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Raqqa residents fight back against ISIS propaganda

Small but determined groups of Syrian civilians are waging a war of words and images against Islamic State to show civilian life under IS rule. Security experts now say that localized, credible accounts could be key to deterring IS recruitment. 

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    Syrians inspect a building damaged by airstrikes in Raqqa, the capital of the Islamic State's self-declared caliphate. The image, which bears an Islamic State watermark, was anonymously posted online Dec. 6 by supporters of IS with a caption (in Arabic) which reads, "Russian warplanes target homes of Muslims in Raqqa."
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"They say we torture and kill children," Dutch Islamic State (IS) fighter Israfil Yilmaz captioned a June Tumblr photo, showing a fatigues-clad IS supporter cuddling a kitten. "Lies. The brothers I’ve seen here wouldn’t even hurt a fly for no reason. Soft towards the creation of Allah ... and the Muslims but harsh towards the disbelievers."

Mr. Yilmaz, whose ran a public Q&A about life as an IS fighter until his account was suspended last month, is just a tiny piece of Islamic State's propaganda machine, a remarkably effective online recruitment strategy that Western governments have struggled to combat. 

But even in Raqqa, the capital of the Islamic State's self-declared caliphate where internet access has been strictly curtailed, small groups of citizen journalists like Raqqa is Being Slaughtered Silently (RBSS) are reaching out through encrypted messages to broadcast articles, tweets, and photos of life under IS rule to the rest of the world, risking execution to bring Syrians' suffering and resilience to light and disprove IS's slick self-promotion.

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When the group first formed in 2011, hoping to highlight the Assad regime's abuses, RBSS's members — roughly two dozen men in their twenties — could not foresee how their mission, and challenges, would change. IS has controlled the city for more than a year, and now continued bombings from Syrian government forces, as well as an international coalition and now Russian planes, terrify residents as well.

Although any news from inside the self-declared state is difficult to verify, RBSS now stands as one of only a few independent news sources left in the country where 85 journalists have been killed since 2011, and much reporting is now done indirectly from border zones. 

As RBSS's reputation has grown, so has IS's determination to snuff out their reports. According to the Committee to Protect Journalists, which honored the group with an International Press Freedom Award in November, IS has declared RBSS an "enemy of God." 

The journalists' website and Twitter account, which has nearly 50,000 followers, document daily violence on the street and from the air, as well as Islamic State's failure to provide basic civilian services from healthcare to food.

Around a dozen writers in Raqqa use software to send encrypted updates to partners abroad, who then transmit the articles on social media. But offline methods are also needed to communicate with other Syrians, especially as IS starts to inspect civilians' laptops for signs of dissent. In an interview with Mashable's Megan Specia, group representatives explain that they also "fight the ideology of ISIS" with graffiti and their own magazine, Dabea, designed to resemble IS's own publication, Dabiq. 

Like a few other individuals risking their lives to capture life in IS territory, RBSS has illuminated the everyday dangers for those left in Raqqa, from avoiding the scrutiny of the morality police, who insist on strict dress codes such as full face veils for women, to the pressure for impoverished families to marry their daughters to fighters, hoping for a few months of economic stability. Many brief marriages end in widowhood, at least until another marriage is arranged.

"Killings have become normal. Everyday you leave your house in Raqqa and you see death," a young man told The Christian Science Monitor in September 2014 after fleeing to Turkey. RBSS has documented frequent executions, crucifixions, and stonings, and erratic electricity supplies and rising fuel prices have made life more difficult for those who steer clear of IS punishment. 

"Few people join IS out of religious belief," the young Syrian explained. "Most are in it for power, money, and recognition, or simply to have their backs covered if they have problems in the community. The tragedy is that the youth and children are easily brainwashed, so this will be a long-term problem."

The indoctrination and military training of children is a main theme of RBSS's posts, which detail how "Caliphate Clubs" for youngsters, a radical Wahhabi school curriculum, and child informants are helping IS secure its future. Parents are paid as much as $350 per month to send their children for training, where, without their families' influence, they can prove easier to indoctrinate. 

If Western governments hope to sway potential recruits, local perspectives like those provided by RBSS may be key to dispelling IS propaganda. The Brookings Institution's Javier Lesaca's analysis of IS social media revealed that many videos and recordings owed their success to their pop-culture vibe and references, and being tailor-made for specific countries' audiences. 

"Counter-narrative campaigns against ISIS should be based on true stories of Arabs and Muslims who have experienced firsthand ... the suffering caused by ISIS," he recommends, especially messages with "real action images of counter-terrorism operations" or ones distributed by non-governmental groups. 

As for RBSS, they say they'll continue, no matter what threats appear. 

"I accept this award on behalf of those Syrians who have been silenced and those who are suffering in order to build a free and democratic country. They do not need just an award, but they certainly need your help," the group's representative told his audience at the Committee to Protect Journalists' awards ceremony.

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