MEDIA
09/26/2014 11:37 am ET Updated Sep 26, 2014

Syrian Activists Report From ISIS-Controlled City News Outlets Can't Reach

CNN

NEW YORK -- Abu Ibrahim Raqqawi fled Raqqa, a city in north-central Syria, a few weeks ago, yet he remains a go-to source for news coming out of the de facto capital of the Islamic State.

On Wednesday, he spoke to the BBC about conditions on the ground in Syria following U.S. and coalition forces' strikes against the Islamic State, the militant group also known as ISIS or ISIL. That same day, CNN aired new video footage shot by activists from Abu Ibrahim's anti-Islamic State group, Raqqa is Being Slaughtered Silently.

Since April, members of the collective have taken grave risks in capturing videos and photographs from inside Raqqa and posting them to Twitter, Facebook and YouTube. There are currently a dozen activists in the city who send information to four others outside, including Abu Ibrahim. The four members outside of Raqqa then publish what they receive.

"The photo, you will pay your life for it," Abu Ibrahim, who uses a pseudonym, said in an interview with The Huffington Post on Wednesday. "So if they captured you -- immediate execution for it."

Abu Ibrahim said that a major concern for activists is being spotted by women from the Islamic State's al-Khansa brigades, who, like all women on the street, are forced to wear veils.

"You don't know who are from al-Khansa or not from al-Khansa," he said. For that reason, he added, activists are often hesitant to pull out a cell phone, however briefly.

"We cannot take risks every day taking photos and videos because we'll be captured for that," he said.

In May, Abu Ibrahim's group received some international media attention, with outlets such as CNN and Fox News using its images of horrific public crucifixions in Raqqa. This week, the group published a shaky cell phone video capturing street life in Raqqa in the wake of airstrikes. At first glance, the video, just a minute long, may seem fairly unremarkable. But a glimpse of the Islamic State's flag serves as a reminder of the severe penalties that would await anyone caught filming.

As the group's only English-speaking member, Abu Ibrahim is the one most likely to be corresponding with Western news organizations. He's spoken to numerous U.S. and U.K.-based media outlets, including the Associated Press, Reuters, The Wall Street Journal, NBC News, CNN, BBC, The Guardian, The Daily Telegraph, The Times (of London) and Sky News.

News organizations have turned to activists using social media throughout Syria's three-year civil war. Journalists have often been thwarted from physically bearing witness to the conflict because they could not receive official accreditation from President Bashar al-Assad's government, or because the risks were too great at that moment. The Islamic State's recent beheading of American journalists James Foley and Steven Sotloff drew worldwide attention to dangers that reporters in the region face. More than 70 journalists have been killed while covering the conflict, and more than 80 have been kidnapped.

The New York Times has been reporting from within Raqqa since the Islamic State took control, but has never revealed its reporter or its sources. Vice News is the only Western outlet to report openly in the city, but it has done so only after getting permission from the Islamic State, and never out of sight of its minders.

As U.S. and coalitions forces now target Raqqa and other Islamic State strongholds in Syria, Western media outlets are left largely relying on officials' descriptions of strikes and whatever unclassified videos the government chooses to release. To get any perspective from the ground, journalists must turn to their own Syrian contacts or activists groups like Abu Ibrahim's, or else seek out new footage online, like that of an unidentified woman who has recently been filming life in Raqqa.

This past week, journalists were able to follow the Raqqa is Being Slaughtered Silently Twitter feed for reports of more airstrikes -- at times, before similar reports could be found in the Western media.

Monday night, the group tweeted news of a large explosion and air raid before U.S. media outlets reported -- and the Pentagon confirmed -- that airstrikes had begun. The tweets didn't get significant attention in Western media, perhaps because they were written in Arabic. Abdulkader Hariri, a Raqqa-based Twitter user, broke the news in English and his tweets quickly went viral.

Raqqa is Being Slaughtered Silently, which ordinarily publishes in both Arabic and English, didn't tweet news of the bombings in English that night because Abu Ibrahim was asleep at the time.

The group didn't make a similar mistake on Wednesday afternoon, tweeting breaking news updates in English as well as Arabic.

Soon after these tweets, U.S. media outlets reported news of more strikes, and a spokesman for the Pentagon could be found on CNN discussing them.

For Western media relying on Raqqa is Being Slaughtered Silently, there are going to be concerns over accuracy and motivations, as with any group of unidentified activists operating in a war zone.

Abu Ibrahim said that news outlets concerned about his group's reliability can compare its day-to-day reporting against official statements that come later on.

He said the group is made up of university students who, like himself, backed the Free Syrian Army against Assad's regime. The activists are opposed to the Islamic State, but like others aligned with the rebels, they're somewhat wary of a U.S.-led military campaign that doesn't also target the Assad regime. (Syrian rebels recently expressed frustration with that strategy as well.)

Public opinion in Raqqa is largely divided among two camps, according to Abu Ibrahim. One group, he said, reluctantly supports airstrikes because they want the Islamic State kicked out. At the same time, they fear that "innocent people will die" as a result. The other group is against airstrikes, both out of concern for civilian safety and because they feel the primary enemy is the Syrian government. They're skeptical of any U.S. strategy that doesn't include toppling Assad, a dictator whom President Barack Obama said more than a year ago had to cede power.

People in Raqqa are afraid, said Abu Ibrahim, and most don't have opportunities to go anywhere else.

"'I don't have money. Where will I go, what will I do?'" he said, summing up the position of many in the city. "They're just waiting for their fate."

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