By Ruth Sherlock, and Carol Malouf, August 12, 2014
With almost no journalists — local or foreign — allowed to operate inside the ISIL-controlled Syrian town of Raqqa, informants give a grim account of life under the jihadists’ rule.
The first time the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant crucified one of their 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 as the executioners tacked 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 jihadist’s embryonic Islamic State, Abu Ibrahim knew that if he was found out, the next crucifixion would be his own.
Abu Ibrahim is one of a 16-strong group of activists who, since ISIL seized control of Raqqa a year ago, have risked life and limb to document the medieval practices that 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 secretive ISIL, now deemed the central threat both to neighbouring Middle Eastern countries and to the West.
As well as documenting, often with pictures and video, the public executions that have become common place in Raqqa, the activists try to reveal the locations of jihadists’ headquarters and training camps.
The group said they had also tried to help American hostage James Foley, whom ISIL brutally murdered last week, by posting information on where they believed he was being held.
As America considers whether to extend its air campaign against ISIL in Iraq to Syria, the publication of such operational details could prove lethal for the jihadists.
The actions have put Abu Ibrahim and his colleagues at the top of ISIL’s “most wanted” list in Raqqa.
“In the last three sermons at Friday prayers [ISIL] declared us the ‘enemies of the Lord’,” said Abu Ibrahim, who, as with all his colleagues, spoke using a pseudonym. “My God, I don’t know how we are hiding but we are managing.”
ISIL 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 dotted around the city, the activists coordinate with each other via the internet, using complicated encryptions to protect their conversations from ISIL’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 work 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 found 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’ friends pressed on, reporting on the increasingly weird and brutal space that Raqqa has become.
It has become “flooded” with foreign jihadists: “There are many Europeans here. The men are bringing their women and children with them,” said Abu Ibrahim. “You see them everywhere in the city. There are a lot of Dutch women. It’s shocking.”
As ISIL 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 the ISIL logo, are closed five times a day for prayer, and religious police prowl, admonishing women if the black material of their burka even hints at translucence.
As international attention turned to ISIL’s onslaught in neighbouring Iraq, life worsened for residents in Raqqa.
The laws are enforced with an iron will: dissent is quickly punished by death.
Abu Ibrahim recalled watching as, last month, the jihadists forced locals 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.”
Aside from the punishments, the quality of life is increasingly dire in the city.
Thousands of civilians have been wounded in Bashar al-Assads increasingly frequent bombardment of the city, the activists said, but there is no medicine to help them.
“Most of the doctors have fled. Those that stayed have nothing to treat the patients with,” said Abu Ibrahim.
“The people of Raqqa are tired: the regime, the Free Syrian Army rebels and the international community has 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.