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We Spoke to the Activists Live-Tweeting Airstrikes on Islamic State's Raqqa Stronghold

Members of the underground activist group Raqqa Is Being Slaughtered Silently confirmed that the attacks so far appear to have hit only non-civilian targets.
November 16, 2015, 5:45pm
Photo via EPA

Late Sunday night and into Monday, the French military bombarded the Islamic State (IS) terror insurgency's self-declared capital of Raqqa in retaliation for last Friday's attacks in Paris.

VICE News spoke with members of the underground activist group Raqqa Is Being Slaughtered Silently, who manage a network of informants inside the IS capital,  and they confirmed that the attacks so far seem to be hitting non-civilian targets.


The group is the premier source of information for journalists and human rights group trying to monitor life in the IS stronghold.

A member of the group who goes by the alias Abd al-Aziz Al-Hamza said that IS evacuated major parts of the city in anticipation of the attacks, while civilians living under the group's control were bracing themselves for retributive bombings.

"After the Paris attacks, most of the civilians were waiting for a military action – they knew something was happen," he said. "They were afraid that someone would be killed."

Related: François Hollande Tells Parliament 'We're at War' as Manhunt Continues for Paris Suspects

Tim Ramadan, another group member based in Deir Ezzor just 90 miles from the IS capital, said that the mood on the ground is now cautiously optimistic.

"Families are talking about the French raids and are certain until this moment that their response will be against ISIS and not against the people of Raqqa," he said, using an alternative name to refer to IS, which is also known as ISIL and by its Arabic acronym Daesh. "It is true that there was great fear among the residents of the city of Raqqa about a retaliatory operation similar to the revenge for the burning of the Jordanian pilot, but the response was appropriate to target ISIS positions only."

Last February, after IS burned a Jordanian pilot alive, the Jordanian military responded with a series of bombing runs that resulted in a serious civilian toll, according to activists with Raqqa Is Being Slaughtered Silently.


The French bombings began Sunday night, as the French Ministry of Defense released footage of aircraft taking off from bases in the United Arab Emirates and Jordan.

The French Ministry of Defense confirmed that 12 aircraft have so far dropped 20 bombs on various positions around IS stronghold.

"The first target destroyed was used by ISIS as a commanding post, a jihad recruitment center, and a depot for arms and munitions," the ministry said in a statement. "The second target housed a terrorist training camp."

Syrian activists live-tweeted the bombing raid from within the city, and have since been providing information about targeting and damage on the ground.

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Immediately after the attack began, the group released an audio recording of the sounds of French jets buzzing the city.

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The group also contacted the hospital in Raqqa and reported Sunday night that so far no civilians had been killed in the bombing raid.

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They also pointed out that one of the targets hit by the French was the same location where US hostage Kayla Mueller was held and eventually killed in February 2014.

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The group also helped explain why some of the larger military targets in Raqqa seem to have been spared from airstrikes.

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On Monday afternoon, activists on the ground confirmed that water and electricity had been restored in the city, after the night of bombing.

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Members of Raqqa Is Being Slaughtered Silently are tweeting out this information at great personal peril. They are constantly hunted by IS militants. Last month, two of their leaders were assassinated and then beheaded by IS operatives in Turkey.

Tim Ramadan said that he hopes future strikes will avoid civilian casualties and focus on IS.

"I think they will hit Islamic State only," he said. "What I'm really worried about is Russian airstrikes."

For over a month Russia has also been dropping bombs on targets across Syria, and human rights groups have documented wanton disregard for civilians. Russia bombed Raqqa just last week, killing 27 civilians, according to the UK-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.

But the US-led airstrike campaign has not been able to completely avoid civilian casualties either. And so far, the US military has been cagey about how many non-combatants have been killed in over a year of strikes on IS.

A study by the accountability watchdog Airwars calculated that the coalition's campaign is responsible for between 459 to 591 civilian deaths in the first year of bombing alone.

Follow Avi Asher-Schapiro on Twitter: @AASchapiro