Isis’s latest horror video ratchets up threat against activists
When Abu Mahmoud’s phone started ringing last Sunday night, he thought the anguished shouting of relatives on the other end was a joke. One of their family members had been killed by Islamic State, they said. His death was on the internet.
The family member was one of five men executed by Isis in the terror group’s latest propaganda video, shot in the head as they submitted to their tormentors while a new English-speaking frontman made menacing threats to Britain.
“I didn’t have the courage to watch the video,” Mahmoud said nearly a week on. “When I opened it, I watched a minute of it and shut it down.”
Isis’s latest snuff flick contained scenes of stylised horror that have become numbingly familiar over the series of at least seven films uploaded to the internet. As well as threatening the UK, the video also targeted another group, a resolute team of activists who use social media platforms to document abuses from within Isis’s most sensitive strongholds – Raqqa in Syria and Mosul in Iraq. Video is smuggled into Turkey, where many of the activists live in exile.
The past six months have not been good for Isis. In addition to mounting losses on the battlefield, the organisation has been struggling to dominate the information war despite the enormous resources it devotes to shaping its message.
Central to Isis’s anger has been the activist group Raqqa Is Being Slaughtered Silently (RBSS). It numbers roughly 100 members who for more than a year have chronicled airstrikes, terror attacks, executions and other events in the Syrian city, often in real time. Life in the so-called caliphate is detailed without gloss or spin. No one else has been able to offer such insight into the organisation’s stronghold. And none have paid a bigger price for trying.
Late last year, Isis cut the internet and satellite television connections to Raqqa. It announced that anyone caught collaborating with the group would be killed, and it set about trying to weed out agents across the city and within its own ranks. According to one Isis member spoken to by the Guardian, the group has put extra resources into counter-espionage.
Since then at least four prominent activists and journalists have been killed, including three who were living and working in Turkey.
“The situation is getting more and more difficult, especially after the assassinations in Turkey,” said one member of the Raqqa group. “We are under immense pressure inside and outside Syria. Many activists have shut down their accounts and reduced their work in the areas under Isis control. Others [have remained] more driven to challenge Isis and continue their work relying on Thuraya phones and constantly changing their locations and contact details. We can still manage to get information from inside Isis but video has become more difficult now. They have built tremendous fear inside people.”
Another member of the group, who also insisted on remaining anonymous, said: “We have been receiving lots of death threats since 2012 but the situation right now is extremely dangerous. All I can do is move house every month or so and move cities. We ran away from Syria to Turkey for a safe place to work and live in but now Turkey has become as dangerous as Syria.
“A female journalist [Ruqia Hassan] working in Raqqa was killed by Isis. And last week one of our mentors [Naji Jerf] who trained almost every single Syrian journalist after the revolution was killed in Turkey by Isis. Now, my friends who are working inside Syria especially under Isis control are very worried about their safety. We are under immense pressure but we can’t do anything but continue our work.”
Hassan was one of the most active citizen journalists in Raqqa. RBSS said she was not working with it but was known by its members. The group told her last published words were: “I’m in Raqqa and I received death threats. When Isil arrest me and kill me it’s OK, because [while] they will cut my head I will have dignity, which is better than to live in humiliation.”
Jerf was shot dead by an assassin using a silenced pistol in the southern Turkish city of Gaziantep in December. Two other citizen journalists, one of whom was a member of RBSS and was identified as Ibrahim Abdul Qader, were beheaded two months earlier in the nearby Turkish city of Urfa.
Those who remain in Raqqa have little choice but to stay quiet, for now, said Mahmoud, whose relative was one of the five slain men in this week’s video.
“[He had] nothing to do with the media or any government,” Mahmoud said. “He had four children and was busy making a living. He was arrested four months ago. I thought that it was part of the mass arrests that Isis does in the city. I thought he would be released soon and go back to his family.
“He was killed because his brother is an activist,” he added, before switching attention to a younger man who was also killed on film. “When I saw the young boy, I was shocked when he was confessing all of those things. I know that he was forced to say them. Isis’s message to anyone in Raqqa is that they can’t communicate with the outside world. It’s a direct threat to all of us outside Syria.