In Raqqa, a spate of Islamic State executions of women raises questions about why

AMMAN: The Islamic State has executed at least three women in as many weeks in A-Raqqa city in what activists from the locked-down city say is “a sign of weakness” that may be connected to recent IS losses in Iraq and Syria.

Lina al-Qasem, a 45-year-old employee of the Raqqa postal service was executed by firing squad in a public square in the northern Syrian city last Wednesday.

Known in A-Raqqa as “Um Ali,” the mother of Ali, al-Qasem’s killing made headlines in Arabic and English-language online media, largely because her own son, 20-year-old Ali Saker, an IS fighter, was reportedly among her executioners.

Saker and other IS fighters killed al-Qasem “for apostasy,” the Raqqa is Being Slaughtered Silently (RBSS) media campaign reported Friday, denying widespread reports that she was killed for urging her son to leave the organization. Syria Direct could not independently verify either narrative.

Al-Qasem is one of the unknown number of Raqqa city residents publicly and privately executed by members of IS since the group took full control of the northern city two years ago. She is also the latest of up to four Raqqa women whose deaths at the hands of IS have been made public in just over three weeks.

Last week, the family of female citizen journalist Ruqia Hassan was informed of her execution by IS for “espionage,” RBSS reported. Exactly when Hassan was detained and executed is not clear, though her social media presence went dark this past July.

Writing under the pseudonym “Nisan Ibrahim,” Hassan had independently reported on daily life in A-Raqqa under IS rule via social media. She “continuously challenged IS and often reported on airstrikes in Raqqa as they happened,” Furat al-Wafaa, an independent citizen journalist in A-Raqqa told Syria Direct in an interview Monday.

“Every day they ban, ban, ban, ban,” Hassan wrote of IS restrictions on daily life this past July. “I’d like for them to permit something, some day.”

Other posts on her Facebook account describe the stress and fear of Raqqa residents living under threat of bombardment by coalition warplanes. A sense of poetry pervades her words.

“People in the market are crashing on each other like waves, not because there are many, but because their eyes are planted on the sky,” she wrote. “Afraid, their eyes are above, their bodies moving unconsciously below.”

Ruqia Hassan. Courtesy of Nissan Ibrahim

Two weeks before the news of Hassan’s execution, IS members killed a third Raqqa woman: Maria Hassan al-Shimas. The method  and circumstances of al-Shimas’s execution are unclear, but she was RBSS media campaign member Hamoud al-Mousa’s aunt through marriage.

Hamoud al-Mousa’s aunt was only the latest family member of his executed by the Islamic State.

This past June, a member of IS contacted al-Mousa, a citizen journalist and activist who uses his real name in his work, in Turkey and made him an offer: Give up the names of activists working with you and we will let your father go free. Al-Mousa refused, and his father and two alleged activists were executed in connection with al-Mousa’s journalism work.

“I don’t want anybody to give me their condolences,” al-Mousa posted on his Facebook page in late December, announcing al-Shimas’s death. “Rather, congratulate me and my blessing. No consolations [are necessary] for the wronged martyr,” referencing someone who dies for a greater cause.

Most recently, RBSS reported that another, possibly fifth, woman was among three Raqqa residents executed “for being spies for the PKK and the Syrian regime” on Sunday. No other information is yet available.

‘Nobody is above the sword’

While IS executions in Raqqa city occur at times on a daily basis for offenses ranging from espionage to practicing magic, executions of women have been relatively infrequent, or at least less frequently publicized, in comparison to those of men. 

Three activists from A-Raqqa interviewed by Syria Direct for this article noted that life under the Islamic State is dangerous for everyone, all the time. Why execute women?

The Islamic State is sending the message that “nobody is above the sword,” Furat al-Wafaa, formerly with the RBSS campaign, told Syria Direct, “no matter the sex or age.”

Al-Wafaa said the media-savvy Islamic State may be using executions to “occupy public opinion” and distract from recent losses on the ground.

“The dates of published executions of activists and civilians from A-Raqqa” often coincide with “the dates of IS losses or a lull in its media impact,” al-Wafaa told Syria Direct. For him, the “executions have other purposes, beyond carrying out sentences or  sharia law, as they claim.”

It is difficult to say to what extent IS executions of Raqqa residents are a sign of increased pressure on the organization, as al-Wafaa suggests, and to what extent they are driven by the simpler forces of ideology, intimidation and revenge.

While videotaped executions may be interpreted as a bloody form of theater, it is less apparent to what extent IS fighters are aware of, or care about, how news about less dramatized, everyday executions in their de facto capital gets out.

While some executions of civilians are videotaped or photographed, with IS fighters reveling in the display, others only come to light through the families of those killed or via anti-IS activists who report the executions.

None of the four women reported killed over the past month or so was photographed or videotaped during their executions, or if so, those recordings have not been made public.

Meanwhile, a video of five men accused of spying for the UK whose executions were part of a ten-minute video released by IS just over a week ago, comes at a time of territorial loss for IS forces in Iraq and Syria.

Less than two weeks ago, Iraqi military forces recaptured the western city of Ramadi, roughly 110km west of Baghdad, after IS fighters took control of it last May.

Around the same time, allied Kurdish-Arab forces in northern Syria recaptured the Tishreen dam, the second largest on the Euphrates River, along with a handful of villages in the far eastern Aleppo countryside.

IS forces in Iraq and Syria have now “lost 30 percent of the territory they once held,” United States Army Col. Steve Warren, spokesman for the US-led anti-IS international coalition, told a press briefing in Baghdad last week. A December report from British military and defense think tank IHS Janes estimated a loss of 14 percent of IS territory in Syria in 2015.

Hamoud al-Mousa reads the recent spate of IS executions, including those of the three women, as a sign of weakness.

“IS’s escalation of executions is clear, and they could be marching towards their end,” al-Mousa told Syria Direct late last week, citing defections by Syrian members as an additional strain.

Living a double life

For Raqqa’s citizen journalists, the constant threat of discovery is the price of reporting on the Islamic State.

That threat extends to everyone, they say, regardless of gender.

“I don’t think anybody in the world feels the way the people of Raqqa do, or can imagine how it feels for an activist to leave his house, saying goodbye to his family as though it is the last time they will meet, because he could die at any moment,” says Furat al-Wafaa.

Ruqia Hassan was the fifth journalist to report on the Islamic State reported killed since October, as those who dare to speak out against IS policies continue to find themselves targeted both inside and outside Syria.

Executions of opponents are used by IS as a form of psychological terror, an activist from A-Raqqa living in southern Turkey told Syria Direct, requesting anonymity. Fearful of discovery, citizen journalists “hide behind fake names and private phone numbers, and make people believe that they work in other professions,” he says.

“We keep where we live and work a secret,” even after fleeing abroad, the same source said. The recent killings  of three RBSS activists living in Turkey have highlighted IS efforts to assassinate citizen journalists abroad, most recently Naji Jerf, a filmmaker with RBSS who was shot in Gaziantep last month.

IS violence does not threaten journalists alone, but has in the past extended to retribution against their families, as in the execution of al-Mousa’s father.

The month after the video showing his father’s execution came out, al-Mousa expressed defiance in an interview with Syria Direct: “They did not kill anything except for our fear,” he said. His father’s death proves how “the most powerful factions fear civilian voices.”

Furat al-Wafaa told Syria Direct in a recent interview  that the threat of death, while ever-present, would not stop him or his fellow citizen journalists from working to report IS abuses.

"I would like to say that the hunting of activists inside and outside of A-Raqqa only confirms how much they have been damaged by their pens and cameras,” al-Wafaa said.

“I want to be clear: We don’t fear death.”

Ammar Hamou

Ammar Hammou is from Douma city in outer Damascus. He studied journalism at Damascus University and left Syria in 2011.

Maria Nelson

Maria Nelson was a 2014-2015 fellow at the Center for Arabic Study Abroad program (CASA I) in Amman, Jordan. She holds a BA in Near Eastern Studies from Princeton University, with a certificate in Arabic Language and Culture.