Abu Ibrahim ar-Raqqawi, the pseudonym for a Raqqa-based Syrian activist, is an interesting person. He believes in freedom and dignity. He believes that Syria must be free of all authoritarianism – without the Islamic State (IS, also known as ISIS) and without the Assad regime.
Because of their views, Raqqawi and his friends are not welcomed either by Islamist radicals or by the Syrian government. Together, they have created a campaign to oppose the atrocities in their hometown of Raqqa, dubbed “Raqqa Is Being Slaughtered Silently.” The campaign has its own Facebook and Twitter pages.
Raqqawi and his fellow activists are the only real opposition against IS in Raqqa. The Syrian city is located in the northeastern part of the country and is known today as the “capital” of the Islamic State. Although the Iraqi city of Mosul is the largest in IS controlled territories, Raqqa is the jihadist group’s centre of operations.
This interview has been edited for clarity
Tell me more about the “Raqqa Is Being Slaughtered Silently” campaign. Who started it and what are the challenges? How do you resist ISIS?
Abu Ibrahim ar-Raqqawi (AR): “Raqqa Is Being Slaughtered Silently” is a campaign launched on April 16, 2014 by a group of non-violent activists in Raqqa to expose the atrocities committed by the terrorist extremist group the “Islamic State of Iraq and Syria” (ISIS) toward the city’s civilian population. Our campaign sheds light on how these atrocities have been overlooked by all parties.
ISIS turned the freedom squares where we once stood and chanted against injustice and crimes committed by the regime of Bashar al-Assad into execution squares where the bodies of my countrymen hung from the walls. It was inevitable for us to mobilize as activists, in order to show this darkness to the world.
Along with my friends – Abdul Aziz, Hossam, Hani, Sarmad, Hassan, Ahmed, Ibrahim, Furat, and the rest – we launched the campaign and accompanying website.
Our goal was to expose the crimes and practices of ISIS and to re-ignite a new revolution in the face of another oppressor who is chasing and arresting activists while displacing and killing many innocent people.
We are nonpartisan and independent, and convey the truth objectively. We are not tied to any political or military group.
In doing our work, the main difficulty is taking photos and videos. ISIS has cameras on all Raqqa’s streets. The Islamic State’s civil forces, the Al-Khansa Battalion, also has agents on the streets, mainly composed of veiled women who cannot be identified. If you are caught taking photos, you are arrested and executed. Despite these challenges, we have our own ways of taking pictures and videos, but I cannot discuss them for security reasons.
Because we document and publish ISIS’s crimes in the city, the group has become very angry and issued death sentences against us at mosques, accusing us of blasphemy and apostasy. ISIS’s members have called for our blood to be spilled by their fellow members simply because we highlighted their injustices and criminality.
We selected the name we did for our campaign because we are truly being slaughtered in silence. The world’s deafening silence to the crimes committed by ISIS led to the loss of our dear friend Moataz Billah Ibrahim in the early days of our campaign – ISIS arrested and executed Moataz in Freedom Square.
We will not stop or surrender, and will continue our work documenting ISIS’s aggressions.
What is life like under ISIS rule?
AR: Smoking and drinking are prohibited. All women must wear the veil. All shops must pay tax and those that do not, are punished. The Al-Khansa Battalion monitors women, while the police and a special unit of the ISIS forces monitors men and markets. There is also an economic police. It is possible to be arrested for minor reasons. Anyone who resists ISIS or speaks out on banned subjects is executed. Life is really hard.
When I participated in the first demonstration with my friends against Assad’s brutal regime, I did not expect that one day I would be standing here talking about hell instead of a beautiful dream. We had a great cause. We came out in peaceful demonstrations holding roses and demanding our rights and our dignity. But the dream turned into hell when ISIS came into Raqqa. We found ourselves caught between Assad’s criminal regime and the extreme laws, regulations, and practices forcefully introduced and imposed by ISIS.
The hell known as ISIS is something that people read about in newspapers, but we live it every day. It all happened because the revolutionary forces lost to ISIS thanks to a lack of weapons and international support, and failed to liberate the city from oppression.
When ISIS came to power, arbitrary arrests began in the streets of my city. ISIS started by arresting activists: Ibrahim Al Ghazi, Mohammed Nour Mattar, Dr. Ismail Al-Ahmad, Abdul Ilah al-Hussein, Abdullah Khalil, Muhannad Haj Obaid and many others. Any civilian with ties to a military faction other than ISIS was arrested.
Overnight ISIS turned our revolutionary experience, which was proving to be successful, into a very different experience. The group tried to abolish the revolution in our souls and on the streets of our city, which we had decorated with revolutionary flags.
Does ISIS have its own police and judges? Does it have its own laws?
AR: Yes, there is an Islamic court and Islamic police.
What happens to people who are against ISIS? Are they kept in prison, or are they executed?
AR: Anyone who fights against ISIS is executed immediately.
What do the people of Raqqa think about ISIS’s rule? Are there supporters? Are all ISIS fighters from Raqqa, or are there outsiders as well?
AR: People do not like ISIS or its laws. But no one can speak out of fear of punishment. There is a small percentage of supporters – those who benefit from ISIS’s existence. There are no fighters from Syria or the Arab states who support the foreign fighters.
How did life in Raqqa change after it fell to ISIS? Is it true that for many people there is no real difference between ISIS and Assad?
AR: ISIS and Assad are two sides of the same coin. Criminals and killers.
Is your family still in Raqqa? Are you afraid?
AR: Yes, they are still in the city. I’m a human being, so of course I’m afraid.
Is your campaign successful and is there support from people inside Raqqa for what you are doing?
AR: Yes, there are a lot of people in the city supporting us and hoping for our success.
How can people outside Raqqa help you and your campaign?
AR: The West must destroy the Assad regime and then it must destroy ISIS.
The death of our friends and the death threats issued against us have motivated us to continue in our just and legitimate cause, calling for dignity and freedom. To my friends in this campaign, Abdul Aziz, Hossam, Hani, Sarmad, Hassan, Ahmed, Ibrahim, Fourat, and the rest: I did not know any of you before this revolution and now you have become my beautiful family. Love of freedom filled our hearts and like the covenant that we made together, we will continue our revolution and fulfil our dream, or we will die trying. This is what “Raqqa is Being Slaughtered Silently” is all about. We hope to see our dream realized in Raqqa and other places in Syria.
Long live Syria – free, prosperous, and strong.