BEIRUT – Shortly after the revolt against President Bashar Assad erupted in March 2011, Imad al-Souri quit his computer job to help the protests. He uploaded online videos of the marches and sneaked banned loudspeakers to demonstrators to amplify their voices calling for Assad’s downfall.
The 28-year-old al-Souri recently fled to Turkey, fearing he would be killed or abducted by Islamic militants who are now the most powerful force in the rebellion and who are increasingly targeting those seen as opposed to their extremist ideologies. It’s not an idle fear — dozens of activists have been abducted by radicals and, like, al-Souri, dozens of those who shaped the initial uprising against Assad have fled.
“They want to liquidate me because I am a secular person,” said al-Souri, speaking via Skype from his apartment on the Turkish-Syrian border, which he shares with two other activists who also fled. “They are waiting for me to return to kill me.” He spoke on condition he be identified by the nickname he uses as an activist for his own protection.
It’s a depressing turn for anti-government activists. At the start of the uprising, they worked in secrecy because of Assad’s ruthless security services. Now they fear some of their once-presumed protectors: rebels who took up arms initially to defend protesters from the violent crackdown by Assad’s forces.
The trend was highlighted by two reports issued Thursday.
The rights group Amnesty International said in a report that one of the most powerful militant groups, the al-Qaida-linked Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), is running secret prisons in territory it controls, carrying out torture and summary killings.
Children as young as eight are held along with adults in seven ISIL-run detention facilities in Aleppo province in the north and Raqqa province in the east, it said. Many detainees are held for challenging ISIL’s rule, crimes like theft or for committing purported “crimes against Islam,” such as smoking cigarettes.
Also, a United Nations panel investigating human rights violations in Syria reported increasing hostage-taking operations by rebel groups, specifying ISIL – an act it described as a war crime.
The panel also accused the Syrian government of possibly committing crimes against humanity – a more serious offense – for systematic disappearances of Syrians who are detained by government forces or pro-government militias and never heard from again.
Hardline Islamic rebels are casting a dark shadow over parts of the country where they have wrested power. Abductions of moderate religious figures, humanitarian workers, human rights defenders, journalists and activists have increased since the spring, according to more than dozen activists and officials from human rights organizations interviewed by The Associated Press.
According to the Paris-based Reporters Without Borders, some 60 opposition activists have been abducted since spring, most from ISIL-dominated areas in the north, and 22 are still being held.
Bassam al-Ahmad of the Violations Documentation Center, a Syrian group that tracks human rights violations, estimated around 40 activists kidnapped, including his own colleagues. Another collective, the Aleppo Media Center estimated that in just November, at least 150 activists fled the country, three were killed and ten were abducted. The group did not have detailed figures for other months.
The numbers vary for several reasons. It’s difficult to define who is a Syrian activist. Some activists are quickly released, making it difficult to keep track of the fluctuating numbers.
Most recently, Razan Zaytouni, Syria’s leading human rights lawyer and an icon of the country’s secular revolutionaries, was abducted along with her husband and two other prominent activists from a rebel held Damascus suburb. Nobody claimed responsibility for the Dec. 10 abduction, but it came after Zaytouni denounced ISIL for abductions in a recent article.
The abductions and the flight they have sparked are deeply hurting the ranks of media activists who emerged at the start of the uprising and have risked their lives to chronicle all aspects of the war. Their video footage uploaded to the Internet has been crucial in understanding the scale of the conflict, which has killed over 120,000 and driven more than 7 million from their homes since it began.
Many of them have now become openly critical of jihadi extremists, documenting their abuses – and turning themselves into targets.
In rebel-held areas, hardline rebels frequently storm activist media centers, smashing and confiscating equipment, and in some cases, beating or abducting workers. Activists now fear even carrying cameras. Others have gone underground, taking on new fake names. Others refrain from reporting information that could anger the fighters.
That means even less information is emerging from Syria, already the world’s most dangerous country for journalists, with some 30 foreign and Syrian journalists missing and 55 killed in the conflict.
“It’s more and more difficult to know what’s going on in the north, and that’s what [ISIL] wants,” said Soazig Dollet, of Reporters Without Borders.
Al-Souri was targeted after he joined a demonstration in Aleppo against a jihadi religious court. After a series of phone calls warning he would be killed, he was ordered by a mystery caller to leave Aleppo in 24 hours. Al-Souri said he promptly fled on Oct. 28.
“The regime is shelling every day, and people are dying – but nobody knows of them, because activists fled,” al-Souri said.
Amid growing infighting in rebel ranks, ISIL has also gone after activists affiliated with more moderate rebel factions to silence them.
Among those is Murad al-Shawagh, who worked as a spokesman for the Northern Storm Brigade that was crushed by ISIL in the northern town of Azaz. He fled Aleppo in October Syria after his close friend and activist Omar Diab Hajouli – better known as Hazem al-Azazi – was shot dead after being detained twice by ISIL.
“If I decide to return to Syria I will have to change my looks, my name, my accent and the way I dress,” al-Shawagh told AP from Turkey.
The missing include Abdul-Wahab Mullah, a prominent activist seized from his home by gunmen on Nov. 7 after he met with colleagues to discuss the growing menace of rebel violence.
A week later, gunmen stormed the office of Rifat al-Rifai, who works for the Zaman al-Wasl news website and has been critical of Islamic militants. Al-Rifai fled to Turkey, fearing for his life.
Aleppo-based activist Mohammad Saeed was gunned down outside his home on Oct. 29. Saeed was an important source of information for international media, including the AP and was critical of Islamic extremists.
Activists said the spate of kidnappings in Aleppo and Raqqa coincided with ISIL’s muscling into those areas, and that released activists identified their captors as ISIL gunmen.
For those who remain in Syria, it’s a life of fear, said Fadi, an activist in Aleppo province. He spoke quietly about ISIL abuses from inside a hospital, asking he be identified only by his first name for fear of retaliation.
“If somebody hears me, if I speak – with ISIL, it’s an execution,” he said.
“We want to go back to the time when we were in a revolution [against Assad],” he said.