ISIS Hunted Down Kfar Nabel Activists

NGO workers and journalists describe life while the militant Islamist group was in town.

The Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) did not interfere in public life in Kfar Nabel until December 2013, when it took control of this town in northwest Syria with practically no resistance.

During the time it was in control in Kfar Nabel, ISIS raided several media and development organisations, including the Media Office in Kfar Nabel, Radio Fresh, the Mantara and Ghirbal magazines, and the Dignity Bus, an initiative providing financial and moral support to school students.

ISIS members confiscated the contents of these offices and detained nine workers for interrogation, accusing them of collaboration with the West. It released eight of them a few hours later, saying it had been misled and had no interest in them.

The group said it was looking for the organisations’ funders and directors. That explains why the editor-in-chief of Ghirbal, Mohammad al-Salloum, remained in custody until the Free Syrian Army (FSA) secured his release on January 4.

That same day, ISIS withdrew peacefully from Kfar Nabel towards Kfarzayta in the suburbs of Hama, following mediation efforts and pressure from the FSA.

After the withdrawal, Damascus Bureau spoke to the activists about their experiences of being detained, and about their views of ISIS.

As with all the activists detained, Salloum, 33, was accused of spreading secularism, atheism and blasphemy, opposing Islamic sharia, and collaborating with the West.

Salloum mocked these accusations. He said that he was beaten and insulted only once during his detention, by a Tunisian fighter.

“I am a Muslim, but I hate ISIS,” he said.

Salloum describes his magazine as an independent and neutral publication that criticises the negative on all sides and aims to build a civil society based on principles of freedom, justice, equality and rule of law.

The organisations targeted by ISIS have not yet been able to resume work fully. They have not retrieved confiscated items of equipment yet, and are trying to replace them. Despite ISIS’s withdrawal from Kfar Nabel, activists still feel at risk, even though they have not received any threatening letters. Rumours abound that ISIS is going to launch operations in all the areas it has lost, assassinating anyone who stands in its way, from activists to FSA commanders.

Abu al-Bara’a al-Baljiki, an ISIS commander who was killed in mid-January, threatened to attack Idlib province, where Kfar Nabel is located, with hundreds of car bombs.

ISIS also detained and interrogated Youssef al-Ahmad, 23, editor-in-chief of the Mantara magazine, for a day before releasing him. Ahmad describes his magazine as satirical, critical, independent, and keen to correct the mistakes of the revolutionaries and to contribute to building a civil society.

“My magazine has never attacked Islam, Islamic sharia or Islamic history,” he added.

Ahmad said that he was beaten and insulted several times, and was restrained and blindfolded the whole time he was detained. His guards would throw water on him every hour to prevent him sleeping.

ISIS members detained Saleh al-Abed, 27, the head of productions at Radio Fresh, a subsidiary of the Media Office of Kfar Nabel, for four hours before releasing him.

Abed says that he was not mistreated, and that his interrogators asked him about the Media Office director’s relationship with the United States, and the names of Western journalists who came to the office from time to time.

He says Radio Fresh aims to present accurate news and information and to contribute to building a civil society, noting that it has never attacked Islamic sharia. On the contrary, it actually airs religious programmes like “Religious Counsel”, hosted by Sheikh Mohammad al-Hamid, and “Our Lives,” which is hosted by a number of Islamist advocates.

“The first step to building a new state is to topple the regime,” said artist Ahmad Jalal, 32, one of the more noted activists targeted by ISIS, because of his caricatures of the organisation as a thorn in the side of the FSA.

Jalal says the goal of the uprising is to topple President Bashar al-Assad’s regime and build a state based on principles of equality and justice, regardless of what form it takes. “I hope this new state derives its laws from Islamic sharia,” he added.

Usama al-Rahhal, 29, an ISIS fighter from Kfar Nabel, left the city shortly after he was interviewed for this report on December 31. He defended ISIS’s actions, saying that this was in a state of emergency. He also expressed doubts about the organisations it targeted in the town, and their ties to the West, which he believes is hostile towards Islam and Muslims and favours Israel over the Palestinians.

“We do not want to terrorise or kill anyone unless we have rightful reason. We want to consolidate the pillars of our state and implement sharia. We want God’s rule on earth, even if it is by the sword,” he said.

Raed al-Fares, 43, the director of the Revolutionary Media Office in Kfar Nabel, and one of those ISIS was targeting, responds that Islam cannot be reduced to the sword or the barrel of a gun.

“Turning one man’s mind towards the light of Islam is more beloved by God than forcing all of humanity into blind allegiance to God’s will,” he said. “Assad accuses us of being agents of the West as well.”

Nour (a pseudonym), an activist targeted by ISIS for her work on the Dignity Bus project, said, “We are not intellectuals. Our project is a humanitarian one for children and the future generation. By attacking our offices in Kfar Nabel, ISIS is attacking every child who comes to us with a smile in hope of an hour or two of normal childhood away from bombs, sieges and war.”

This story was produced by the Damascus Bureau, IWPR’s news platform for Syrian journalists.