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Rebels Risking All to Expose Life and Death Under Jihadi Rule

With almost no journalists , local or foreign, allowed to operate in Raqqa, informants risk their lives to document the medieval practices the jihadists have imposed on their city, writes Ruth Sherlock

Published: 28th August 2014 06:00 AM  |   Last Updated: 28th August 2014 10:49 AM   |  A+A-

The first time the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), now IS, crucified one of its prisoners it was Abu Ibrahim who notified the world.

Trying to steady his trembling hands, his camera phone concealed in his sleeve, the 23-year-old filmed the killers fixing the victim to a post in the town’s central square.

Standing amid a cheering crowd in the Syrian city of Raqqa, the ‘capital’ of the jihadists’ embryonic Islamic state, Abu Ibrahim knew that if he was caught the next crucifixion would be his own.

He is one of a 16-strong group of activists who, since IS seized control of Raqqa a year ago, have risked life and limb to document the medieval practices the extremist group has imposed on their city.

With almost no journalists — local or foreign — allowed to operate in Raqqa, the information posted on the group’s website is one of the few insights into the secretive IS. As well as documenting, often with pictures and video, the public killings that have become commonplace, the activists try to disclose the locations of jihadists’ headquarters and training camps.

They said they had also tried to help American hostage James Foley, whom IS murdered last week, by posting information on where they believed he was being held. As America considers whether to extend its air campaign against IS to Syria, the publication of such details could prove lethal for the jihadists. The actions have put Abu Ibrahim and his colleagues at the top of IS’s most-wanted list in Raqqa.

“In the last three sermons at Friday prayers [IS] declared us the ‘enemies of the Lord’,” said Abu Ibrahim who, as do all his colleagues, spoke using a pseudonym. “My God, I don’t know how we are hiding but we are managing.”

IS regularly runs house-to-house searches, trying to find the operators of the opposition website, whose campaign slogan is ‘Raqqa is being slaughtered silently’. Living in safe houses, the activists coordinate with each other via the Internet, using complicated encryptions to evade IS’s hackers.

“When we hear of an event to report, we never move through the street together,” said 26-year-old Abu Mohammed, another member of the group. “For a public execution, we coordinate so that each of us is filming from a different position: someone might be standing close to the event, hiding the phone in their pocket; another one of us will film from a nearby building, and another from a shop across the street.”

It is incredibly dangerous and already the group has lost one of its own: Motaz Billah, a man in his twenties, was publicly shot in the back of the head after the jihadists learnt he had been criticising them in a private Facebook forum.

“Motaz was arrested. Three days later we received a message from his Facebook account telling us he would be killed,” said Abu Ibrahim. “On April 29 they published the pictures of his execution.”

Regardless, Motaz’s friends pressed on, reporting on the increasingly weird and brutal space that Raqqa has become. It has become “flooded” with foreign jihadists: “The men are bringing their women and children,” said Abu Ibrahim. “You see them everywhere in the city. There are a lot of Dutch women. It’s shocking.”

As IS works to populate its “Islamic state”, the group has lavished special privileges on foreign arrivals, giving them free accommodation in homes the group has forced local residents to give up. The once quite cosmopolitan streets are unrecognisable: shops, their shutters emblazoned with IS’s logo, are shut five times a day for prayer, and religious police prowl, admonishing women if the black material of their burka even hints at translucence. The laws are enforced with an iron will: dissent is quickly punished by death.

Abu Ibrahim recalled watching as, last month, the jihadists forced local people to stone to death Fadda Sayyid Ahmed, a young woman. “We don’t know what her crime was,” said Abu Ibrahim. “They anaesthetised her before so that when the rocks hit she wouldn’t scream.”

The quality of life is also increasingly dire. Thousands of civilians have been wounded in Bashar al-Assad’s increasingly frequent bombardments, the activists said, but there is no medicine to help them.

“The people of Raqqa are tired: the regime, the Free Syrian Army rebels and the international community have given up on us.”

But still Abu Ibrahim and his friends keep reporting, in the hope that at some point, some day, someone will send help.



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