BEIRUT: Concern over the fate of hundreds who have gone missing in a city run by the Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria (ISIS) has fueled a backlash against the jihadist group.
Mothers of the detainees gather every day outside ISIS bases in the city of Raqqa, where the extremist group is in full control and governs through a harsh interpretation of Islamic Shariah law, according to residents and activists.
“They cry, begging for information and for their sons’ release,” said Amer Matar, whose citizen journalist brother Mohammad Nour has been detained by ISIS for nine months. “My mother suffers every day, because she is not given any information about her youngest child,” added Matar, a filmmaker from Raqqa who became a refugee in Germany because of his own activism against President Bashar Assad.
The kidnappings and other abuses led activists to mobilize a new campaign against ISIS last week that has gathered support on social media networks and seen protests held across opposition-run areas.
Rooted in Al-Qaeda in Iraq, ISIS first emerged in Syria’s war in spring last year, and was initially seen as an ally by rebel fighters seeking to overthrow Assad.
But ISIS’ quest for hegemony and systematic abuses – including the kidnapping of hundreds of rebels, activists and even ordinary citizens accused of “crimes” like heresy and smoking cigarettes – eventually turned the opposition against the extremist group.
ISIS has in recent months been expelled by rival rebels from many opposition areas, but the northeastern city of Raqqa on the Euphrates river remains under its control.
Sema Nassar, a prominent human rights activist, says ISIS is believed to be holding “over 1,000 Syrians in Raqqa province, though it is impossible to know the exact number.”
She also said those suspected of opposing ISIS or violating its puritanical social code vanish, all too often without a trace, while others have been publicly executed.
The province is home to an unknown number of detention facilities, including secret prisons where torture is especially severe, says Nassar, who works with the Syrian Network for Human Rights.
Activists describe a climate of fear not unlike that under the Assad regime, and many have fled to nearby Turkey, fearing arrest or worse.
“ISIS sees activists as a challenge to their power, who must be eliminated,” Nassar said.
Despite the dangers, a group of dissidents using secret identities last week launched a campaign calling on ISIS to leave Raqqa under the name ‘Raqqa is Being Slaughtered Silently.’
Protesters across opposition areas last Friday adopted the slogan: “Cleansing Raqqa of (ISIS chief Abu Bakr) al-Baghdadi’s Gang,” and on Facebook and Twitter activists share photos of the group’s abuses.
One shows a field execution of several men, who kneel blindfolded in a public square, while another shows a man who has already been executed, tied to a makeshift cross in front of wide-eyed children.
Other groups report incidents including a woman given 40 lashes for failing to veil her face.
“It’s extremely dangerous to oppose ISIS ... but we need to break the wall of fear,” said Abu Ibrahim, a campaign organizer.
“We must make sacrifices, or else they will rule us for good, and that’s just unacceptable,” he told AFP via the Internet from Raqqa city.
The campaign has already raised ISIS’ ire, prompting the arrest of some 70 people in Raqqa in the past week alone, Nassar said.
“They’ve arrested anyone they’ve caught even opening Facebook for entertainment, people who aren’t political at all. They’ve imposed some crazy version of emergency law on Raqqa,” she told AFP.
The opposition has frequently accused ISIS of colluding with the Assad regime, which since the start of the 2011 uprising has accused the entire opposition of being “terrorists” backed by foreign powers.
An army source told AFP the army is not interested in attacking ISIS because the government wants to make an example out of Raqqa.
“We want the people to see what happens when the rebels take over,” the source said.
While abuses are committed by all parties in Syria’s war, activists say ISIS stands out for its brutality.
Human Rights Watch researcher Lama Fakih said her group is advocating measures to block financial support to ISIS, and to ensure the situation in Syria as a whole is referred to the International Criminal Court.
“Such a referral would enable some victims to achieve justice, and also act as a deterrent for the future,” Fakih said.
But relatives of the kidnapped are not hopeful.
“We are ready to do whatever it takes to secure Mohammad Nour’s release, but ISIS haven’t even admitted they have him,” Matar said.
“We feel paralyzed. We Syrians are like citizens of nowhere, and can go to no one – no state or power – to ask for support.”