Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Activists in Raqqa Face Daily Threats

First government forces, now hardline Islamists intimidate, assault and abduct civil society activists.

“Our families and people in Raqqa, please forgive us. We love nothing more than to bring a bit of joy and hope to your lives. Our wish was that our final statement would be at the time when the tyrant Bashar al Assad fell, but circumstances are stronger than we are. We ask God for the betterment of all.”

This is the final statement from the Revolutionary Media Centre in Raqqa, posted on its website and Facebook page on November 2, 2013. The statement went on to explain that the centre’s staff had decided to cease all media activity and shut down their office and websites.

Other media activists, organisations and website operators in this northern Syrian city quickly followed their lead and closed down.

According to the statement, the decision came after one of the Revolutionary Media Centre’s correspondents was beaten by militiamen from the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) group while filming the marketplace in downtown Raqqa. Members of ISIS accused him of spying for the Syrian government.

Prior to that incident, media activists in Raqqa had become accustomed to being beaten up and accused by opposition fighters of collaborating with Syrian intelligence, simply for filming impact locations of regime-launched bombs.

But beatings could be the least of the activists’ worries. In October, unknown forces seized media activist Hazem al-Hussain, doctor and activist Ismael al-Hamoud, and cleric Abdallah al-Assaf, a member of the Sharia Law Committee in Raqqa. A member of the committee who spoke on condition of anonymity said Assaf had openly criticised ISIS on several occasions.

The same month, ISIS detained three activists – Abdelillah al-Hussein, Abdallah al-Mushrif and Mohammad al-Shuaib. The militia released Mushrif and Shuaib after two days, but has kept Hussein imprisoned under unknown charges.

The Revolutionary Media Centre published photos on its Facebook page showing evidence of the torture Mohammad al-Shuaib was subjected to at the hands of the ISIS during his detainment.

But it was the murder of activist and Revolutionary Media Centre member Muhannad Haj Ubaid, known as Muhannad Habayibna, on the morning of October 21 that turned the tide.

The National Defence Forces in Raqqa, a pro-government militia whose members went into hiding after the opposition took control of Raqqa in March 2012, claimed responsibility for the assassination on their Facebook pages. Several activists, among them Samir (not his real name), believe the regime has sleeper cells that are operating with impunity within the city, especially given the almost complete lack of security checkpoints. Samir said the situation has “only increased the number of gangs and shabiha”.

Basel Aslan, 22, a media activist who is a friend of Habayibna, was forced to flee to Urfa in Turkey after receiving a threatening message through his Facebook page while he was sitting in a café in Raqqa.

“Someone sent me a picture of Muhannad Habayibna right after his murder. I took it that it was the murderer who sent it, to tell me that I too was a target for assassination,” Aslan said in an internet interview. “I was shaking with fear when I received the threat, and I felt that the person who had sent was in the café at the same time as I was. One of my friends had to calm me down and take me home, and I left for Turkey the very next day.”

Aslan does not know who threatened him, nor is he tempted to investigate too deeply, for fear of provoking further threats or an attack.

The threat of kidnapping and murder extends beyond the Syrian border to those based abroad.

Souad Nawfal, 40, a teacher and activist, held a lone vigil almost daily in front of ISIS headquarters in Raqqa, holding up banners calling for the release of kidnapped people and prisoners of conscience.

Although she left for Urfa in October, she is still receiving threatening messages through the internet, sent by unknown parties.

“The threats haven’t ceased until now,” said Nawfal. “They want me dead or alive, even if I’m at the end of the earth.”

On September 26, during her second last vigil in the city, Nawfal was shot at by members of ISIS.

“They ran after us and stopped us,” she said. “My sister Rimal was crying and screaming, grabbing onto the barrel of the militiaman’s gun as he screamed, ‘You’re as good as dead, you infidel, you collaborator,’” said Nawfal. “Rimal cried and begged them to leave me alone as the bullets rained down. I had no idea whether they were shooting at me or into the air.”

Nawfal went back to protest once more after the massacre at the Ibn Tufeil Trade School. They tore up her banner, and “one of them wiped his beard and gestured at his neck; I understood then that they were calling for my blood,” she said. “I started receiving threats, and I was told by people sympathetic to me that both my home and the school where I worked were being watched,” she said.

Nawfal and Aslan are not the only people in Raqqa who have been forced to leave the country. In October alone, around 30 activists left, according to Mohammad, a media activist still based in the city.

According to Mohammad, the exodus of activists came after the security situation in the city deteriorated. Anonymous threats were made through Facebook, and there were several attempted kidnappings.

The threat is greater for civilian media activists than those working with armed opposition factions, according to media activist Ammar Mohsin, who is one of the media professionals working within the Uwais al-Qurani brigade, part of the Ahrar al-Sham Islamic Movement, a Salafi force.

“Civilians are the easiest targets for kidnappers,” said Mohsin. “Unlike people who have armed backing, there are no parties on the ground that might protect them or demand their release.”

Mohsin may be right. On November 16, Abu Raed Waysat, the head of the Rayat al-Islam battalion, part of the Uwais al-Qurani brigade, was kidnapped by unknown parties who stripped him of his weapons and detained him in an abandoned house. His colleagues were able to release him within less than two hours, according to Ab ul-Nour, head of the Uwais al-Qurani political office. Nour said that the same efforts would be made equally when civilians were kidnapped.

Since most activists have been forced to flee, those who remain are on a constant state of alert, living under the continual threat of kidnapping or murder.

“The city is no longer the same as it once was,” activist Mohammad said. “I can no longer stay out too late.”

But Mohammad is against going into self-imposed exile, saying it would be an “abdication of responsibility”.

“When we decided to rise up against the regime, we were forced to pay the price, however high, in pursuit of this end,” he said. “If we leave the city to the malevolent and the vicious, the revolution will be over.” 

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