An activist with the only group reporting on human rights abuses in ISIL’s de facto Syrian capital, Raqqa, was found beheaded in his apartment in southern Turkey along with a friend, the group — called Raqqa is Being Slaughtered Silently (RBSS) — told Al Jazeera on Friday.
The bodies of Ibrahim Abdulqader, 20, and Fares Hamadi, another activist in his 20s, were found in Hamadi’s house in the city of Sanliurfa, 35 miles from the border with Syria.
At least one member of the rights group had earlier been killed in Syria by the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), but this is the first time a member has been killed outside the country. RBSS has accused ISIL of the killings and says they are a chilling reminder that ISIL has operatives across the region.
“We all thought Turkey would be safer, but apparently not,” Hamoud al-Mousa, another RBSS member who also lives in Turkey, told Al Jazeera. “Unfortunately, none of us are safe here.”
Abdulqader, who was studying for his high school degree when Syria’s war erupted, fled his hometown for Turkey in late 2013 after he was arrested and tortured by ISIL police.
Abdulqader spoke to Al Jazeera several times in the past year, including on the eve of U.S. airstrikes on Raqqa in September 2014. He said he hoped the strikes would help dislodge the ISIL regime, even though they carried significant risks for the people of his hometown.
Formed in April 2014, shortly after ISIL began to consolidate control in Raqqa, RBSS operates a network of secret correspondents who operate in and around the city and provide some of the only credible accounts of life there. It has published detailed reports on ISIL's systematic recruitment of child soldiers and the ban on private Internet connections, and it occasionally manages to leak images and videos of ISIL’s gruesome punishments — including public executions — to the outside world. It also broke the story of the failed U.S. special operations raid to save American reporter James Foley, whom ISIL held near Raqqa and later beheaded.
Earlier this year, the group was awarded the International Press Freedom Award by the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ).
RBSS’s activists say they fully understand the danger of their work, especially inside Raqqa. “Cameras have been placed to monitor anyone suspected of working for us," one of the RBSS founders, Abu Mohammed, told CPJ in July. "If a suspect is caught in the street, they will be killed in front of everyone.”
But many members who live outside Syria — and transmit Raqqa-based correspondents’ reports to local and international media — insist on using their real names to give their work more credibility. Abdulqader used a real photo of himself on his Skype profile, and has given several television interviews.
ISIL has not taken responsibility for Friday's killings through official channels, but the group has previously called RBSS activists “infidels” who should be put to death. According to Turkey’s Dogan news agency, both Abdulqader and Hamadi — whom Dogan identified as a reporter for a local Syrian newspaper — had been receiving ISIL death threats due to their work.
Abdulqader's death will heighten fears about security in Turkey, which was long been accused of allowing ISIL fighters and supplies to transit freely across its borders into Syria. Once it became clear ISIL was more interested in consolidating control and fighting Syria’s anti-government rebels — not the regime itself — Ankara is said to have changed course. In recent months it has made regular raids against ISIL cells within its borders, coupled with a wider crackdown on Kurdish PKK insurgents.
“We urge the Turkish authorities to do whatever is needed to bring his murderers to justice and to closely investigate the possibility that he was killed in connection with his reporting," Johann Bihr, the head of the Reporters Without Borders Eastern Europe and Central Asia desk, said in a statement. "The authorities must protect journalists who have sought refuge in Turkey.”