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Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMD)

Why the Ghosts of Islamic State Still Haunt Raqqa

By Heather Murdock August 29, 2019

The water near the edge of the Euphrates River in downtown Raqqa reflects a strange mix of blues, like a tropical sea rushing through an urban riverbed.

Men and boys splash near a bridge, newly built almost two years after the battle with Islamic State militants that left the city in ruins.

This was the epicenter of the self-declared "Caliphate" that ruled parts of Syria and Iraq for three years, imposing their harsh version of Islamic law and attracting devotees from around the world.

But as Raqqa slowly revives, emerging from a brutal war after years of extremist rule, an ever-present fear is growing. Will hiding militants return? Sleeper cells awake? Will supporters take their revenge on those that live in peace under the enemies of IS?

"We are scared," Abdullah, a 33-year-old father of five tells us, still dripping from his dip in the river. "If IS comes back they will kill us all."

A few blocks away, behind heavy cement walls, officials say attacks in the city are increasingly common, with four or five this month.

Many other attempts were thwarted, says Khalid Barkal, Raqqa's speaker of Parliament. After years of IS rule, he explains, devotion to the group runs deep among some people, and trauma and fear are widespread.

"My greatest happiness," Barkal tells us in his Raqqa office, "Will be when the IS supporters forget about that black flag."

Haunted by terror

But for Raqqa residents, forgetting can seem like a far away dream.

Na'eem Square, or Heaven Square, was nicknamed "Hell Square" under IS, because the severed heads of accused spies or criminals would be spiked on the fence for days in the center of town. The fence has been replaced, but residents say memories of extreme violence have not faded.

As we travel the city, soldiers, shopkeepers and government workers quietly tell us there are many secret IS supporters in Raqqa. At a fish restaurant in a garden near the city's other main bridge that's still destroyed from the battle, a 24-year-old waiter appears nervous when asked about the difference between now, and the time of IS.

"I only care about taking care of my house and my two daughters," he tells us, before offering us tea or lunch.

As we walk away, one of the young soldiers accompanying us – required security from local authorities – says he expects most people are still worried about saying anything negative about IS.

"People are scared," the soldier Hussein Fermo says. "They are afraid to talk in case IS comes back."

But the swimmer by the new bridge, Abdullah, tells us that he is not afraid because he would already be a target if IS returned. They killed his brother, Taher, before being defeated in Raqqa in 2017.

"When they first came, they said, 'We are Muslim,' and we believed them," he says. "But they arrested one person and [as a punishment for stealing] they cut off his hand in Na'eem Square."

Foreign prisoners

Tens of thousands of people from around the world flocked to Syria to join IS, and now thousands of suspected IS fighters are being held in northeastern Syrian prisons.

Local authorities, led by the U.S.-backed Syrian Democratic Forces, repeatedly have called for countries to take back their prisoners, or provide funding to help feed, house and secure them.

President Donald Trump has threatened to release the detainees to Europe if countries don't repatriate their citizens. SDF officials have asked for an international court to try the prisoners in northeastern Syria, where the victims mostly reside.

"I'm not sure what will happen," Abdullah says, before jumping in the river one last time. "But if it were up to me, I'd kill them all."

Local victims

Less than 5 kilometers from the riverside is Raqqa's football stadium, used as the city's main prison under IS, notorious for cruel punishments under draconian laws.

By the door is a cracked memorial to the suffering of the Yazidi women.

Thousands of women and children were kidnapped from their homes in Iraq and held as sex slaves in IS territories. Yazidi men where slaughtered en masse.

The groundskeeper shows us around, saying they are trying to fix it up for matches to entertain fans. For now, shrubs litter the ground and mortar fire appears to have shattered some of the stands.

"It wasn't just a prison," he tells us. "They packed hundreds of people on the pitch during the war. They were human shields so the coalition forces wouldn't bomb the militants."

But in a market downtown, shoppers and sellers are quick to tell us they would rather try to forget as much as they can the time of IS, and move on with rebuilding their economy. They can work to climb out of poverty, they say, but there is nothing they can do to stop future attacks.

"Give us electricity only, and we can rebuild ourselves," says one man in a plaid shirt and sandals, before walking off. "If the international coalition wanted to, they could fix this now."

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