ISIS found a way to make the story of Ruqia Hassan Mohammed even sadder and more infuriating than it already was. She was executed by the Islamic State last summer or fall, but ISIS’ communications experts kept this secret and used her social media accounts for months to pose as her and thus draw out her friends and allies to betray their locations.
Ruqia Hassan Mohammed was a Syrian Kurd who was born in 1985, studied philosophy, and in recent years became a reliable source of information about what life is like in a war zone, specifically, what life is like in Raqqa, Syria. In 2013 control of that city, which once had a population approaching a quarter-million people, changed hands several times. Chaos reigned. It was governed by the Assad regime, then government loyalists, then the Al Nusra Front, and then Daesh—the Islamic State.
Raqqa is still controlled by ISIS, and now citizens there also contend with air strikes, sometimes French, sometimes Russian, always airstrikes. Through it all, until last summer, Ruqia Hassan published updates on her Facebook page under the name Nisan Ibrahim. Her posts were frequently humorous, amused by the dark absurdities of life in such a situation. When ISIS banned wi-fi hot spots in Raqqa, she wrote, “Go ahead and cut off the internet, our messenger pigeons won’t complain.” (The reason for the ban, which took a surprisingly long time to be announced, is plain: if one can not have private access to the internet via wi-fi, one is forced to go online in public, in cafes and restaurants, where users can be monitored. One would think such a ban would have been among the first ones announced.) She accepted this with her characteristic dark humor.
Among the many things that ISIS is and wants to be, “humorless” is atop the list. That, and brutal. Journalists from Raqqa told David Remnick of The New Yorker last fall that one way they knew that Raqqa had changed hands from the Al Nusra Front to the Islamic State was when the crucifixions, the public display of executed victims, began:
The first crucifixion came early that spring—a horrific event to recall even now. Everyone at the table remembered the shock of it. Then came more: two people, shot in the head by ISIS executioners, crucified, and left for days for all to witness in the city’s main traffic roundabout.—David Remnick, “Telling the Truth About ISIS and Raqqa,” The New Yorker, November 22, 2015
Humor is a form of dissent. So is revealing to the world what is happening in one’s hometown so that sympathetic eyes hate your hometown’s masters as much as you do. Ruqia Hassan Mohammed was a dissenter on both counts. Look at her photo above. That was her Facebook profile photo. Modest but with a sense of sequined style. Look at her eyes, the set of her mouth. Thirty years old last year.
She was just one person, hers just one more story. Both the Assad regime and Daesh want the world to believe that this fight is a binary, us versus them, battle between the forces of darkness and the forces of light; this is why both sides spend most of their efforts not attacking each other but instead concentrating on slaughtering the middle, and even killing the journalists and truth-tellers caught in-between. Assad does not want anyone writing about life under his family’s regime and ISIS certainly does not want it either. Many people are dying as a result. This is just one person, one woman’s, story. Each dead person has one.
It is not known precisely when she was executed. Her public posts on Facebook, which was her main outlet for her journalism, ceased on July 21. Her family was finally informed this week that she had been arrested and was charged with espionage; she had been dead several months by then. The next day her death was made public.
Private messages claiming that she was still alive and well continued to be sent from her Facebook account through the fall and winter, however. She used her Facebook account to communicate with activists, other citizen-journalists in Raqqa, her family.
A journalist who calls himself “Tim Ramadan” (to protect his identity) from “Raqqa Is Being Silently Slaughtered (RBSS),” an online publication by citizen-journalists in that beleaguered city, told The Independent yesterday, “Her Facebook account remained open in order to entrap friends who communicated with her,” and added that up until a week ago, ISIS was still using her account to send messages to other users claiming that she was alive.
It is dark, it is twisted, it is malevolent; but that is espionage, and when the side I root for does something similar, we eventually make movies celebrating such ingenious acts of espionage. Don’t we? It is still dark, twisted, malevolent.
The journalists affiliated with RBSS are among the bravest in the world at the moment. Every word they publish from now on honors the memory of their fallen colleague, a young woman whose story risks being forgotten in the current blood-drenched rush of a war in which there is no high ground and never will be.
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