The restaurant in Manbij had been a favourite of American patrol troops before the IS attack on Wednesday
The American troops posted in the dusty flatlands of northern Syria have always enjoyed stopping for grilled chicken, French fries, or a locally-renowned shawarma sandwich at the Palace of the Princes restaurant in Manbij.
So popular is the restaurant that two American senators even dined there in July, reports The New York Times.
Jassim al-Khalaf, 37, a nearby vegetable seller, said Americans would often stop for chicken and shawarma when they had a patrol in the city. "People here are used to it, so it is not a new thing to see them.”
However, the jihadists of Islamic State, or IS, noticed as well, as evidenced by their having dispatched a suicide bomber to it on Wednesday. He blew himself up at the restaurant, killing at least 15 people, including: four Americans, two service members, a Defense Department civilian, and a military contractor.
That attack, in a Syrian town celebrated as an American-backed island of stability, raised troubling questions about whether the American military had developed a false sense of security in a conflict zone, where avoiding predictable routines—like frequenting a regular lunch spot—can be a matter of life and death.
On Thursday, several former and current Special Operations personnel—and other American officials who had worked in the region—said Islamic State had explored a vulnerability.
A Special Operations officer, seeking anonymity, said: "IS saw a target of opportunity, but they should have had better force protection."
A former senior officer, also speaking on condition of anonymity, said Islamic State “will attack Americans anywhere and anytime they sense an opportunity.”
The officials admitted that the dead and wounded— who included at least one Green Beret— should have varied their patrol routes or increased their operational security instead of growing complacent.
“In northeast Syria, the illusion of safety has always been a problem,” said one American official working in the region.
In Manbij, a small northeastern Syrian city near the country's border with Turkey, it was easy to become complacent. An American-led Kurdish-Arab coalition drove IS out of the city in mid-2016 and set up American-backed local councils who ran the place.
After Turkey's threat to invade early last year— to drive out Kurdish forces that it deems are terrorist— the US started running patrols from bases in the olive groves near Manbij to keep Turkey from attacking the Kurds.
The military presence made Manbij deceptively peaceful.
On a July visit, an American military leaders' and senators' delegation wore no body armour as they strolled through a crowded marketplace.
Lt Gen Paul E Funk II, the then-commander of coalition forces fighting in Iraq and Syria, called the place "pretty cool".
“This is what stability looks like. This is what winning looks like,” he said.
Afterwards, the group—consisting of Senators Lindsey Graham, Republican of South Carolina, and Jeanne Shaheen, Democrat of New Hampshire—praised the food and environment inside the Palace of Princes when they went there for lunch.
The restaurant’s owner, Ali Saleh al-Yousef, saw Manbij as a bright spot in a war-ravaged country.
Yousef said in a recent local TV interview that he had left the city when IS took over, and returned only once it was safe again. "Manbij has now become an example."
The American soldiers on patrol would often drop in to get sandwiches in the two-storied Palace of Princes before getting back to their bases outside of town, residents said. Other times, they would park their armored vehicles in front and get a table.
Their eating habits did not reflect the importance of varying one's routines in a war zone to deflect enemies' plans to attack.
“I know that whenever they went to the city because there was a patrol or a mission, they’d pass by that restaurant,” said Shervan Darwish, the spokesman for the Manbij Military Council, which works closely with the United States.
One such patrol dropped in for a late lunch on Wednesday. According to residents and CCTV footage posted online, cars were double-parked in front of the restaurant and the sidewalks were full of people visiting the nearby vegetable market.
A suicide bomber mixed in with the crowd and detonated his explosive vest near the restaurant’s entrance.
A fireball erupted in front of the restaurant, leaving the dead and wounded scattered on the street, according to witnesses and videos posted online.
Calling it a "terrible scene", local journalist Ahmed Himo said by phone on Thursday: "We saw civilians on the ground, kids, soldiers, fire still blazing in the shop."
Ahmad Sulaiman, 12, was passing the restaurant on the way to his grandfather's house when the blast occurred.
While being treated for leg injuries, Ahmad said: "When I passed, there was a man who makes the shawarma sandwiches. Then the fire flashed and disappeared, and the man was no more."
The dead and wounded Americans were taken away by three helicopters, Himo said.
The Pentagon declined, on Thursday, to identify the four Americans killed, but military officials said one service member was an Army Special Forces soldier, or Green Beret, and the other a Navy sailor; both enlisted personnel.
The civilian was a Defense Intelligence Agency employee and the contractor was an interpreter. At least one of the four, the Navy sailor, was a woman, the officials said.
Three other service members were wounded and flown to an American military hospital in Germany for treatment, a military official said.
Until this week, just two American service members had been killed in Syria.
According to the Pentagon, a mosque in Safafiyah, Syria—in the Middle Euphrates River Valley—used by IS as a command centre, was bombed on Thursday.
It remains unclear if the airstrike was in response to the attack in Manbij, scores of miles to the northwest, or just a target of opportunity.
Manjib was still in shock on Thursday, residents said, struggling to deal with the aftermath of the bombing and their uncertain future about whether Trump would make good on his promise to withdraw American troops.
Turkey talked about invading, while the Syrian government and its Russian and Iranian allies want the territory back. IS, meanwhile, has proved it still has the ability to strike.
The attacked fueled the debate further over the ever-shifting American mission in eastern Syria, and President Trump's plans to bring troops home.
While Trump, and as recently as Wednesday, Vice President Mike Pence, insisted that IS has been defeated, a range of American officials—including many of Trump's allies— have said Manbij's attack proved otherwise; leaving Syria could allow jihadists to come roaring back.
Darwish, of the local military council, said regardless of the US' decision to withdraw troops, the existing confusion over American policy had emboldened the jihadists.
“IS benefits from the tense atmosphere, the murky situation, the recent statements, the decision to withdraw, and the tweets from all over,” he said. “That has made the region unstable, and all of that helps IS to bring itself back together.”
An American withdrawal would leave a vacuum well positioned for the jihadists to exploit, he said. “IS will benefit,” he said.
However, the deaths, in a part of Syria few Americans have heard of, also drew calls to remove the US from another murky Middle Eastern battlefield.
“The real danger is that these attacks will lead Trump and company to bow to the pressure of the Syria Washington hawks who are already saying that unless America stays, it will be portrayed as weak,” said Aaron David Miller, a former Middle East analyst at the State Department. “This is a prescription for another forever war.”