The Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant has ordered the shutdown of private internet access in the Syrian stronghold of Raqqa, activists said, in a move that will severely restrict locals’ ability to maintain contact with the outside world.
The jihadi group said it would start enforcing the order later this week. Some activists believe the edict is designed to control internet usage in order to monitor its own fighters and local residents, particularly activists, from reporting on the group. Others say it is a sign that Isis is concerned about being traced by geo-location through private internet connections, which are all run through satellite links.
The move suggests Isis is feeling more vulnerable in Raqqa, its stronghold in northeastern Syria, after advances on its territory by Syrian Kurdish militias under the cover of US-led coalition air strikes. The recent gains cut off Isis fighters from one of the group’s border crossings with Turkey, Tel Abyad, and brought its foes to just 50km away from Raqqa city. Locals say the group has dug trenches around the city, apparently in anticipation of more attacks.
Activists in Isis-controlled Deir Ezzor and Raqqa say Isis officials have been warning residents for several weeks of plans to crack down on devices used by locals to extend internet coverage into their homes from satellite hook-ups purchased by local shops and internet cafés. Much of war-torn Syria, including Isis-held territory, has been cut off from telecommunication systems and satellite has become the only viable means of communication.
“All owners of shops with satellite internet must comply with the following: Removing wifi boosters in internet cafés as well as private wireless adaptors, even for soldiers of the Islamic State,” said a statement posted online by the activist group Raqqa is Being Slaughtered Silently, which said it was distributed by Isis on Sunday.
Bashir al-Abed, an activist from Isis-controlled Deir Ezzor, said he was hearing similar reports from his home town, although no written notices had been distributed.
“The most important aim for Isis is to stop activists . . . This will make it very difficult and very costly for us to find solutions to maintain communication with the outside,” he said. “It may also be to crack down on their own fighters. They recently discovered an infiltrator among their fighters in [Syrian city] Hassakeh using his private connection to communicate.”
An activist in Raqqa said women will be most affected by the move because of the austere version of Islam imposed in the so-called caliphate that Isis claims to be building across its territory in Syria and neighbouring Iraq. Mixing of genders is severely restricted and women may have difficulty using internet cafés, nearly all of which are frequented by men.
“Women will suffer from this . . . I think maybe there are one or two places (in Raqqa) they will be able to use,” the activist said, requesting not to be identified.
He said that Isis for months had been worried that satellite-enabled wireless connections to private homes could allow the US-led coalition to trace the location of its fighters. One of the main satellite providers used in the area is Hughes, a US company, which has heightened Isis concerns, he said.
“They say because it’s a US company, it may be providing information about them,” he said.
The activists said similar reports of wireless bans were coming from Iraq, but they had not been confirmed.
Many Syrians and Iraqis, however, have their own satellite link-ups, making it hard for the group to shut down all private connections. The Raqqa activist said it is unlikely Isis would attempt to enact stricter measures on satellite internet connections, because it would anger both locals and its own members.
“They wouldn’t ban all internet,” the activist said. “And even if they wanted to, they can’t. It’s the only way to communicate.”
Get alerts on Isis when a new story is published