Syria speaking: The heroism of Raqqa's 'Silently' activists

Syria speaking: The heroism of Raqqa's 'Silently' activists
Comment: Working undercover in the heart of 'the Caliphate', the bravery of a group of citizen journalists knows no bounds, writes Sophia Akram.
5 min read
12 Jan, 2016
Raqqa is Being Slaughtered Silently won the 2014 International Press Freedom Award [Getty]

To target the heart of the Islamic State group, everyone knows that Raqqa is crucial.

As their self-proclaimed capital, the Caliphate's rule has played out in every part of life in this city. Women unable to travel alone, forced to cover, boys forced to join IS through beheadings and public executions - including crucifixions - in a campaign of fear and intimidation.

Yet nobody outside of Raqqa seemed to know what was happening between January and June 2014. The city was slowly dying, encapsulated within a fortress of horror.

This is what prompted founder and director of Raqqa is Being Slaughtered Silently (RBSS), Abu Ibrahim, to set up his "citizen journalist" outfit.

Abu Ibrahim decided someone would need to do something

While this has been the label attributed to them, they are at present the single most important point of information for life in the city, highlighting the Islamic State group's brutality of rule, and providing valuable insight to the impact of foreign military intervention on the strongholds, such as civilian casualties from airstrikes.

No one inside the city would talk to journalists because of the the obvious risks, so Abu Ibrahim decided someone would need to do something.

On 16 April 2014, one month after the first crucifixion, Abu Ibrahim sat down and made a logo and cover page for Facebook. It got taken down by the site administrators - so he made another one.

Deciding this was not enough, he created a Twitter profile and starting posting in English as well as Arabic - his friends joined and attracted a few others to form RBSS.

While frequently posting videos and images, the group did not get mass attention until June 2014 after posting information on the possible location of American hostage James Foley, which led to a failed US-led rescue attempt.

It was after this that the group were approached for interviews and information, and a window into IS' world - and the RBSS website was born.

Young, and with no journalistic experience, their bravery has been acknowledged by the Committee to Protect Journalists as their work is far from safe. Members have been arrested and even those close to them have been detained by IS footsoldiers trying to find out who they are in order to execute them.

Friday sermons by the city's IS-installed imams have even been delivered to declare their work un-Islamic and "against God".

No one would blame the group if they disbanded. To fear is human, and Abu Ibrahim admits that they are all afraid.

But his bravery shines through regardless.

"Raqqa is our city," he states. "There are but two options: either IS falls, or they kill each and every one of us. Only then will we stop."

From the archives: Voices from 'the Caliphate' - Raqqa [October 2014]

IS has, unfortunately, succeeded in identifying some members of the collective, including Ahmed Mohamed al-Mousa, shot dead in Idlib; and, outside of Syria, Ibrahim Abdul Kader and Fares Hammadi were found beheaded in Turkey.

Recently, Naji Jerif, the editor-in-chief at Hentah magazine, was killed after Christmas in Gazientep in south-eastern Turkey. Jerif assisted the group, acting as a supervisor for them, helping them document IS atrocities in Aleppo.

The group therefore work in two parts, one in Turkey and one inside Syria - although both groups are at risk, those inside Raqqa bear the gravest danger. Hacking communications go some way to expose the group's members, with one of their comrades being found in Turkey and linked to the group via his mobile phone account.

While their accounts and phones are often targeted by IS, Abu Ibrahim claims that they can also match their efforts with thorough cyber-security, and it is ultimately the cyberspace in which they are fighting each other.

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This is a crucial point. IS' strength has been from its ability to mobilise recruits. Potential fighters from abroad would search for Raqqa on the internet and previously been presented with IS propaganda to lure them into joining their ranks.

Now there is as much anti-IS material to contend with, perhaps making future fighters think twice before heading to this de facto capital.

And Raqqa is strategically important. If IS had nowhere else, in Raqqa they can be completely self-sufficient - the city has its own oil resources, its own electricity generation and its own water wells, and has managed to fortify its borders to limit movement.

It's a great deal of resources for a small city.

However, the success of RBSS in getting information out to global media outlets and the public through their own mechanisms means that they are contributing positively to the fight against IS - and possibly leading it.

"We must be hurting them," says Abu Ibrahim, talking of vicious IS retaliations against the group.

His resolve is convincing and formidable as it is heroic. Abu Ibrahim and the RBSS group will not stop reporting, not just against IS, but against the Assad regime and against foreign forces that show little regard to collateral impact and civilian casualties.

They will not stop until they see a free, democratic and united Syria.

Sophia Akram is a researcher and communications professional with a special interest in human rights particularly across the Middle East. Follow her on Twitter: @mssophiaakram

Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff.