When the predawn blasts rattled their windows and jolted them from sleep, residents of Raqqa, the Syrian city that is the de facto capital of the Islamic State, thought they were in for a new round of airstrikes from the Syrian government.
But as the sun rose, it was quickly clear that something altogether different had taken place. A drone had collided with a satellite tower and crashed to the ground. The former governor’s office used as a headquarters had been reduced to rubble. An equestrian club where fighters had lodged their families and a training camp near town had also been bombed.
Even after a year living under the fist of the so-called Islamic State, where men with guns and a messianic vision controlled nearly every aspect of their lives, the people of Raqqa were surprised by what they found.
“I opened my shop at 8 a.m., and everything was ordinary,” said a shopkeeper who gave his name as Abu Khalil. “Then I heard from my neighbor that today’s attacks were by the Americans, and not the regime.”
The attack was part of President Obama’s strategy of denying the leaders and fighters of the militant group, also known as ISIS, a safe haven in Raqqa Province and its capital.
Raqqa is where, for more than a year, the group massed its forces, honed its ideology and strategy and began its effort to build a caliphate — or Islamic state. Step by step, it methodically turned this northern Syrian city into a hub of the most extreme Islamist ideology, where crucifixions were routine, and the religious police banned even cigarettes.
On Tuesday, the men with beards and guns tried to act as if it were just another day. Fighters from the Islamic State drove around to distribute cooking gas. But soon reports trickled in that the campaign of strikes by the United States and five Arab allies had destroyed many of the group’s facilities, killed scores of its fighters and dealt a serious blow to much that it had managed to build over the past year.
The coalition hit training camps, headquarters and a recently captured air base. In Deir al-Zour Province, along the border with Iraq, at least a dozen sites were hit, including an agricultural school turned into a command center.