“They asked for my ID and if I was working with the Free Syrian Army or the [Syrian] Military Council,” said cameraman Abd Hakwati, recounting how a masked man arrested him at a roadblock at the entrance of the supposedly-liberated city of Raqqa. The man said through an Iraqi accent, “You cannot enter Raqqa before you get the emir’s approval.”
Hakwati goes on: “A while later, another masked man came over and asked me which institution I was working for and what media channels I communicated with. He noted the address of the person I was going to see in Raqqa and why I was going there, and then allowed me to go in. I felt like I was entering a foreign land for the first time, as though we were back under the Syrian regime with all its tyranny and repression, albeit in an extremist Islamist form.”
This is the violence of the Assad regime-bred Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS), which spread its doctrinal control by the sword in regions that were once known as “liberated.” In early 2012, Hakwati took his camera and started shooting short documentaries in northern Syria. “A masked man came in Deir Ezzor’s Mayadin and pulled me by the hair, insulting me and threatening to slaughter me. He took me to the Religious Committee. My friend tried to intervene by telling them, ‘We are sons of the same revolution,’ but the masked man answered, ‘I have nothing to do with this revolution of yours.’”
“After more than five hours of insults and threats within the Religious Tribunal,” Hakwati said, “the emir of the Nusra came over and had a look at the pictures we took before leaving. Some lawyers and the city council intervened and we were released. A while back, they warned me they would have me beheaded.”
A few days ago, ISIS issued a statement in cooperation with the Religious Committee with a table of “taboos” and “means of punishment and sanctions” against whoever disobeys its instructions, including whoever refers to ISIS by name.
“Apostate, laywoman, infidel: This is how ISIS members described me while poking me with their guns as I took part in protests. I did not fear them, I used to tell them they are the regime’s men with a beard and mask,” says Souad Nawfal, one of the first activists in Raqqa before and after the city’s liberation from the Syrian army. When she talks, one can feel her strength, honesty, and spontaneity. “I used to carry a cardboard on which I wrote every day what had happened the day before and brandish it for masked men to see.”
Many protests were organized in response to ISIS’ bringing down the crosses atop the Our Lady of the Annunciation Church and the Martyrs’ Church. ISIS responded by shooting at these protests and arresting those taking part in them. Nawfal recounts: “I carried a cardboard on which I had drawn a cross and crescent side by side with the expression ‘State of Evil.’ A young man aged about 16 with a Tunisian accent attacked me, saying, ‘This woman is defending the houses of infidels and Christians. She is an infidel like them and should be killed.’ A car with Tunisian armed men on board then came and the men surrounded me and loaded their guns, shoving them straight in my face.”
On September 29, 2013, 15 students at Raqqa’s Commerce School were killed in a regime air raid. “I went to the ISIS headquarters and was showered with insults leveled by masked Tunisian men,” says Nawfal. “So I fled to a female friend’s house. ISIS is currently after me and its emir has ordered my killing and threatened my family. What I don’t understand is why the regime bombed the school rather than the security centers housing ISIS and the Nusra Front.”
According to numerous studies and reports, regime prisons are the womb that birthed the extremist Islamists who have become today’s leaders of ISIS, Nusra, and others.
Activist Maher Esper says: “I saw prisoners who were with me in the Saydnaya prison in most YouTube videos since the emergence of Nusra, ISIS, and other Islamic brigades.” Syrian regime forces arrested Esper in 2006 and sentenced him to seven years in prison, five of which were spent at the Saydnaya prison before he was encompassed in the presidential amnesty issued at the start of the revolution.
Esper asserts, “There’s a person I saw in a video in which fourteen Raqqa clans pledged allegiance to ISIS, he used to sleep on the bunk directly above mine. The regime released those individuals despite their involvement in murders, even in prison. All those I saw became members or leaders of ISIS (like Nadim Balous), al-Nusra (like Baha’ al-Bash), Jaysh al-Islam (like Zahran Alloush), Ahrar al-Sham (like Hassane Abboud), or Suqur al-Sham brigades (like Ahmad Issa al-Sheikh).”
ISIS increasingly had recourse to kidnapping activists, media professionals, and photographers. In so doing, it is acting exactly like the Syrian regime by arresting and killing anyone with a camera. For instance, it recently kidnapped photographer Ziad al-Homsi on October 28, 2013 in the Raqqa province.
Homsi is an activist from Douma whose father is detained in regime prisons and whose mother is besieged in Moadamiyah in the Damascus Province. The names of many media professionals and journalists who disappeared in the liberated areas were published, only to find out later that they are being held by ISIS, such as journalist Obeida al-Batal, the Orient News crew in Idlib Province, Lebanese journalist Samir Kassab, the Sky News crew in Aleppo, and others. Far from stopping at kidnappings, ISIS started killing media professionals, the latest such murder being that of journalist Mohammad Said in Aleppo.
On August 14, 2013, activist and photographer Mohammad Nour Matar, a Raqqa native born in 1993, was kidnapped. A media activist in Raqqa, Matar has filmed many videos that appeared on TV, including a short film titled “The Nightmare Ended Here” and another one titled “I Know my Grave Well,” not to mention another pending short film on the liberation of Raqqa entitled “One Body There.” His brother Amer, a fellow journalist, says: “ISIS kidnapped my brother for the second time and we have had no news of him to this day. Mohammad Nour disappeared during the battle between ISIS and the Ahfad al-Rasoul Brigade on August 14 in Raqqa. We found the charred remains of his camera but there was no sign of him anywhere. We looked at the Raqqa National Hospital as we received word that bodies and [human] remains had gotten there, but we did not find anything pointing conclusively to him.
“We later learned that he is in an ISIS prison.”
This article is a translation from the original Arabic.