For Syrian activist group, resisting the Islamic State isn’t about making war

They held a wake recently in the mezzanine of a cafe in the center of Gaziantep, a modern Turkish city near the Syrian border. The café has become a gathering place for many young Syrian activists who’ve fled their homeland as the Islamic State advanced, and they ask that its name not be published.

This wake was for Hamood al Moussa’s father, Mohamed, whom the Islamic State had executed a few days earlier in Raqqa, the caliphate’s de facto capital, at the end of a 77-day detention.

His death, Hamood al Moussa’s colleagues say, was retribution for Hamood’s work with Raqqa Is Being Slaughtered Silently, an anti-Islamic State group of which Hamood is a founding member.

“They threaten us all the time, but because they can’t touch us here in Turkey they target our relatives instead,” says 22-year-old Sarmad al Jilane, another member of the group.

On Monday, the Islamic State released a video showing the interrogation and execution of two young men: Bashir Abduladhim al Saado, 20, and Faisal Hussain al Habib, 21.

In the video, an Islamic State interrogator can be seen coercing the two men into admitting that they worked for the Raqqa is Being Slaughtered group.

“Who asked you to print these flyers?,” he asks?

Both: “Hamood al Moussa.”

Interrogator: “How did you get to know this person?”

Habib: “He was our neighbor.”

Saado: “I knew him during the revolution days in Raqqa.”

Interrogator: “What did he want from you?”

Saado: “To print flyers, secular ones.”

After the execution another man speaks. Only his mouth and beard can be seen. He says, “My name is Mohamed Moussa Aliasem,” Hamood al Moussa’s dad.

The group denies that the two young men were working from them inside Islamic State territory, although one of them is known to them. They also say that spycams mentioned in the video, camouflaged as glasses and watches, “are not the material we work with.”

The appearance of Hamood al Moussa’s father suggests that another video may soon follow; the family was never told how he died.

Raqqa Is Being Slaughtered Silently was formed in April of last year, at a time when the Islamic State did not dominate world news as it does now, hence the “silently” in its name.

“Daash has controlled large parts of Raqqa since early 2014, but it wasn’t until they captured Mosul in Iraq that the world sat up and paid attention,” says 26-year-old Abu Mohamed, using a derogatory Arabic acronym for the group.

The activists were confronted with death early on. One of the founding members of the group, Mutaz Billah Ibrahim, was killed in April last year before their campaign was even launched.

“Mutaz was on his way from Raqqa to Turkey to assist with the launch when he was stopped by Daash,” says Abu Mohamed, who uses a pseudonym because his identity is not yet known to the Islamic State.

Billah Ibrahim, on the other hand, was a well-known activist in Raqqa who’d criticized the Islamic State on Facebook. As a taunt, the Islamic State used Billah Ibrahim’s personal Facebook account to tell the group of his capture.

“They said they would kill him and that the rest of us would suffer the same fate one by one,” said Abu Mohammed. “Ten days later Mutaz’s body was delivered to his family.”

The activists were not discouraged, however, and today Raqqa is Being Slaughtered Silently has some 42,000 followers on Facebook and around 25,000 on Twitter.

From an apartment in Gaziantep, the group collects information through informers inside Islamic State territory in Syria and posts it on its website and social media accounts.

That the website has been hacked once, and the Facebook account three times, is proof that their work bothers the extremists.

“In their Friday sermons in Raqqa, they have called us infidels who are to be killed,” says Abu Mohammed. “They have even created their own Facebook group called ‘Raqqa is Blossoming Silently’.”

The group has managed to film Islamic State executions independently, using a cell of three people who are unknown to each other for security reasons. The last such execution was a month ago.

“It was someone executed for sorcery, but we didn’t post it online because the guy who filmed it could have been identified from the footage,” says Abu Mohammed.

The risks are immense, as Monday’s video shows. It followed the arrest, at the end of June, of 25 young men in Raqqa on the accusation of collaborating with Raqqa is Being Slaughtered, which denies that any of its members was among them.

The rewards, on the other hand, can sometimes be subtle. One of the group’s tactics is to post anti-Islamic State pamphlets overnight on walls in Raqqa and elsewhere, while filming the act and posting the result online.

“Of course, nobody wants to die for a poster,” says Abu Mohamed, “but it is one of the few weapons we have, and it annoys the hell out of Daash.”

The video implies that Saado and Habib were killed for exactly that reason.

Similarly, the group has so far produced three editions of a magazine they call Dabea, a wordplay on Dabiq, the Islamic State’s own magazine. Dabea pokes fun at the group. Around 10,000 copies are smuggled into Syria each time, the group says.

Humor is another method. One video puts a light-hearted rendition of “Happy Birthday” to scenes of Islamic State training. The issue of Dabea currently in production features a cartoon in which drowning prisoners give the finger to the Islamic State, a reference to a horrific video released last month that showed a cage of prisoners in Iraq’s Nineveh province being drowned in a swimming pool.

Another shows a class at an Islamic State medical school. The teacher, who is holding a bloody machete, sums up remedies for various maladies. The one for headaches is beheading.

“Humor can be a powerful weapon,” says 29-year-old Mohammad Khedhr. “Daash rules through fear. If we can make people laugh at them we break through the fear barrier.”

Raqqa is Being Slaughtered members are not the only anti-Islamic State activists operating inside caliphate territory. Taher Moqresh smuggles out video and information and tries to sell it to foreign media.

“The women are my secret weapon,” Moqresh said one day at the same cafe where the wake was held. “Many Daash combatants have married Syrian women and they chat with their girlfriends. Daash fighters also like to show off, especially the Syrian ones. And I have informants in Raqqa who pose as Daash sympathizers to get information.”

Both members of Raqqa is Being Slaughtered and Moqresh say an important aspect of their work is to let the people in Raqqa know that the world has not forgotten about them.

“Most people in Raqqa are poor and simple,” said Moqresh. “They never asked for their city to become the venue where all kinds of foreigners can live out their jihadist fantasies.”

Raqqa’s people have been unjustly accused of accommodating Islamic State, he said.

“People see the videos of Raqqa residents sending their children to Daash seminars, and they conclude that they must be collaborating with them.

“But put yourself in their place. When Daash took over Raqqa there was a near-famine in the city. Then Daash shows up with lots of money and food. Of course, you’re going to send your children to Daash. Eighty percent of the people in Raqqa are in this situation: they have no other choice.”

“The people of Raqqa feel abandoned by everyone,” agrees Mohammad Khedhr of Raqqa is Being Slaughtered. “Part of our job is to tell them they are not alone, that there is still hope.”

Van Langendonck is a McClatchy special correspondent.