The U.S. has adopted a unique Israeli battlefield tactic in its fight against ISIS: exploding a missile above a building to warn civilians inside that it’s about to be bombed.
Israeli forces have widely used the so-called knock-on-the-roof operations in Gaza attacks in recent years to try to get civilians out before they are hit.
The first public revelation of the U.S. using a “knock operation” came Tuesday at a press briefing by Air Force Maj. Gen. Peter E. Gersten, deputy commander for operations and intelligence for the anti-ISIS Operation Inherent Resolve.
Gersten described a strike against an ISIS financial storage center on April 5 in southern Mosul, Iraq. The U.S. had been closely watching the house of an ISIS finance operative, or “finance emir” in the words of Gersten.
“He was the major distributor of funds to Daesh fighters,” Gersten said, using another name for ISIS. “We watched him come and go from his house, we watched his supplies, we watched the security that was involved in it. And we also watched occasionally a female and her children in and out of the quarters.”
Using reconnaissance aircraft and other intelligence assets to keep watch, the U.S. then began to formulate a plan, Gersten said, to get women, children and other civilians out of the building.
“We went as far as actually to put a Hellfire on top of the building and air-burst it so it wouldn’t destroy the building, simply knock on the roof to ensure that she and the children were out of the building,” he recounted. “And then we proceeded with our operations.”
Gersten acknowledged the Israeli influence, saying, “That’s exactly where we took the tactics and technique and procedure from.”
Gersten did not indicate that the Israeli military had formally briefed U.S. commanders on how to do knock operations.
But he noted, “We’ve certainly watched and observed their procedure. As we formulated the way to get the civilians out of the house, this was brought forward from one of our experts.”
Gersten said that leaflets were also dropped to warn of a pending attack. In some Israeli operations, phone calls have been made to houses about to be hit as well.
Initially the U.S. believed that the knock operation had worked to save the woman inside that the U.S. had observed.
Despite the fact that “the men that were in that building — multiple men — literally trampled over her to get out of that building,” according to Gersten, she was able to get out herself.
He continued, “We watched her and observed her leaving the building. And she cleared the building, and we began to process the strike.”
But then, he said, she ran back in the building.
It was “very difficult for us to watch, and it was within the final seconds of the actual impact,” Gersten recalled.
There is video of the entire incident but it’s unlikely to be released by the Pentagon because it shows a civilian being killed, according to a defense official.
The U.S. has seen no evidence the finance official has re-emerged and believes he is likely dead. Gersten did not further identify the man or the other ISIS members or civilians killed in the incident.
In his press briefing, Gersten emphasized that ISIS is suffering from morale problems among its fighters, in part due to the shortage of cash after more than a dozen airstrikes against money centers. He noted that the number of foreign fighters coming into Syria and Iraq has now dropped to about 200 a month compared to more than 1,500 a month a year ago, though that may be due to several reasons including morale and stronger border controls.
The U.S. is also putting a long-range artillery system in southern Turkey to conduct more strikes against ISIS targets in Syria, Gersten said.