Citizen Journalists Wage Online War Against ISIS

City of Ghosts is a new documentary that follows an underground group of citizen journalists from IS occupied Raqqa, Syria, risking their lives and using social media to expose the atrocities of the militants against civilians.

The goal of the group, called Raqqa is Being Slaughtered Silently, is to broadcast information online about IS atrocities in Raqqa, Syria. 

Last year, the Committee to Protect Journalists awarded the group its International Press Freedom Award. In an interview with Voice of America, Abdul Aziz al-Hamza said that Raqqa is Being Slaughtered Silently (RBSS), was created to protest the activities of the Assad regime. Later, the group expanded its activities to include IS, when Islamic State turned Raqqa into its makeshift capital.

​Waging war on the internet 

Al-Hamza says his group is waging an online war against IS propaganda. 

“ISIS prevented all media organizations to go over there to cover what’s going on, and we ended up watching propaganda coming from our city. All of us have families, relatives, friends, so we decided that we needed to do something for them. The problem with ISIS is the ideology,” he said.

“Defeating ISIS as a group is not going to solve the problem,” he added. “We are fighting against ISIS ideology because it’s not just in Raqqa, Syria, and Iraq. We’ve seen ISIS in Europe, in the U.S., in Asia, so the main goal is to work against this ideology.” 

Al-Hamza said his organization has drawn the attention of international media and has lifted the veil of isolation for the besieged civilians in Raqqa; it has also roused the wrath of IS.

In his film City of Ghosts, Matthew Heineman, follows the underground group and its activities from safe houses in Turkey and Germany, posting videos, pictures and other news about IS-besieged Raqqa they receive from counterparts in Raqqa. He also looks into their private lives, as husbands, sons and friends, and also as refugees. 

“It became an immigrant story,” Heineman said. “It became a story of rising nationalism in Europe. It became a story of trauma and the cumulative effects of trauma. So, it became much more that I thought it originally would be.” 

Exposing the ‘crumbling’ ISIS regime

AL-Hamza says the goal of RBSS is to expose the crumbling IS regime in Raqqa. 

“Everything is getting expensive in the city,” he said. “People are missing medical equipment, there are only three or four pharmacies working, only one hospital working. There is almost no electricity, the water is coming for three or four hours daily.”

Watch: Citizen Journalists Wage Online War on ISIS

RBSS online resistance has galvanized Raqqa’s civilians, he said.

Many people internationally have the idea that most people living in Raqqa or IS territories support the group. But, for example, in Raqqa less than 1 percent of the people joined IS, which means that most people are against IS, he said.

“Most decided to stay civilians and not join ISIS despite the perks that if you joined ISIS you get salaries in dollars, cars for free, oil for free, they would get women, power, whatever they want,” he said. Today, he added, “there are thousands of people providing us with news, and what is happening in IS occupied territories.”

Al-Hamza was not trained to be a journalist. Before the Syrian revolution, he was studying biochemistry. Others like him were studying to be doctors or lawyers. 

“When the Syrian revolution started, I didn’t think I would end up in this situation or here talking with you,” he said. “But it was that kind of duty that all of us had to do, and we’ve decided that we will not stop. So, we’ve lost family members, friends, relatives doing this work,” he said. 

As for their newfound publicity through Heineman’s documentary City of Ghosts, al-Hamza said “it was important to show our faces, because especially when we started, many people started to say that we are a government group or a government organization, we wanted people to know that we are local. We are from the city.” 

How will end? “Either we will win or they will kill all of us,” he said.