RAQQA, SYRIA — Vice News traveled to Raqqa, the ISIL stronghold where fighters for the Islamic State are under heavy fire not only from the Jordanian air force, but from hackers at Anonymous. Tarik Shabab, lieutenant commander of an elite video crew that staged several of the most viral beheading videos, says he is the target of a coordinated harassment campaign from Anonymous. We met him in the audio visual barracks buried in the heart of a secret reinforced concrete bunker on the outskirts of Raqqa.
Tarik Shabab barked at his white, middle class American helpers in English as we entered his chamber from the dusty tunnel. “No, there is still blood on the green screen for Christ’s sake. We have another beheading to do.” Tarik, as we came to know him, claimed he shot hundreds of beheading videos, although only two or three were, in his words, “Some real barnburners, the very lifeblood of the Jihad.”
In 2014, Tarik’s best work went viral when ISIS beheaded an American hero, inflaming a new round of American patriotism. That patriotism, as we came to find out, inspired an Anonymous operation known as #OpISIS.
#OpISIS issued a warning to the terrorists, saying, “ISIS, we will hunt you, take down your sites, accounts, emails and expose you… You will be treated like a virus, and we are the cure. We own the internet.”
Anonymous is a hacker collective that came to prominence in 2011 after satirist Barrett Brown led the group to initiate operation Arab Spring, triggering the fall of Tunisia. For several years now, Anonymous has been a source of instability in the region, generating massive symbiotic profits for US defense contractors and ISIL warlords.
Brown, a strict atheist, still leads the collective from his mobile prison cell in Texas, releasing tasks and commands for his Anonymous sub-group, Project PM, through hidden messages buried in weekly editorials published at the Daily Beast, Internet Chronicle, and DMagazine. Because of Brown’s previous manipulations in the middle east, as well as his distaste for the Islamic faith, Anonymous expert Biella Coleman speculated that the abuse campaign directed at ISIL was carried out at Brown’s direct command.
Brown has made himself a thorn in the Islamic State’s side, but the human toll has gone unreported. Tarik explained his creative process as “exhausting, thankless work,” and complained that Barrett Brown’s hacker crusade has made it nearly impossible for women and children at his studio to continue their work.
“It takes about a hundred shoots before you just nail it and get the right mix of gore, terror, and spectacle,” he said. “Our subjects often will flinch or make stupid faces to screw up the scene, and oftentimes artful editing is necessary to keep the right tone. We use the green screen and big studio lights so that we can film any time we want as if it were a sunny day in the desert. That’s essential to inspire optimal fear. We’ve moved the studio four times in the last few months and narrowly missed a few commando raids, so we are always working in a rush because every shoot could be the last.”
Recently, Tarik’s work has slowed to a crawl due to sustained harassment from Anonymous and #OpISIS.
“Allah help me, but #OpISIS is ruining my life. They’re constantly on my twitter mentions, threatening my life. Every day I have to deal with the threat of death from commandos in reality, but I expected things to be more civil on the internet. More controlled. But twitter won’t block the racists for me, and it takes so much effort to keep up with our fans while blocking out the trolls.”
Over tea, Tarik offered Vice News an opportunity to witness the creation of a viral terror video from start to finish. He took us down into a cold, dark dungeon where torturers were prepping prisoners for beheading. In one small, well-lit corner of the dungeon an Indonesian woman applied makeup to one rigid, fully-prepped prisoner.
“You wouldn’t believe the sexist things the trolls send to Mae Lee’s facebook page,” Tarik explained, gesturing at the makeup artist, “She is a strong woman though, and it all seems to roll right off her back. But she’s lost her business because of it, and now no one will hire her to do makeup for their sex slaves because they think she is a slut. It is simply barbaric what they’ve done to her.”
Tarik pointed at the prisoner, “Now, notice how his jaw is locked in place. That is what our torturers look for before moving the infidel to makeup. In this state he is not likely to resist or make funny faces. Brutality and terror of the beheading is not enough. The infidel must be more beautiful to give contrast to the terror of our warriors. His chiseled features and striking eyes must say, ‘Help me, I’m too precious to Die!’ and Mae Lee is the best in the business. The very best.”
Tarik guided us up a narrow flight of stairs into a tunnel where his crew and a garrison of fighters slept. In a far corner, there was a ragged niche in the concrete where weapons, torture implements, and various beheading tools were kept. A small Nigerian boy sat at a grinding wheel, sharpening a tremendous scimitar.
“This is Mombata,” Tarik said. “He keeps our weapons in top shape. Show them what you do, Mombata.”
Grinning, Mombata set the scimitar aside and wielded an AK-47, rapidly cycling the chamber while Tarik clapped. “Very good! See? He is just a small boy but he fixed that gun and look how it works now. Mombata is vital to our operation. The worst thing that can happen in a beheading is when we don’t cut clean through the head in one go, and for that the blade must be sharpened before each beheading. Mombata takes care of that.”
Tarik shed a tear and gripped Mombata’s shoulder. “Unfortunately, Anonymous hackers called Mombata autistic the other day and he’s been terribly butthurt. Such a small child, targeted by mean people on the internet. He is not the most social boy, but he is very good with his hands. Plus, he’s never been vaccinated so there’s not even a chance he’s autistic. But this is the kind of trolling we deal with every day.”
By the time we returned to Tarik’s studio, the prisoner was tied in place before the green screen on a foam sacrifice rock and ready for his beheading. The grim beheaders wrapped themselves in black linen costumes for the shoot, and one checked his iPhone. His body seemed to lose all strength and crumble as he fell to his knees.
“Why!?” He screamed, “WHY!?? They hacked my gmail and I’ve lost all my accounts. Everything is gone. My life is over. Over.” The beheader threw his black wrappings to the ground and fled the room, sobbing.
Tarik turned red and began to shout. “I can do nothing! Nothing! They target me, my actors, my editors. Allah Damn Anonymous! Every time we are ready it goes wrong because of those hacker meddlers. This infidel will probably wake from his catatonic state any minute, before I can calm my beheader.”
Tarik turned to us, his eyes wide, and he pointed to Vice reporter Andrew Blake, “You! You must fill in. Do it now or Mombata shoots you.” Standing behind Tarik, the Nigerian boy squinted down the barrel of the AK-47 just as if he were a veteran child-soldier fresh out of Kony’s army.
Blake picked up the wrappings and donned the black cloth, ready to execute the infidel.
Coaching Andrew’s posture aggressively, Tarik barked directions as the camera crew began recording. The beheading unfolded smoothly over the next five minutes and the cameramen caught it all in stunning high def. Although Andrew didn’t swing the scimitar, when he uncovered his face he looked dry and pale as if his soul had left his body. Mombata escorted Vice out of the bunker, and we left Raqqa traumatized, although we didn’t know whether to blame Anonymous or ISIL for the terror we just witnessed.