How Islamic State uses killings to try to spread fear among media

The militant group Islamic State may be trying to push Syria back into the dark ages, but it is fighting a very modern war. From slick propaganda videos to online surveillance and wide restrictions on Internet use, the Islamic State is trying to control media output and stamp down on dissent.

A video emerged last week from its stronghold in Raqqa, northeast Syria, showing two men confessing to working for Raqqa is Being Slaughtered Silently (RBSS), one of the few remaining independent news sources in the province.

In what appears to be a forced confession, the victims identify themselves as Faisal Hussain al-Habib and Bashir Abduladhim al-Saado. Al-Habib tells the interrogators that a founding member of RBSS gave him cameras concealed in watches and glasses to take images of Islamic State bases, as well as daily life in parts of Syria under the militants’ rule. Al-Habib claims that Hamoud al-Mousa, a founder of RBSS, paid $400 a month for photos, which would be encrypted and passed over the border to a RBSS member in Turkey, who shared them on social media.

The video ends brutally: the men are strung up on trees and shot.

Since it was established in April 2014, RBSS has been a thorn in the side of the Islamic State. The outlet’s first-hand stories and images have provided one of the only alternative narratives to the militant group’s vision of its “state,” shining a light on to the public lashings, beheadings, and draconian social rules. Without its coverage, these crimes would go unreported in a country that, CPJ research shows, has become one of the most dangerous places to be a journalist. Since 2011, at least 83 journalists have been killed in direct relation to their work, making Syria the most deadly country for journalists for three consecutive years. CPJ has also helped more journalists fleeing into exile from Syria in the past five years than from any other country.

RBSS has broken a number of stories, helping establish its credibility among Syria watchers globally. These include revealing a failed U.S. mission in 2014 to rescue international aid workers and journalists, including James Foley and Steven Sotloff. The group also documented the death of civilians by coalition airstrikes and bombing raids carried out by the regime.

In an indication of the value Islamic State puts on RBSS hostages, great effort has clearly been taken to produce last week’s video. It overlays the victims’ interrogation with reconstructions of their apparent crimes. These techniques have previously been used for high-profile hostages, such as the videos showing the murders of Foley, Sotloff, and Japanese reporter Kenji Goto, who were all beheaded by the militants, and Moaz al-Kasasbeh, the Jordanian fighter pilot who was burned alive.

Although the video of the murders fits within an established Islamic State narrative (the now infamous orange jumpsuits a particularly haunting image), many aspects of the victims’ story are unknown. The footage, which has since been removed from YouTube, has not yet been independently verified by international observers and RBSS denied that al-Saado and al-Habib worked for the group. Speaking to CPJ from outside Syria, Abu Mohammed, one of the founders of RBSS, said: “We never worked with them… None of us recognize their faces.”

Although it is not possible to verify who the victims were, in the past RBSS has been open about the murder of its members, as CPJ documented in May 2014, when one the group’s founders was killed after being caught carrying materials for the group. At the end of the video released this week a third man, who Abu Mohammed told CPJ is al-Mousa’s father, appears fleetingly before the video fades to black. He is wearing the same orange jumpsuit.

Whether the two men were part of RBSS or not, it is clear that the video forms part of a sustained campaign to intimidate the group.

“ISIS has been putting a lot of pressure on us to stop [reporting]… especially with the kidnap of Mousa’s father,” who had been missing for two and a half months, Abu Mohammed said. “The threats come in different forms but they happen most days.” He told CPJ that members outside of Syria, including himself, often receive phone calls and emails warning that if they don’t stop publishing, they will be killed. Their Twitter and personal email accounts have been hacked. But the journalists inside Raqqa face the greatest risk. “Cameras have been placed to monitor anyone suspected of working for us. If a suspect is caught in the street, they will be killed in front of everyone,” Abu Mohammed said, referring to threats the group has received.

It is not just the threat of violence that media activists must contend with. More subtle means have also been used to discredit them. “Recently, imams in mosques [in Raqqa] have started using Friday prayers to spread false information about us, saying we are infidels or Western agents,” said Khaled, who works for another media activist group called Eye on the Homeland. Khaled, who asked that we not use his full name to protect his identity, said his group, which has a few activists in Raqqa but is not established like RBSS, will not stop reporting because of the allegations but “they do make it harder for people to trust us.”

“They want to weaken us,” Khaled said. “Even if they can’t kill us, they can try and keep us silent.”

[Reporting from Beirut]