BEIRUT: Al Qaeda is targeting citizen journalists in Syria’s Raqa with a wave of kidnappings, beatings and assassinations aimed at silencing them, in what activists call a reign of terror.
“Is your head still attached to your body? I swear to God your head will be cut off, and that we’ll give you a visa to hell,” read the threat sent last week to photographer Abd Hakawati.
It came from the al Qaeda-affiliated Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL).
Originally from the central province of Hama, Hakawati had worked on and off in the northern city of Raqa in recent months.
The regime has detained him twice and he has been wounded three times since the uprising against President Bashar al-Assad began in March 2011.
“But I had never thought of leaving Syria until now, nor did I ever feel any fear,” Hakawati told AFP over the Internet.
“Just thinking of these mercenary killers hidden behind beards and masks makes my heart shiver with fear, and makes me want to kill myself.”
Hakawati is friends with citizen journalist Mohammad Nour Matar, a Raqa native kidnapped by ISIL in August.
Matar’s brother Mezar, himself a photographer, spoke to AFP from neighbouring Turkey, where dozens of Raqa activists have fled ISIL in recent weeks.
“It’s become hard to work in Raqa because of the kidnappings, beatings, detentions and attacks against media activists,” said Mezar Matar.
ISIL, he said, “sees all media activists as collaborators with the West.”
Though no side in Syria’s brutal war is innocent of abuses, ISIL has been accused of a systematic campaign in areas under its control to stamp out any group that could challenge its authority.
Sema Nassar, a prominent human rights defender, told AFP “there are no media activists left in Raqa. They’ve all left because they’re being targeted.”
Syria’s revolt, which broke out in March 2011, brought with it a generation of activists who documented the uprising.
In Raqa, which became the first provincial capital controlled by the opposition when it fell in March, they worked freely for a few weeks, without fear of retribution.
But within months ISIL became the most organised, feared group in the city, and started kidnapping and torturing dozens of young Syrians.
Its actions have bolstered the regime’s claim that all its opponents are “terrorists”.
Asked why the army has not tried to retake Raqa, a general in Damascus told AFP: “We want to make an example out of Raqa. We want the people to see what happens when the rebels take over.”
Threats posed by ISIL extend beyond Raqa to all rebel-held areas where it operates.
In a new report, media watchdog Reporters Without Borders said ISIL “has been responsible for most of the mistreatment of civilians, including news providers” in opposition areas, including Raqa, Idlib and Aleppo.
Syria’s war has killed more than 110 news providers, including 25 professional journalists, and more than 60 are now held by militants or in Assad’s jails, the watchdog added.
“From a rights perspective, it’s a disaster,” said Nassar, who works for the Syrian Network for Human Rights.
“Just like the regime, ISIL is targeting citizen journalists because it doesn’t want anyone to document and expose their violations,” she said. “No one can hold them accountable.”
On Monday, a key activist group in Raqa said it was shutting down after ISIL kidnapped and lashed citizen journalist Abdul Ilah al-Hussein.
“To our people in Raqa, forgive us… We would have wished that our closing statement were bringing you news that the oppressor Bashar al-Assad has fallen, but the circumstances were stronger than us,” said the Revolutionary Media Centre.
Elsewhere, too, news providers are being targeted, with activists accusing ISIL of killing Al-Arabiya reporter Mohammad al-Said last week in the Aleppo village of Hreitan.
But against all odds, a few have chosen to stay in Raqa.
Speaking to AFP on condition of anonymity, a young journalist said: “I will try my best.”
“I want to try to report on what is happening on the ground, in a professional way… Even though I am very afraid, especially of kidnapping,” he said over the Internet.
Rights groups have struggled to secure information on ISIL’s kidnap victims, many of whom have disappeared without a trace.
“Assassination would be a far easier fate than kidnapping.”