THE THREE YEARS that I churned out stories for the online arm of London’s Metro newspaper coincided with the rapid rise of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, the brutal Salafi jihadist offshoot of al-Qaeda that is intent, among other things, on establishing and expanding a caliphate governed by seventh-century law and confronting the ‘armies of Rome’ at Dabiq before the Day of Judgment.
What makes ISIS quite so terrifying is that the human rights abuses they’ve committed on such an appalling scale in the Middle East and North Africa are driven mainly by ideology. In other words these are not your garden-variety psychopaths: the members of ISIS are highly devoted to a Wahhabi doctrine of Sunni Islam followed so closely that every major decision made or law created is faithful to, in the group’s own words, “the Prophetic methodology”. But there’s something else that bears noting. ISIS are media-savvy––far more media-savvy than any terror group that has come before them. They have actively recruited and sought to recruit jihadists with media training, filming expertise or production skill in order to wage (and win) a “media war” against those that would defy them.
And this is where Raqqa Is Being Slaughtered Silently, the journalist-activist group operating out of the proclaimed capital of the Islamic State, comes in. R.B.S.S. is the subject of Cartel Land director Matthew Heineman’s jarring and uplifting documentary City of Ghosts, which had its premiere at the Sundance Film Festival early this year. For me and the other journalists at Western newspapers covering life under Isis in Raqqa, R.B.S.S. was the source of nearly all our information; these impossibly brave and resourceful citizen journalists were the only reason that the wider world knew what was taking place in a small city that until 2014 had been, in the words of the Syrians, ‘the hotel of the revolution’ against the authoritarian regime of Bashar al-Assad. Into the power vacuum that the Syrian Civil War created had stepped the assassins of that revolution. By 13th January, 2014, ISIS had complete control of the city, and set about executing Alawites and supporters of Assad, and destroying the city’s Shia mosques and Christian churches.
These journalists strike you as ordinary souls forced to become something else entirely by appalling circumstance. Aziz, the spokesman of the group, was a university student studying biology; Mohamad was a maths teacher.
It’s at this point in recent history that the main thread of City of Ghosts begins. The film, which has as its introduction the giving of the International Press Freedom award to R.B.S.S., traces two stories: the rise of ISIS in the city that was the seat of the Muslim Empire under caliph Harun al-Rashid, and the development of the network of journalists and activists committed to recording and exposing the group’s crimes.
We’re introduced to three activists––Aziz, Hamoud and Mohamad––who have fled the city and work mainly on the Turkish border to distribute the images and information collected by their anonymous counterparts in Raqqa itself. These journalists strike you as ordinary souls forced to become something else entirely by appalling circumstance. Aziz, the spokesman of the group, was a university student studying biology; Mohamad was a maths teacher. You get the impression from these men that R.B.S.S. developed organically, out of necessity and an instinctive collective understanding that what was happening in Raqqa could not go un- or under-told. It is the intention of Heineman himself, who showed in Cartel Land his tendency to favour the emotive over the intellectual, to paint this picture, so to speak. He explores his characters in such detail as to make you concerned for their survival, and in this so you have the opportunity to understand a little something of the worry and the pain the members of R.B.S.S. feel when they lose someone, as they often do.
Despite the daily headlines and reports of the horrors taking place in Raqqa and elsewhere in the Islamic State, we seem collectively to be losing interest. What we’re lacking is not an intellectual understanding but a deeper emotional connection with those being crucified or burned alive or stoned to death by ISIS or drowning in the Mediterranean in their efforts to flee
More than one reviewer has criticised Heineman for his perceived reliance on “visual shocks” and the absence of ‘in-depth analysis’ in City of Ghosts, but it seems to me that the latter is something we have seen and read enough. Despite the daily headlines and reports of the horrors taking place in Raqqa and elsewhere in the Islamic State, we seem collectively to be losing interest. What we’re lacking is not an intellectual understanding but a deeper emotional connection with those being crucified or burned alive or stoned to death by ISIS or drowning in the Mediterranean in their efforts to flee; Heineman understands perfectly our ‘capacity for empathy’, as Manohla Dargis puts it, and perhaps appreciates equally that for some, the savagery of it all needs to be depicted in full in order to force action, whether it is compassion or anger that motivates that action.
It’s to the credit of Heineman that he doesn’t add much to the film in terms of raw content. To put it another way, his aim is to hold R.B.S.S. up for the world to see and to appreciate, and in doing so, also to shine a light on Raqqa, its beleaguered civilian populace and the throat-cutters and rapists who hold it hostage. Heineman collects and repurposes the footage available to him extraordinarily well in order to tell the story while allowing time to humanise its main characters and permit them to share their wisdom: ‘when one group falls, another will rise upon its place.’
Yesterday three men inspired by ISIS were charged with plotting attacks on landmarks in New York City. The war against the “armies of Rome”, as the terrorists perceive it to be, has well and truly moved beyond the boundaries of North Africa and the Middle East. It’s in part thanks to the work of people like Aziz, Hamoud and Mohamad, operating out of a city that has religious and cultural significance to those that would do us harm, that we are prepared for them. But more importantly, I think, City of Ghosts forces on us a sense of empathy for our fellow man diluted or eroded by distance and perceived difference.