First journalist who visited Raqqa: ‘ISIS’s initial target was Jordan’

Dairieh spent three weeks embedded alone with ISIS to produce a documentary for VICE News

Dina al-Shibeeb
Dina al-Shibeeb - Al Arabiya English
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Jordan, not Iraq, was ISIS’s initial target, according to Medyan Dairieh, the first journalist from a foreign media outlet believed to have ever stepped foot in the militant-held territories.

Dairieh visited Raqqa, a city located on the north bank of the Euphrates River in Syria in June 2014 when he scooped unprecedented access to the militant group. ISIS militants claim Raqqa to be their “capital” in Syria.

He spent three weeks embedded alone with ISIS to produce a documentary for VICE News, but the British-Palestinian documentaries producer still has more exclusive beans to spill.

The journalist is planning to reveal more information about the militant group’s “military and strategic plans” in his upcoming book titled “The Islamic State,” which will be printed in both in English and Italian.

So far, he can only “confirm that Jordan was a target before Baghdad for the Islamic State to reach,” he told Al Arabiya English, using an alternative name to refer to ISIS.

“The book will be about the inception of the organization in Iraq and its reach to Syria, its separation from [Al-Qaeda’s] Nusra Front, declaring the state and its caliphate,” he said. “The book will be focused on the return of these [ISIS] fighters to their countries of origin to build the foundation of the [Islamic] State, just like what has happened in Libya.”

Libyans fighting in Syria established what was known as the Battar Brigade in 2012. The brigade, which later pledged loyalty to ISIS, returned back to Libya, bringing a branch of the militant group to the North African country.

“I met with the Battar Brigade in [the Syrian northwestern province of] Aleppo, and also met with elements from the brigades in Raqqa. I photographed elements of the bridge after their return to Libya where I stayed with them in [the Libyan northeastern city of] Benghazi for eight days.”

He described the Battar Brigade as one of ISIS’s “toughest,” adding that most of its members are now in Libya.

In the book – which includes interviews with many foreign fighters coming mainly from Europe, Central Asia and other Arab countries, the journalist aims to offer eyewitness accounts from some of the ISIS commanders who know the group’s leader Abu Bakir al-Baghdadi close enough.

Medyan Dairieh
Medyan Dairieh

“I have an interview with [top ISIS commander] Abu Omar al-Shishani in Aleppo and with other leaders who personally met with Baghdadi,” he said.

On Tuesday, the Pentagon confirned that Shishani was killed after a US air strike in northern Syria targeted him last week.

When the New York Times published on July 23, 2014, “Life in a Jihadist Capital: Order With a Darker Side,” it did not reveal the identity of its reporter, unlike Dairieh’s decision to reveal his name in his VICE report.

Asked about how it was possible to get access into ISIS areas and reveal his identity, Dairieh said “there are no justifications to conceal my identity,” as he does not work “clandestinely” and he works “according to international standards for journalists and international law.”

However, getting access to enter Raqqa was a “complicated process.” He added: “There were a number of groups from the Islamic State who worked to secure my entry and exit of Islamic State territories.”

The producer, who believes that “we must talk to all sides” of the warring factions, except for Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s regime, said it was important that the lives of those living in Raqqa be documented and their stories told.

“I could not believe when I was walking in Raqqa’s streets, and neither could the people of Raqqa believe there was a journalist walking its streets,” he said, describing most reports on ISIS-held territories as merely “speculative.”

This undated file image posted on Monday, June 30, 2014, shows ISIS militants parade in Raqqa, north Syria. (File photo: AP)
This undated file image posted on Monday, June 30, 2014, shows ISIS militants parade in Raqqa, north Syria. (File photo: AP)

“They were happy to see the first journalist who entered their city,” he said. “The children were keen to take a picture with me in every street.”

Asked about what message the militant group was trying to convey through journalists like him and the likes of the German journalist Jurgen Todenhofer, who spent 10 days in the militant-held Iraqi city of Mosul.

“In my experience with the Islamic State, I don’t believe that the State cares for political calculus nor for international law and treaties pertaining to human rights,” he said. “It does not wait to hear the international community’s opinion, nor does it wish to plead for its sympathy.”

Iraq, Afghanistan key

He said ISIS considers the West as “oppressive” and as its “enemy,” “that’s why the Islamic State wants to send its message to the Muslim youth in the world that it is the one who is driving international jihad against the West, America and Arab regimes, and sees itself as the only entity to violate the Sykes-Picot agreement and make the borders obsolete.”

The Sykes-Picot agreement – signed in 1916 between Britain and France to shape the current-day Middle East by defining borders of Iraq and Syria, leading to the current conflict between Israel and the Palestinians.

While they shrug off international treaties, the “number one case that moves” ISIS militants is the West’s “double standards” regarding Iraq and Afghanistan, the journalist said.

Soon after the September 11 attacks in 2001, the US launched Operation Enduring Freedom to topple the Taliban in Afghanistan for harboring Al-Qaeda’s then leader Osama bin Laden, blamed for the attacks. After Afghanistan, Iraq followed in 2003 after links were allegedly revealed between late President Saddam Hussein and al-Qaeda and purported reports that Baghdad had Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMD).

“The occupations of Iraq and Afghanistan still linger on their minds,” he said.

What about Palestine?

But what about the Israeli occupation of Palestinian territories? Many Arab observers believe this to be the most talked-about case of Western double standards against the Muslim and Arab world, which also puts ISIS on the menu for conspiracy theorists to devour, with some saying the militant group is a US and Israeli creation.

“The Islamic State situates the Palestinian cause as a goal and this is what they teach in their military training camps, schools and mosques,” he said.

He also said that “the Islamic State has military and strategic plans I have not revealed yet but will do in my upcoming book.”

The journalist, who made his mind heard when he denounced ISIS’s brutal killing of foreign journalists during the past two years, was exposed to a new realization about the militant group when he visited their territory.

“When I toured Islamic State cities, I realized that there is no way it can be beaten,” he said. “It has a big, trained army ready to die in for its supreme cause supported by thousands of volunteers.”

In a show of ISIS’s continuous brutality and after speculations it could possibly develop chemical weapons, Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi vowed on Saturday to retaliate against the militant group after it launched a chemical attack on a town near Kirkuk, validating fears of the group’s unimaginable criminal mind.

Thousands of suicide bombers ready

For Dairieh, however, “the battle has not even begun.”

“I don’t believe the battle has started. The elite forces for the Islamic State and al-Battar Brigade so far have intervened minimally …the keep joining and withdrawing,” he said.

While the Kurds have so long been known as an effective element against ISIS and other militants whether in Iraq or Syria, ISIS has radicalized Kurds within their ranks, the journalist said.

He added that there is a “Turkish Brigade” that distinguishes itself “through its sniper strength,” he explained. “There are also suicide militants from Germany on the doors on Raqqa and al-Qaim in Iraq, the [eastern Syrian city of] Deir al-Zour.”

He warned that Raqqa is surrounded by suicide bombers from the UK and Germany in case it is stormed by ground forces. The journalist said they are so radicalized some “wear explosive belts” even when there are no immediate threats.

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