Islamic State fighters in the northeastern provincial capital of A-Raqqa, hounded by international coalition and regime airstrikes, are using civilian detainees to dig underground tunnels outside the city as cover in the sandy, desert region, according to a recent report by the media campaign Raqqa is Being Slaughtered Silently.
“Digging under gunpoint,” civilian detainees labor to construct systems of tunnels and rooms to house IS fighters, Taym Ramadan, a member of RBSS, tells Noura Hourani.
Q: Where has IS chosen to dig, and how is it done?
IS chooses areas relatively far from any civilian presence to avoid repeating disputes between foreign and Syrian fighters. This is what happened before when foreigners requested headquarters in residential neighborhoods to use the civilians as human shields.
They chose Tabqa and some areas in the eastern A-Raqqa countryside as dig sites.
Heavy machinery is used above ground and handheld tools underground, so they use both detainees and other civilians to dig by hand.
Q: What is the point of the tunnels?
The goal of these tunnels is not secrecy so much as protection of IS supporters from raids.
Q: Can these tunnels really protect IS fighters from air raids? Is anyone living in them or are the tunnels only for times of air raids?
The tunnels can protect them to a certain degree. They are 10 meters underground.
They have been completely furnished like houses, with furniture and water. The tunnels are not permanent residences for fighters but rather an alternate solution in case of emergency.
Q: Where do IS members stay when they leave the tunnels? Can they be used for weapons storage?
They go to A-Raqqa city, but the city’s situation is different. IS has some bomb shelters and basements but has not been able to dig tunnels within the city limits yet.
The importance to the Islamic State of protecting weapons is comparable with protecting its members, but it doesn’t use these tunnels for weapons storage.
Fighters have their tunnels, and the weapons have their own.