BEIRUT: The Al-Qaeda linked Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria (ISIS) released the first edition of its weekly newspaper in Syria late last month, defending tactics and promoting military victories amid increasing criticism of its brutal and sectarian practices. The first edition of Sana al-Sham features interviews with ISIS commanders, details of military triumphs, and Quranic verses and religious instruction.
The 12-page newspaper is being distributed at outlets on the ground in northern Syria and coincides with the opening of a Twitter account, @sanaAlShamNews, where images of distribution and young men reading the newspaper were posted.
The editors did not respond to The Daily Star’s requests for comment.
The newspaper’s release comes amid growing concerns about the group’s conduct on the Syrian battlefield.
ISIS, which boasts a large number of foreign jihadists, has been criticized for brutal tactics and harsh punitive measures, including beheadings, doled out at by their own Shariah courts in the northern provinces of Idlib and Aleppo, as well as kidnap and arrest campaigns targeting secular activists, minorities and foreign journalists.
In November the group attracted widespread condemnation after they wrongly cut off and displayed the head of a fellow rebel, Mohammad Fares, who they accused of fighting with an Iraqi Shiite militia for Syrian President Bashar Assad.
ISIS later issued an apology, asking for understanding for the mistake. Fares was a member of the Islamist brigade Ahrar al-Sham, which often fights alongside ISIS militants.
In what appears to be a well-conceived public relations counteroffensive, the November issue of the newspaper features a detailed account outlining how the mistake in beheading Fares occurred.
It describes a “complicated battlefield” in which the two groups, ISIS and Ahrar al-Sham were fighting together.
Fares, it says, called out Shiite slogans, mistakenly believing he had been captured by the enemy after being wounded.
“People from ISIS and others heard his calls ... he said he was a rafidi [a derogatory term for Shiites] ... Upon hearing this, the men killed him, believing he was an infidel.”
“Dear brothers, I would like to remind you that such mistakes often happen in the battlefield and the cradles of jihad,” the article says.
Also distancing itself from other military actors in northern Syria, the paper includes a feature article outlining “crimes” committed by what it describes as a rogue group, the Badr Martyrs Brigade, led by one Khaled Hayyani, accusing its members of vandalizing and stealing property of Aleppo residents, kidnapping for ransom, raping women, accepting bribes and consuming alcohol.
The article says investigations into what they describe as “mercenaries” showed “the crimes committed by the Badr Martyrs Brigade exceeded those committed by the regime.”
Other articles include an interview with high-profile Georgian ISIS commander and military emir Omar al-Shishani, who claims to have come to Syria after being released from Georgian prison, “to carry out jihad in the name of God.”
“However, the first thing I saw [in Syria] were the demonstrations, and people’s slogans were non-Islamic, such as for freedom and democracy,” Shishani tells the ISIS interviewer.
“At the beginning I looked at the situation and saw there was no such idea as establishing an Islamic state. I found that the Muslims were still weak, but I promised God to fight here and if I was killed my martyrdom would be for the sake of God,” he said, adding details about military victories by ISIS in Hama, Aleppo and Idlib.
The newspaper, which features Koranic versus in the main headline, also advises readers not to throw the paper in the trash.
“[This issue] contains verses and sayings of the Prophet Mohammad; do not place in an insulting place,” an advertisement on the back page reads, accompanied with an image of a garbage bin with a red cross struck through it.