The Raqqa Diaries: Escape from Islamic State by Samer - review

Justin Marozzi
Glory days: fighters in Raqqa celebrating establishing a "caliphate" in 2014: Reuters

“Muslim girls! Come to Raqqa and get raped by mujahideen holy warriors!”

“Calling all start-ups! Set your business up in Raqqa, we’ll extort you until it goes bankrupt and then we’ll behead you! What’s not to like?”

This is not how the iconoclasts of Islamic State tend to advertise the headquarters of their contemptible little — and ever-shrinking — “caliphate” in Syria. They are rather more cunning than that, keeping a brutally tight grip on all communications coming in and out of Raqqa on pain of death.

Official propaganda, showing the preening lads in their pick-ups, enlivened with motivating nasheed songs and the odd beheading, presents an idealised view designed to attract new recruits, from impressionable youngsters to here’s-one-I-brainwashed-earlier foot-soldiers.

That is why The Raqqa Diaries is so important. This is the eyewitness account of what life is really like under IS control. The author is a courageous young man called Samer — not his real name — who watches the militants seize control of the city in 2013 and turn it into a terrifying dystopia about as far removed from Islam as the England football team is from winning the World Cup.

Samer and friends start an activist group called Al Sharqiya 24 to smuggle out encrypted information from the city. They reveal to the outside world the unsurprising but grotesque corruption and hypocrisy of the IS hierarchy and the wanton cruelty of its lashings, crucifixions, beheadings, stonings and extortions.

This is hell on earth, with the added, nerve-shredding danger of being found out at any moment — with the inevitable consequences of torture and summary execution. Samer loses his father in an air strike that also injures his mother. He receives 40 lashes for cursing after a public execution. A girlfriend and soulmate is snatched from him when she is forcibly married off to a jihadist. Anas, one of his dearest friends, is crucified and beheaded.

Looking back on his childhood, there is a particularly revealing encounter with an Assad-regime flunkey in Damascus. He tells Samer and his mother that no one should ever criticise a government official for stealing public money since the thief might be using the funds to build a palace and “make the country look more civilised”.

Is it any wonder that secular revolutionaries and jihadists alike should dedicate themselves to overthrowing these rotten dictatorships?

The noose steadily tightens and Samer learns that he has been blacklisted by IS, a precursor to his inevitable killing. He has no option but to flee at great personal risk to the partial safety of a liberated area under Free Syrian Army control. IS forces and those of the Assad regime are not far away. Alone in a refugee camp, he writes with shattering honesty about his broken dreams and crushed optimism.

Readers will salute the quite literally death-defying bravery of Samer in taking a stand against the terrorists. He shows that no matter how hopeless the situation, the simple act of bearing witness is one of the most powerful human responses available. In this case, it goes a long way towards undercutting the vile propaganda that sends far too many innocents around the world to their early graves. One must also pay tribute to Mike Thomson, the BBC correspondent who brought this book about from an initial series of broadcasts on the Today programme.

As for the world’s nastiest bunch of misfits, bullies and cowards, fear Allah, gentlemen, for your days are numbered. The tragedy for ordinary Syrians is that their outlook remains bleak almost beyond endurance. Samer writes in his introduction that “Only through perseverance will we achieve the revolution’s goals, which we used to chant in the streets in 2011: ‘Freedom, dignity, justice’.” He is surely right— but how far away those goals remain.

£9.99, Amazon, Buy it now

By using Yahoo you agree that Yahoo and partners may use Cookies for personalisation and other purposes