
In June 2015, the European activity set was announced. This included one U.S. armored brigade combat team's vehicles and associated equipment being pre-positioned on the territory of several NATO allies, including Bulgaria, Estonia, Germany, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland and Romania, to support exercises and training throughout Europe.
The ERI budget request for 2016 was nearly $800 million and provided continued U.S. participation in assurance activities and more steps to build allies’ and partners’ resilience and capability.
The fiscal year 2017 request of $3.4 billion would put more Army pre-positioned stock in Europe. The extra combat vehicles and supplies will reduce force deployment times and enable a rapid response to potential contingencies, according to the fact sheet.
In Aviano, Carter mentioned the buildup in European nations, at sea, on land and in the air, noting, “[It is] a sad necessity of our time, but one that we need to do.”
The secretary added, “Whether it is in Europe, whether it is in the Middle East, whether it is in Africa, all of the things you’re doing here are necessary, they're extremely important, so you are right here right now at a critical time in our strategic history, and everything you do you're doing with excellence. I'm so proud of you.”
Carter is on an around-the-world trip to thank deployed U.S. troops for their service over the holidays, meet with regional partners, and advance U.S. priorities, including the rebalance to the Asia-Pacific region and the lasting defeat of ISIL. The trip has included visits to Japan, India, Afghanistan, Bahrain, Israel and Italy.