Wanted by the Islamic State and now exiled in Europe, RBSS founder says ‘I have the right to live a normal life’

At the age of 25, Abu Ibrahim a-Raqqawi is in exile. He says he doesn’t know when or if he will return to his home city, the provincial desert capital of Raqqa in north-central Syria.

He and several of his colleagues from the grassroots media campaign Raqqa is Being Slaughtered Silently (RBSS) left last year. The Islamic State had seized mobile phones and computers from two of the group’s citizen journalists after assassinating them in Turkey.

“We feared that the group would be able to access our personal information,” Raqqawi, the founder of RBSS, tells Syria Direct’s Ghardinia Ashour from western Europe.

Now a computer engineering student, Raqqawi calls himself an “introvert” and says he is in front of the computer “24/7” reporting on the events in his home city.

While a team remains on the ground inside Raqqa, it is Raqqawi who publishes the news they gather.

“The Islamic State has shut down 95 percent of Raqqa city’s internet cafes,” the activist says, adding that television is also forbidden. “The harsh security measures inside Raqqa make reporting even more difficult.”

RBSS journalists won an International Press Freedom award from the Committee to Protect Journalists in New York in 2015. While there, Cartel Land director Matthew Heineman approached the journalists about doing a documentary about life on the run from the Islamic State. They agreed, and Heineman literally began filming City of Ghosts as they accepted the award.

The film was screened at the January 2017 Sundance Film Festival in Utah.

Q: When did you realize that you could no longer stay in Raqqa? Did something specific happen that made you say, “This is enough?”

It became impossible to stay in Raqqa after a series of assassinations killed members of our team in Turkey. It became too dangerous, not just in Raqqa, but also outside the city. You couldn’t live a normal life, not even in Turkey. Since we were no longer welcome in Turkey, we fled to Europe.

When IS members in Turkey killed Faris and Ibrahim—may their souls rest in peace—they seized laptops and cell phones from their home. We feared that the group would be able to access our personal information, so we decided to leave Raqqa.

But no, I’ve never reached the point where I thought, “This is enough. I can’t do this campaign anymore.”

On the contrary, these assassinations fueled my team’s determination to cover Raqqa city.

 “City of Ghosts” premiered in January at the Sundance Film Festival in Utah. Photo courtesy of Abu Ibrahim a-Raqqawi.

Q: How did you manage to leave Raqqa?

The Islamic State controls Raqqa, but at the end of the day, they’re in our city playing on our turf. We know the roads better than they do. There are many smugglers, and we know a lot of people. Thank God we were able to leave.

Q: Describe the first time you gazed at the sky and realized that you weren’t in Raqqa.

The first time I looked up at the sky of another city I felt both joy and sadness. Part of me was happy because I had a chance to start life anew. But I was upset because I knew I still had a battle to fight.

I felt burdened; I felt weary.

Leaving Raqqa was difficult. Departing the city where you were born and raised and leaving your family, friends and others behind is hard.

I’m still afraid. I always have a sense of foreboding about the future. I have no idea what’s going to happen tomorrow—neither to me nor to my campaign members.

Q: When your friends were killed, you vowed to continue fighting IS by working with RBSS. Did you ever feel that by leaving Raqqa, you betrayed your team members, your family and your country?

Honestly, this was an extremely difficult decision for those of us who left. We couldn’t do anything about those who were killed, but we were worried about their families. IS members started killing friends and relatives of any person who was associated with this campaign.

Like I said, it was heartbreaking to leave. Most of us didn’t want to, but we simply couldn’t stay under the prevailing circumstances.

We’re still continuing with RBSS however, even outside Raqqa. We vowed never to stop until IS leaves the city.

And we’ll stay true to our promise to fight IS, especially after they killed our friends.

This conflict is not just a broader struggle against IS—it’s personal.

Q: Tell me more about your team members who were killed. Do you ever think about them?

Muataz was the first of the guys to join the campaign. He was arrested at a checkpoint in Raqqa. He was beheaded after IS found our campaign logo and some stories on his laptop. This was one of the biggest reasons we became even more dedicated.

Faris holds a special place in my heart. I worked with Faris before the campaign, in 2013. We spent long hours working together.

Faris and Ibrahim were killed together in Ibrahim’s apartment. Faris was extremely intelligent and religious. He had memorized the Quran. One time, before we started the campaign, IS threw him in prison. He knew the answer to all of the questions asked by the prison guard. Faris actually asked the prison guard a question about Islam that the guard couldn’t answer. In response, the guard got angry and whipped him even more.

Q: Recently, there’s been less news coverage of Raqqa. Have you noticed this?

Yes, this is happening for several reasons. First, IS has shut down 95 percent of the city’s Internet cafes. It’s immensely difficult and risky to contact our few team members who remained in Raqqa.

Also, IS forbid television and satellites. The harsh security measures in the city make reporting even more difficult.

Despite these challenges, we’re still able to contact our team.

Another reason there’s been less coverage of Raqqa is that in general, IS’s luster has faded. Most news focuses on battles in Raqqa’s north countryside.

Q: Who came up with the idea for the documentary film about RBSS called City of Ghosts? At which stage did you meet with the American director, Matthew Heineman? Talk about how the documentary was born.

In October 2015, Abdelazziz, Hamoud and Hussam went to New York to receive an International Press Freedom Award from the Committee to Protect Journalists.

Heineman, who was in New York at the time, met them through a journalist. We had all seen his film Cartel Land and admired his work.

So Abdelazziz, Hamoud and Hussam agreed, and he started shooting immediately. Heinmen even filmed the moment they received the award.

No one had a specific idea for the film; the story revealed itself along the way.

The film, shot between October 2015 and January 2017, portrays our lives and our escape from IS.

Q: Why is it called City of Ghosts? Who picked the title of the film?

The director chose this title because, throughout the film, people kept saying that Raqqa has become a city of ghosts under Islamic State rule.

The title has other meanings. First, our team of journalists is fighting IS anonymously. Second, Raqqa is a forgotten city. Her residents are exhausted; they have become like ghosts.

In my opinion, City of Ghosts is an excellent title that suits this film.

Q: Who participated in the film? Were they afraid of facing repercussions from IS?

Between nine and 11 people participated in the film, but it focused on three people—Hamoud, Abdulaziz and Mohammed.

I didn’t appear in the film because I want to protect my family. They’re all still in Raqqa. I could bear it if something happened to me but not if my family were harmed because of my work.

But the other guys were filmed a lot. For the first hour, they felt unnatural in front of the camera. They soon adjusted, especially since the director was with them 24/7. He filmed every second of their daily lives. So the end result was a natural, realistic film.

Of course, those who showed their face on screen knew that they’d face repercussions from IS. But nevertheless they were excited to participate.

I’ve watched the film multiple times. I first saw it in December, about a month before the first screening. Each time I feel like I’m seeing it for the first time, maybe because it’s profoundly realistic.

Q: The film focused on three people—Hamoud, Abdelaziz and Mohammed. You told us about Hamoud, could you tell us more about Abdelaziz and Mohammed?

While many of us stayed in hiding, Abdelaziz spoke in public about the campaign. He represented RBSS at many international lectures and conferences. So when he went to Germany, he faced several death threats. IS put out a notice on Telegram for him to be killed. The German police contacted Abdelaziz and informed him that he should be placed under protective custody, but he refused.

Before the war, Mohammed taught math at a school in Raqqa. He joined the revolution after many of his students were detained. He left for Turkey with his wife and stayed until Naji, Ibrahim and Faris were assassinated there. He decided to flee to Germany. When he arrived in Germany, he settled in the east and witnessed anti-refugee demonstrations.

The film portrays us all as normal people who love our country, but had to leave because of the war. We have aspirations and hopes for the future.

Q: During the first screening, how did the audience react to the film?

At the very first screening, I watched people’s reactions more than the film itself. There were around 200 people in the room, and some had bought soda and popcorn, thinking it was a normal film.

But most of them couldn’t even eat during the film. The room was dead silent, except for the sound of crying. I didn’t even see anyone leave to use the restroom.

When the film ended, the audience roared with applause.

The film participants came to the front and received a standing ovation.

People were yelling, “The American president needs to see this film!” They crowded around the team, showering them with questions.

But I stayed in the audience; I didn’t go up with them.

Q: As a journalist, you know the power of the media. How successful has RBSS been in fighting the media war against IS? Do you believe that future journalists will continue your mission?

The media is crucial to this fight. From the very beginning, IS waged a media war to recruit new members. The group transformed once it began using the media; it became a lot more powerful than before.

We witnessed this transformation once IS seized Raqqa city. They gained popularity by using social media platforms to spread their propaganda.

This was one of the reasons we started Raqqa is Being Slaughtered Silently (RBSS)—to produce a counter-narrative.

Because of IS’s propaganda, everyone thought that Raqqa was the group’s haven. Before we launched RBSS, when you searched “Raqqa” in Google or Twitter, you would only find pro-IS materials.

Now, it’s the complete opposite. All the material you find online is against IS, and most of it comes from our campaign.

IS is losing the media war against us. This is why the group responded so strongly to the campaign—it knows that media is stronger than the sword.

As a campaign, we try to focus on different issues and attract the biggest following possible. For example, we post Arabic news on Facebook because that’s what most Raqqa residents, and Arabs in general, use. We tweet our English news because most of our international audience, like journalists, have Twitter accounts. In this way, we’re able to reach people through the platforms they are using.

We also started using Telegram, a secure instant messaging application.

But we’re not just fighting IS in this war—we’re fighting extremism. IS may fall one day, only for a new group to take its place.

I think that, even if the RBSS campaign ended, other awareness campaigns will spring up. People will keep denouncing IS and other extremist groups.

Q: You still don’t want to reveal your true identity or current location. Do you feel like you’re still in danger, even in Europe?

Truthfully, my team members and I always feel threatened. I’m not revealing my true identity for several reasons. I’m watching out for my family. IS killed many of my colleagues’ relatives, even though they did not personally participate in the campaign.

Another reason I’m laying low is because I’ve found that sometimes, the battle turns in your favor if your enemy doesn’t know your true identity. It’s better if your enemy doesn’t know who you are, your weaknesses or the people you love whom you’d do anything for.

I’m keeping my identity a secret until this war ends.

Q: If you feel afraid even in Europe, how did you feel as a journalist inside Raqqa?

Fear never leaves me. When the campaign began, people were very worried about IS. But we didn’t think that IS would have such a strong and violent response to the campaign. They tried to hunt down members of our team and discover who we are, who our families are. That terrified us. We were always afraid that if IS didn’t catch us, they’d catch a family member.

This happened to our friend Hamoud, who was featured in City of Ghosts. When he left Raqqa, he thought that he was safe. But then IS detained his father and brother and threatened to kill them if Hamoud didn’t stop the campaign and inform IS about who the team members are.

Hamoud refused, so they sent him a message on WhatsApp threatening to kill his father. Sure enough, a few days later IS issued a statement saying that they had killed Hamoud’s father. We found out later on that the group had also killed his brother.

Q: Now that you’re out of Raqqa, do you have a plan for what you’re going to do in the future?

I’m no different from anyone else in the world—I want to complete my studies and build a future for myself. I’m a human being and I have the right to live a normal life, which I haven’t had for years.

I hope to graduate from college. I want to build a family. I want to see my own family before I die.

Q: How do you spend your time now that you’re in Europe? How is life different from Raqqa?

My life is pretty much the same as it was inside Raqqa—I’m in front of the computer 24/7, reading the news and working on the campaign.

Yes, there are differences between where I am in western Europe and Raqqa, but, except for attending classes, my schedule is pretty much the same. In fact, studying at the university has been the biggest change.

I’m a huge introvert. I don’t talk much and I don’t have many friends. I feel more at ease when I’m on the computer. When I was in Raqqa, I only left the house to run errands for my family or to walk around the city to see what was happening. I tried my best to avoid IS members. I also avoided leaving the house for long periods of times.

Q: You used to dream of becoming a doctor. Do you still desire to do so?

I studied medicine for four years, but I left school when I was 25. It would have been hard to pick up medicine, so I decided to study computer engineering instead.

I never used to be afraid of blood. But now I am. I can’t stand to look at anything with blood or knives. I can’t even look at a needle.

But I’ve loved computers ever since I was little. And my current life revolves around them.

Q: Do you miss home?

I always long for Raqqa and my family, without a doubt. It’s hard when you realize that you can’t do the most basic things. I miss my house and neighborhood the most. And some mornings I wake up and the only thing I want is to have breakfast with my family.

I’ve talked with many people about this, and they told me that I’ll feel this way for a few years, then things will get better.

Q: Which is stronger, your desire to go home or your desire for security?

As much as I miss home, I’m just as afraid to return. I think that going home is almost impossible. I keep getting this feeling that I won’t ever see Raqqa again.

In addition to IS, the campaign has other enemies like the People’s Protection Units (YPG), the regime and al-Qaeda. This scares me.

Also, a few residents of Raqqa are against us. They say that we’re the reason that the coalition has started bombing us. Although they’re just a minority, I’m not certain if there’s a place for the campaign in Raqqa or not.

Q: How long do you think IS will stay in Raqqa? Do you ever think about what may happen after IS is expelled from the city?

I don’t think IS will stay in Raqqa much longer.

To be honest, I’m worried about Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) forces entering the city because, in my mind, they’re no different from IS. They’re also displacing people and distinguishing between Kurds, Arabs and others. Until now, there are many people in the north countryside who have been displaced and prohibited from returning to their actual villages.

Raqqa is grieving; she is suffering from tyrant after tyrant. We’ll see what happens, but I hope that injustice departs this forgotten city.

Q: If you could tell the world about Raqqa, what would you say?

Raqqa is a city of peace and not the capital of terror. 

Ghardinia Ashour

Ghardinia Ashour is from Moadamiyat a-Sham neighborhood in Outer Damascus. She graduated from Damascus University with a degree in translation. Ghardinia moved from Syria to Lebanon in 2012 and then to Jordan in 2013. She worked as an English teacher in Moadamiyat a-Sham before leaving Syria.

Jessica Page, Reporter/Translator

Jessica was a 2013-2014 Georgetown University Qatar Scholarship Program fellow in Doha, Qatar. She received her BA in both Arabic and International & Area Studies from Washington University in St. Louis. She has worked and studied in Jordan, Oman, and Qatar.

Kristen Demilio

Kristen Gillespie Demilio has more than 10 years of experience reporting from the Middle East while based in Amman. She regularly contributed to news outlets including CBS News Radio, NPR, The Jerusalem Report and PBS and is a graduate of Columbia University's Graduate School of Journalism as well as the Institut Français des Etudes Arabes in Damascus.