Like all totalitarian movements, ISIS demands not only absolute obedience but captive minds. Everyone must be made complicit in the Big Lie, and there is no truth other than that which has been decreed by the clerics of the caliphate. All information gleaned from Crusader sources is disinformation designed to weaken the resolve of the warriors of Islam.
It’s rather surprising, then, that it took the jihadist army this long to shut off the Internet. Abu Ibrahim al-Raqqawi, one of the founders of the grassroots organization Raqqa Is Being Slaughtered Silently, explained to The Daily Beast that WiFi was now “banned” in the city of Raqqa, ISIS’s de facto capital, a diktat that did not require the cutting of coaxial cable lines (because there are none) but rather the elimination of what al-Raqqawi called the “Space Internet.” By this he meant the Broadband Global Area Networks, expensive mobile devices that are roughly the size of books and enable users to log on via satellite after paying for data packages from their local Internet cafe.
Raqqa’s preferred BGAN is the Hughes model, which al-Raqqawi said sells for about $2,000 each. Nevertheless, there are an abundance of Internet cafes equipped with them in Raqqa—some 5,000 by al-Raqqawi’s count—although the cafes are unlike any you’d see in Western cities.
“You won’t find computers in 95 percent of them,” he said. “It’s more like a small shop where not even two or three people can sit down. You go to there, bring your own cell or laptop. You tell them, ‘I want an account with you.’ The Internet cafe owner will give you a password and account username. He’ll give you megabytes. Every 100 megabytes costs $3. The device can take 50 gigabytes. It costs $1,000, maybe $1,200 every six months to top up the data package for each device. It’s very hard to have an Internet at all.”
BGAN owners have to travel to Turkey to recharge their data allotments, a routine that even before the WiFi ban was fraught with peril.
The BGAN is linked up to a WiFi Extender in each cafe, which broadcasts the network signal well beyond the shop’s confines so that users can get access from their home or within walking distance. “ISIS has always tried to to monitor the people’s online activity,” al-Raqqawi said. “It was always very risky. Internet cafe owners have been spies for ISIS.”
Raqqa Is Being Slaughtered Silently has its own BGANs, which is how The Daily Beast was still able to talk to al-Raqqawi via Skype. ISIS, for its part, has been hunting the organization and its team of volunteers since 2013. Every time al-Raqqawi switches off, it could well be the last.
The few cafes that will remain open are ones that force users to stay and conduct their online business out in the open. ISIS routinely raids such establishments, however, forcing users to put their hands and cellphones on the table. If any image or video offering an unauthorized glimpse into Jihadistan is found on the phones, ISIS will arrest the owner. “They’ll accuse him of being a spy for the coalition or the regime and they’ll kill him immediately,” al-Raqqawi said.
Not content with such opportunistic invigilation, ISIS has also taken to driving around Raqqa in surveillance cars that monitor WiFi signals. Anyone caught broadcasting a signal gets the same treatment as an illicit cafe patron.
“Most of the people are very angry,” al-Raqqawi said. “Many have left the city because residents want to talk to their families outside. They call each other on WhatsApp or Viber.”
Alex Gladstein, chief strategy officer for the Human Rights Foundation, said Internet work-arounds for activists living under repressive regimes are still hard to come by. “The closest thing that I’ve held in my hand is something called a BRCK, a low-cost rugged option that a company out of Kenya created,” he said. “You can buy it for a couple hundred dollars.”
But that’s not cheap, either, particularly in a starvation economy where families are forced to pay as much $30 a month for electricity from ISIS, not to mention zakat, or Islamic tax. Why hasn’t any country in the so-called Friends of Syria alliance donated BGANs with unlimited data to media activists in Raqqa? “People in this field tend to overlook basic technology as something you can donate to victims in conflict zones,” said Gladstein.
To make matters worse, more 20th-century methods of trying to expose ISIS and foment insurrectionary sentiments toward it are backfiring, according to al-Raqqawi. The coalition so far has dropped three versions of propaganda leaflets designed to draw the population of Raqqa away from the jihadists. But the leaflets have only elicited unintentional amusement or irritation.
“The first one said, ‘Most of the people of Raqqa are ISIS and be careful of joining ISIS because we will kill you,’” al-Raqqawi said. “This made people very angry because few here are sympathetic to ISIS, and why does the coalition assume otherwise? The second leaflet was really, really funny. It was written in very bad Arabic, [such that] you couldn’t understand any word. I can’t even tell you what it was trying to say.”
The third one was designed to show ISIS’s recent battlefield losses to a combined force of Kurds and Arabs. Four fighters are exhibited, three from the Kurdish People’s Defense Units (including a woman fighter) and one from the Free Syrian Army. They’re walking along a sunlit street strewn with the corpses of slain terrorists. “But the ISIS flag is hanging upside-down,” al-Raqqawi said. “The people of Raqqa don’t like the YPG and don’t want them coming here. And this flag is for Islam and all Muslims, not just for ISIS. So the people didn’t like seeing it upside-down.”
Nevertheless, ISIS is paranoid about what these airdropped messages might do and sends street-sweepers to clear the roads when they land. “If they find one of these leaflets with you, it will be big problem for you,” al-Raqqawi said.