Propaganda and the War Against Independent Media in Syria

By Kyle Orton (@KyleWOrton) on December 29, 2015

In the last month, the Islamic State (IS) has been waging a concerted campaign to shut down all independent sources of information emanating from its statelet. IS’s focus has been on Raqqa is Being Slaughtered Silently (RBSS), an activist group that began in April 2014 in IS’s de facto capital in northern Syria. RBSS has published information—including pictures and videos, much of it via Twitter—on the crimes of the “caliphate”. IS has now murdered at least five RBSS journalists and activists, two of them on foreign soil in Turkey, plus the father of one of RBSS’s founders. (The sixth case, also in Turkey, is more murky.) The suppression of independent media by IS is necessary to allow the group to maintain social control of the areas it rules and to sustain the narrative that it is building utopia on earth, which attracts in the foreign fighters that help IS maintain and expand its territory.

A Concerted Campaign of Terror

The first IS attack on RBSS came in one of the snuff films the terror army have made themselves so well-known for. On July 5, a video was published in which two RBSS journalists, Bashir Abduladhim as-Salem and Faisal Hussain al-Habib, who had—at the incredibly young ages of 20 and 21, respectively—worked to expose the criminality of IS from inside Syria, were shot at point-blank range. The video claimed that as-Salem and al-Habib had been supplied with the means to collect information against IS and had been paid by Hamoud al-Mousa, one of RBSS’s founders. The video finished with a threat to Hamoud’s father, Muhammad al-Mousa, who was already in IS captivity. On August 15, IS released the video of Muhammad’s murder.

Fares Hammadi, left, with Tlas Surur, right, an IS spy and Hammadi's murder

Fares Hammadi, left, with Tlas Surur, right, an IS spy and Hammadi’s murder

IS’s first demonstration that it could terrorize RBSS beyond the borders of the caliphate came on October 30, when RBSS reporters Fares Hammadi and Ibrahim Abd al-Qader were beheaded in their hotel room in Urfa in southern Turkey, and photographs of the gruesome spectacle were disseminated with the gloating tagline, “A selfie before being slaughtered silently”. It transpired that Hammadi and al-Qader had been murdered by somebody they believed to be a friend, Tlas Surur. By claiming to be an IS defector, while in fact being an IS spy, Surur infiltrated Hammadi and al-Qader’s social circle in Turkey and even lived close to them.

Through December 2015, two assassinations have been perpetrated against RBSS, at least one of them by IS.

Ahmad Mohamed al-Mousa, an RBSS journalist, was gunned down on December 16 in Idlib Province in north-west Syria. While there is no immediate claim for al-Mousa’s slaying, it would be astonishing if it were not IS. Though IS was completely cleared from Idlib in March 2014 by the rebellion, the lack of support to the rebels has allowed IS to re-infiltrate the area of late, signified most clearly by a wave of assassinations of rebel commanders in July, including Ahrar a-Sham’s Abu Abdulrahman al-Salqini and the well-known Mazen al-Qassoum of Faylaq a-Sham. In the case of al-Qassoum particularly the killers were alleged to be IS agents within Jund al-Aqsa, which started as an al-Qaeda front group in Syria, but which has recently shown signs of drifting into IS’s orbit in toto. This would be par for IS’s tradecraft. “This is how ISIS took over Syria,” an IS defector recently told The Daily Beast. “It has plants in the villages and areas run by the [other rebel groups, including the Free Syrian Army], and its people are in the FSA.”

Naji al-Jerf

Naji al-Jerf

The second RBSS member to fall in December 2015 was documentary filmmaker Naji al-Jerf, struck down in broad daylight on December 27, with a silenced pistol in Gaziantep, a town not far from the Syrian border inside Turkey. Given the sizeable Turkish security presence in Gaziantep, and the real if much distorted role of Turkey in IS’s rise, this is likely to feed rumours among the understandably-frightened Syrian oppositionists that the Turkish government is complicit with IS. There is no upside for Ankara in al-Jerf’s slaying and the fact that al-Jerf’s assassins so professionally outwitted such a heavy security presence means suspicion falls not only on IS and its formidable espionage capacity. A native of as-Salamiya, the majority-Ismaili town in Hama Province, al-Jerf was one of the peaceful activists who spearheaded the uprising against the Assad regime in 2011, and he remained a determined foe of the Assad tyranny as he moved into the struggle against IS, most recently releasing a documentary, “ISIS in Aleppo,” that laid bare IS’s crimes in Aleppo in 2013 and 2014. The elimination of people who remind the world that Assad has enemies who are not terrorists is the regime’s primary strategic goal. Al-Jerf had been set to move to France next week with his wife and two daughters, likely putting him out of reach of those who were hunting him.

The Regime Led the Way

This wave of attacks by IS against independent press follows a pattern set by the Bashar al-Assad regime. In IS’s quest to extinguish the “grayzone”—that “heretical call to the gates of Hellfire,” as they called it in their February edition of Dabiq—which in Syria means a middle-ground where the choice is not the IS terrorists or the Iranian-run Shi’ite jihadists that now prop up the Assad regime, IS found an active collaborator in the Assad regime. Both Assad and IS wanted to eliminate the nationalist opposition and any media coverage inside Syria that brought attention to the existence of large numbers of moderate rebels that contradicted their massive disinformation campaigns that the only real alternative to the regime is IS.

In February 2012, as part of a long escalation of military tactics that would end in the use of chemical weapons of mass destruction, Assad turned artillery fire on Baba Amro, a rebel-held district of Homs City. International journalists had been all but banned from Syria already, but Marie Colvin, a journalist for The Sunday Times, and her French photo-journalist colleague Remi Ochlik, were smuggled into the city and set up a recognized media station, which even reported live on CNN. The Assad regime shelled it, killing both Colvin and Ochlik. The message was received and the independent press coverage declined accordingly.

Amr al-Absi, a.k.a. Abu Atheer al-Absi (left)

Amr al-Absi, a.k.a. Abu Atheer al-Absi (left)

As the Assad regime lost control of areas around Aleppo in the summer of 2012, one of the groups to fill the void was led by Abu Atheer al-Absi (real name: Amr al-Absi), now a senior IS commander, whose family formed the backbone of a secret “track two” of men and groups organized by Samir al-Khlifawi (Haji Bakr) that were loyal directly to IS’s leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, rather than through Jabhat an-Nusra, which was, ostensibly if covertly, subordinate to al-Baghdadi. This gave IS the footing to establish a presence in Syria after Nusra refused to come to heel and split from IS in 2013. (Interestingly, the Absi family also has connections with the regime’s intelligence services.) One of the noticeable policies of Atheer, who has the distinction of having brought the “caliph” into Syria in March 2013, was to begin systematically kidnapping Western journalists and aid workers who entered northern Syria. The danger of abduction and the videos being produced by IS and its allies helped give the impression that jihadi-Salafists—who were weak at the time—were in the lead of the rebellion, making the international community wary of supporting it.

Many of the leaders of extremist insurgent units had been deliberately released by Assad as willed blowback in the early weeks of the uprising and when IS openly announced its presence and set about State-building in 2013, Assad let them be, while directing his firepower at the moderate rebels.

The Spirit of Lubyanka

An important thread uniting the propaganda output of both the Assad regime and IS is the legacy of the KGB. The Assad regime’s security forces were trained by the KGB and their model for crushing the uprising was taken directly from Moscow’s playbook in Chechnya. To destroy the separatist revolt in Chechnya, Russia allowed the rise of jihadists, including the influx of foreigners, to overpower the nationalist insurgency, and discredit the Chechen cause by associating it, locally and internationally, with fanaticism and terrorism. (Russia has helped Assad pursue this strategy by, at the least allowing if not encouraging, jihadists from the Caucasus to go to Syria.) By facing the population and the international community with the binary choice—dictatorship or the rule of terrorists—Moscow was quite sure they would choose the former. To prevent anyone reporting on this cynical strategy, Russia adopted a simple solution: turn out the lights.

The construction of IS’s caliphate in Syria was led by former military and intelligence officers of the Saddam regime, the most important of whom had been radicalized in the decade-and-a-half before Saddam fell as his regime Islamized. Notably, too, Saddam’s military-intelligence apparatus was trained by the KGB, and IS’s ruling methods betray this heritage. The totalitarian statelet IS runs uses propaganda to draw international sympathy. While most Westerners see only the brutality, most of IS’s propaganda focuses on their construction of utopia, which brings in foreign fighters. RBSS’s work, showing that IS is not running a functioning, just government, and the falsity of the claims of a “five-star jihad,” can help stem the tide of foreigner volunteers to IS, especially from Europe, where the gap between expectation and reality in the caliphate has been at its most acute.

Not unlike the Soviet Union, IS also uses propaganda as a form of social control. Large screens broadcast IS’s message in public places and IS camera crews are so pervasive it distorts the events they purport to document. The reality TV aspect is new, but the all-encompassing propaganda and “the requirements of public dissimulation,” i.e. appearing as if you believe it, is not: such things “are so ubiquitous as to be part of the experience of being Syrian,” writes Lisa Wedeen in her book, Ambiguities of Domination, on the cult of Bashar’s father and predecessor, Hafez.

Having shown the population there were credible threats, Syrian regime propaganda was an “effective mechanism of power because, while economizing on the actual use of force, it also works to generate obedience,” Wedeen writes. The fear of the regime makes people treat it as powerful and thus make it so and the active participation of citizens in enforcing an official rhetoric and order they do not themselves believe in makes the line between ruler and ruled somewhat blurry, Wedeen adds, noting that the passive acceptance—the desire simply to be left alone—is also a major factor in regime longevity. This was the society into which IS launched its project: one primed with the habits of decades of dictatorship of exactly the kind IS had in mind.


Much more useful as a model for IS’s conduct, internally and externally, is twentieth-century totalitarianism, rather than terrorism studies. Sadly, unlike at most times during the Cold War, the caliphate’s dissidents have received very little Western succour. Worse, whatever the short-term failures in helping and protecting those like RBSS working to expose IS’s killers and sadists, the emerging plans to defeat IS long-term are actively counterproductive. To defeat IS requires freeing the rebels from the threat of the Assad regime so they can sustainably root IS out of their areas. Instead, John Kerry has said to Russia, in public, in Moscow, “We see Syria fundamentally very similarly”—Russia’s policy being a staunch defence of the Assad regime. In combination with other public statements, the sense is that through the Vienna peace process the U.S. is pushing the rebels to unite with Assad against IS. Rebel-Assad unity is a non-starter as a policy, but the Western attempt is a perfect ratification of IS’s propaganda that the U.S. has taken Assad’s side, a sure-fire way to ensure IS remains for the foreseeable future.





UPDATE (10 April 2016): In Turkey, Mohammed Zahir al-Sherqat who, worked for Halab Today TV, was shot in the neck at close range in Gaziantep in an attack claimed by the Islamic State.

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