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Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 11 December 2018

Spate of mystery killings add to insecurity for Raqqa residents still living in fear

Crime is rampant in the former ISIS stronghold but the identity of criminals remains unclear, reports Sunniva Rose in Beirut and Wilson Fache in Raqqa

A Syrian Democratic Forces fighter looks through a window inside a destroyed apartment on the front line against ISIS in Raqqa. AP
A Syrian Democratic Forces fighter looks through a window inside a destroyed apartment on the front line against ISIS in Raqqa. AP

Locals say they’re too afraid to leave their houses when darkness falls. A year after ISIS was driven out of its self-declared Syrian capital of Raqqa, killing, car-bombs and robberies are common, but there’s also been a spate of mysterious murders.

“Every few days the dead body of a member of the Syrian Democratic Forces [SDF] is discovered. No-one knows who did it”, Abou Fares, a member of Raqqa municipality linked to the Raqqa Civil Council, told The National.

The US-backed Kurdish-led SFD captured Raqqa from ISIS in October 2017 and have been in control ever since. Much of the city stands in ruins and civil defence units are still extracting bodies from ruins and mass graves and life isn’t easy for those who stayed or have since returned.

Two firemen in the bombed buildings of Raqqa. David Pratt for The National
Two firemen in the bombed buildings of Raqqa. David Pratt for The National

Although SDF forces have checkpoints all across Mosul, convoys of soldiers drive the streets non-stop and helicopters fly overhead, no-one was forthcoming with information about who was behind the nighttime killings.

“We often hear heavy shooting at night for long stretches of time”, says Abou Fares. “No-one knows what’s going on”.

People don’t walk alone in the street and fear venturing out of their houses at night, says a Raqqa based activist. Even in the daytime, security isn’t much better.

“Direct assassinations, detonating IEDs or attacks under the cover of darkness [continue],” the UK based monitoring group Syrian Observatory for Human Rights (SOHR) explains. Some of these, they add, can be tied to the remnants of ISIS.

On Wednesday, two members of the Kurdish internal security forces were killed and a civilian injured when a car exploded near a school in the city. An official statement from the local forces said the car was loaded with dismantled mines but it gave no reason why the vehicle blew up. An employee of Raqqa’s civil council told The National that it was caused by a bomb placed in a nearby rubbish bin. A security source with Kurdish security forces said it was merely an accident.

A few days earlier, a motorbike exploded near an SDF checkpoint but no-one was injured.

While the finger is pointed at ISIS cells still operating in the city, no one is sure.

“Some say it’s locals. Some say it’s ISIS. Some say it’s the SDF fighting between themselves. There’s a lot of rumours”, says another Raqqa inhabitant. The SDF has imposed a curfew on motorbikes at night.

In this Thursday, April 5, 2018 photo, a family rides a motorcycle on a street that was damaged during fighting between U.S.-backed Syrian Democratic Forces fighters and Islamic State militants, in Raqqa, Syria. Six months after IS was driven out, residents of Raqqa feel they have been abandoned as the world moves on. They are trying to rebuild but fear everyone around them: the Kurdish-led militia that administers the majority Arab city; Syrian government forces nearby; gangs who kidnap or rob whoever shows signs of having money; and IS militants who may still be hiding among the people. (AP Photo/Hussein Malla)
A family rides a motorcycle on a street that was damaged during fighting between U.S.-backed Syrian Democratic Forces fighters and ISIS militants, in Raqqa, Syria. AP

In late September, security services “accidentally” discovered an ISIS cell. Five militants were killed during the heavy fighting that followed and several arrested, two security sources confirmed.

“ISIS was preparing an important attack. We discovered a booby-trapped car, 600 kilos of explosives and Kalashnikovs”, said Iskandar Mohammed Issa, a spokesperson for the internal security forces, or Assayesh, told The National. As he spoke he showed pictures on his mobile phone of dead bodies and of a fridge filled with explosives. “We arrest [ISIS members] every week with the help of paid informants. All means are good”.

Security forces say they think ISIS is trying to destabilise Raqqa because the SDF is taking part in a massive offensive against the group’s last pocket in Deir Ezzor near the Iraqi border. At least 149 SDF fighters have been killed in the battles since early September, including 10 yesterday, the SOHR reported.

“There has been an increase in the number of ISIS attacks in SDF areas in Raqqa and Deir Ezzor”, Haid Haid, a research fellow at the International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation, King’s College London, told The National.

But the situation in Raqqa is “generally secure” and better than in other Syrian regions, he adds.

But people aren’t convinced that ISIS is behind all the violence.

Fighters of the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) walk down a street in Raqqa after a Kurdish-led force expelled ISIL fighters from the northern Syrian city, formerly their "capital". Bulent Kilic / AFP
Fighters of the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) walk down a street in Raqqa after a Kurdish-led force expelled ISIL fighters from the northern Syrian city, formerly their "capital". Bulent Kilic / AFP

There’s has been graffiti appearing on the walls threatening the local authorities. The security forces say they’re mystified.

“Six months ago, people wrote: “We are here”. Who are they? It’s complicated to know”, Mr Issa said.

More explicit tags like “Assad and no-one else, the Syrian army will prevail”, have also been appearing in reference to Syrian president Bashar Al Assad. It’s not clear if this is people trying to add to the confusion or supporters of the regime.

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Read more:

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Overall, security has improved since last year, officials and activists say. Random killings for money are on the decline and attacks specifically target the SDF, not civilians, says an activist from Raqqa based in Turkey.

But as the insecurity persist and with no confirmed information, conspiracy theories grow.

For Mahmoud Youssef, an administrator with the internal security forces, the regime is mimicking ISIS attacks to destabilise the area. “They are trying to make the people rise up against our authority in order to pave the road for the Syrian regime’s comeback”, he says without detailing any evidence for the claims.

Others, who resent the Kurds’ control of the Arab majority town, are quick to point a finger at the SDF themselves. “Small bomb explosions that do not kill anyone cannot be the work of ISIS, whose members are sophisticated enough to build weapons to kill”, says a local activist, referring to the recent motorbike explosion.

He believes the SDF are manipulating the ISIS threat as an excuse to increase its control of the city through fear and harassment. An SDF spokesperson contacted by The National was not available for comment.

“I think the SDF wants to “make citizens afraid”, says another activist who said he was recently harassed by SDF soldiers in the street. “They wanted to take my motorbike and started to shout. They are not organized and scare people”.

A man walks along a street in the devastated Syrian city of Raqqa on January 9, 2018. AFP
A man walks along a street in the devastated Syrian city of Raqqa on January 9, 2018. AFP

Recent attempts at easing the tensions between Arabs and Kurds have failed.

The Americans, who have a military base close to Raqqa, were asked to mediate, but have been reluctant to interfere in the local politics of the town and instead point out that their main mandate is to fight ISIS, says Jad Yateem, a Lebanese journalist covering the conflict.

On an administrative level, the Syrian Kurdish Democratic Union Party (PYD) controls the Raqqa Civil Council even though most of its employees are Arabs. This has bred bitterness.

“We’ve come back to a one-party-rule and that’s making people resentful. It’s no better than the Baath party”, says Abou Fares, the municipality employee, referring to the party headed by the Al Assad family which ruled Syria with an iron fist since 1963 until the start of the 2011 revolution.

But after nearly four years of ISIS rule and unprecedented destruction, locals are not yet up to challenging their city’s new leaders who have offered some stability and more safety than under the brutal rule if ISIS.

According to Mr Fares, “people are confused, stuck between discontent with the current situation and fear of the unknown”. – Additional reporting by Sara Manisera in Raqqa