Earlier this week, a video aired on French television showed scenes of daily life in Raqqa, Syria, the de-facto capital of the Islamic State.
Filmed in secret and at a huge risk by a Syrian woman who hid a camera behind her niqab, the footage shows armed men patrolling the city, a woman carrying an AK-47 into a playground, and an internet café where foreign women who traveled to the caliphate phone their relatives back in France, saying they love it there.
The video, like VICE News' The Islamic State before it, once again brought the attention of the world to Raqqa, a city where life under the Islamic State is as inscrutable to outsiders as it is terrifying — a reminder of the caliphate's brutality as much as of its bureaucratic efficiency.
With open dissent all but stifled in the city — and punished with death, when it still happens — a group of young residents has taken the huge personal risk of documenting life under the Islamist fighters' rule — sharing photos, videos, and stories from the city on the web. Even after one of them was caught and executed, the group carried on, speaking with journalists and sharing images from the city.
'We were activists against the Assad regime when we started, but after our city was freed, and ISIS took over our freedom, we just decided to launch this campaign to expose all the crimes that ISIS do.'
"Raqqa is being slaughtered silently" is both the group's name and the reason for its existence — to make sure the world hears and sees what's going on in the city, which now lives between the violence of its conquerors and the air strikes of the US and its allies.
VICE News caught up with 22-year-old Abu Ibrahim Raqqawi, a member of the group who in the last four years went from medical student, to activist against the regime of Bashar al-Assad, to a chronicler of the fate of his city under the Islamic State, which he documented one crucifixion at the time until he was forced to flee just two weeks ago.
With him, VICE News spoke about this latest video filmed by a woman with no connection to his group, life in Raqqa — especially for women, divides between Arab and foreign members of ISIS, and local support and criticism for US air strikes.
VICE NEWS: How do you guys operate?
Abu Ibrahim Raqqawi: Our campaign is called "Raqqa is being slaughtered silently," and it was launched in April, 2014. We wanted this campaign because ISIS commits a lot of crimes in the city, without anyone in the world knowing about it. So we launched this campaign to document all the crimes that ISIS is doing in the city. After we launched the campaign and posted a lot of crucifixions and executions on the news and Facebook and Twitter, they made three Friday sermons about us, saying we are infidels and we're against Allah and " we'll catch them and we'll execute them." We were 17 but unfortunately one of us got captured and executed by ISIS because he was caught with the videos and photos he was taking of executions. So because of that, we decided to use a new strategy to make sure not another one of us is captured. We are 12 inside the city and four outside. Before the 12 inside the city were posting on Twitter and posting on Facebook, and talking to journalists, but it's very dangerous. So we decided to use a "secret room," and the people in the city post all the photos, the news, and everything, and the four that are out, we are posting it on the internet, Twitter, and Facebook, and talking to journalists. We hide behind fake names and we don't trust anyone, so we don't get captured.
'If you are taking photos and one of the women from Al-Khansa is looking at you, they will catch you immediately, and you'll be executed immediately.'
So those of you that are out of Raqqa, where are you?
There are three in Turkey, and I got out of Raqqa about two weeks ago, but I'm not in Turkey and not in Syria. I got out because they want to execute me but my family is still in Raqqa.
Are you all from Raqqa?
All of us are from Raqqa, and we were all in Raqqa our all lives.
Were you guys fighting the regime of Bashar al-Assad before ISIS came in?
We were activists against the Assad regime when we started, but after our city was freed, and ISIS took over our freedom, we just decided to launch this campaign to expose all the crimes that ISIS do, and not just ISIS but all the extremist groups in the city.
A video has recently gone viral of a woman using a camera hidden behind her niqab to film life in Raqqa and especially life for women.
I saw the video. She has a camera, a very expensive camera, and a secret one. The problem that we have with our campaign is that we don't have cameras. We are just using our cell phones and it's very dangerous to take photos inside the city. First, ISIS put cameras all over the city, so they can know who is taking photos and there are a lot of checkpoints. Also, the internet in the city is very, very slow so we use internet cafes and it's very dangerous because all the internet cafes are monitored by ISIS. So we are risking our lives when we are taking photos of executions with our cell phones. The second thing, and it's the most difficult thing for us, is the Al-Khansa brigade. It's a female brigade from ISIS, all of them female. They have weapons, and they control women inside the city, they check if some of them didn't wear the niqab and things like that, they inspect them.
Are these women Syrian or mostly foreigners?
Most of them are foreigners.
All over the world. From the UK, from the US, Dutch, Shishan (Chechen).
Do they all speak Arabic?
Some of them don't and some of them just simple words. The bad thing for us is that when I'm an activist and I want to take a photo in the streets of Raqqa, there are a lot of women with veils, you know? And I don't know who's from Al-Khansa and who isn't. So when I get out my cell phone and I am taking photos of the city I don't know if any of them are looking at me or not, because they have the veil, and I don't know if they are Al Khansa. Because if you are taking photos and one of the women from Al-Khansa is looking at you, they will catch you immediately, and you'll be executed immediately. This is a big problem for us.
What does Al-Khansa mean?
It's just a name, there was a woman in ancient Islam, four of her sons were martyred in battles for Islam, so they call her Al-Khansa, it's the mother of a lot of martyrs.
What are some of the things you documented when you were in Raqqa, showing the life of women there?
We showed two women who were stoned to death.
You know why?
They said for sleeping with other men.
I have seen reports of women brought in from Iraq as slaves, mainly Yezidi girls.
That's not true, it's just propaganda.
Do the women of the Al-Khansa brigades execute people too, or do they just carry weapons, but hand over people to the men of the group?
They just hand them to the men. They lash women, they take them to prison. Things like that, but they don't make executions.
How are Raqqa's women, your sisters, or other relatives, reacting to all this?
Women now cannot say "no." The worst things that happened in Raqqa happened to women. Now the Al-Khansa brigades are even telling women, "you cannot wear colorful shoes, it's haram. Just black shoes." Now a lot of them are trying to find girls to marry ISIS fighters. They are now telling women who want to marry ISIS fighters to wear a white veil under the black veil, so they can recognize them. But no women want that, they don't like ISIS.
'It was a normal city like any other city in the world.'
Are any women being forced to marry ISIS guys?
Not by ISIS, but some of the fathers are forcing their daughters to marry ISIS fighters, because of the money and power they have. In one case, a girl called Fatima, she was 18, when her father forced her to marry an ISIS fighter from Tunisia, she committed suicide. The other girl, I don't remember her name, her father also forced her to marry a Tunisian fighter from ISIS and she ended up in the hospital because of… how can I say it… sexual violence.
You have mentioned Tunisian fighters a lot. Are there many?
You know, fighters from Morocco, Tunisia and so on, they want to marry Syrian girls. But fighters from the UK, US and so on, they prefer to bring their own or just marry another foreigner, from Sweden, and Holland. They keep to themselves. There's like a wall between them and the people of Raqqa because there is no language, the people don't like them, they are taking all the good houses and money from the people, and all of these things.
Who is in charge? Mostly foreigners? Or mostly Iraqis or Syrians?
Most of them are Iraqis and Tunisians. But mostly Iraqis.
How was Raqqa before ISIS, and before the war, especially for women? Were they able to work?
It was a normal city like any other city in the world. There were female doctors, lawyers, teachers. There were a lot of women who weren't even wearing hijabs. It was a mixed city, there were mixed marriages, mixed cafes, mixed restaurants. It was a normal city like any city in the world.
Are women allowed to work at all now?
No, just the teachers, and they are not allowed to teach boys over 6 years.
Are any girls still going to school?
There has been no school or education since ISIS has taken the city. No universities, no school, no nothing at all. They said they want to make new, special books, and special schools, but until now there is nothing at all, and they say that teachers must take special lessons from ISIS to be allowed to teach and those who don't won't be allowed.
This week, the Islamic State publicly executed Samira Salih al-Nuaimi, an Iraqi women's rights activist, in Mosul. Have women's rights advocates in Raqqa faced the same backlash?
Most of the women in Raqqa now are just at home. They do nothing.
Are there any underground organizations, or groups like yours?
There are almost no activists.
Do you think they are looking for the woman that took this video?
I think she's now in Turkey, because her face shows in the video. I think she will not go back to Raqqa.
Are you afraid for your family in Raqqa, because of the work you do?
Sure. A week ago, they went to the home of one member of our group who's in Turkey, searching for him, and they said to his father, "If your boy does not stop talking about us, that will be a big problem for you."
'Why didn't they bomb the Assad regime when we have been begging for their help for four years now, and they didn't do anything?'
How are you protecting your family, are you trying to get them out?
It's a very bad situation for us, we cannot take them out of the city.
Do your families support your decision to do this?
Not just our families, the whole city of Raqqa, because people are just tired of ISIS.
How long do you think this is going to last, or when do you think you'll be able to go back to Raqqa?
I don't know, but when ISIS get out of the city I will immediately go back.
How do people in Raqqa feel about the US air strikes?
I would say the people of Raqqa just split into two parts. The first part say, "I will deal with the devil just to take ISIS out of the city, because we are tired of ISIS. Enough of this, we want you to take them out of the city, we want our freedom, we want our lives back, and our sons back from prison, because there are more than 1,200 people from Raqqa in ISIS prisons." They just want these air strikes to kick ISIS out of the city but they fear these air strikes, because they don't want any of the civilians or the innocent prisoners, and innocent families to die. The second part, including me, are against these strikes, because if the West wanted our freedom, why didn't they bomb the Assad regime after he used chemical weapons, and why didn't they bomb the Assad regime when we have been begging for their help for four years now, and they didn't do anything? They are just now doing this because of ISIS, not for us. So they are against these airstrikes. People just split into two parts, but both parts are fearing that air strikes will kill innocent people.
Are ISIS fighters using Raqqa's civilians as human shields?
Yes. After Obama's speech, when he said he wants to bomb ISIS in Syria, they moved all their families to the suburbs of the city. All their buildings are now empty, and just have two or three guards to secure the buildings, and all the ISIS members are heading to flats they are taking from the people of Raqqa — the civilians, the Christians, those who are escaping from the war. Or if you for instance have three houses, they'll come to you and say, "you don't need three houses, we'll take two and you keep one, to put foreign fighters in it." And you know, people are just scared of them, they cannot say no. They know if they say no it will be a big problem and they may be put in prison because they'll say "you're against the Islamic State." So if for example there's a building with 10 flats, six flats will be for ISIS and four for the people of Raqqa. Each flat between 10 to 15 members. So they are making people into human shields, to hide between them. It's a big problem for the people, they are scared of this.
Is anyone in Raqqa still trying to resist ISIS? Are some people starting to buy into their claims or do they just do it to survive?
Most of the people of Raqqa are against ISIS, maybe 90 percent. The other 10, ISIS gives them money, power, and because of that they want it in the city. After the airstrikes, a few more people said, "I will be with ISIS against these strikes." But most in the city just want them out. They are just tired.
Follow Alice Speri on Twitter: @alicesperi