Geopolitics

Making Fun Of ISIS, Syrian Activists Strike Back With Humor

Despite death threats, three young Syrians are fighting the jihadists terrorizing their country with the only weapon they have: pure mockery.

Screenshot of a Daya al-Taseh spoof video
Screenshot of a Daya al-Taseh spoof video
Christophe Boltanski

GAZIANTEP — His executioner, wrapped in a long black abaya, grabs his hair, pulls his head backwards and brandishes a crescent-shaped knife. On his knees, the blade at his throat, Youssef Helali sticks out his tongue like a naughty kid and bursts out laughing.

"Cut! In one week, we'll be on the list of people wanted for terrorism," laughs Maen Watfe, dropping the plastic dagger that he bought in the toy department.

In the videos they secretly shoot in a Gaziantep apartment, in southeastern Turkey, the young Syrians act out beheadings, kidnappings and threats against their parents, as part of a political burlesque lampooning ISIS. They also drink, smoke and listen to music, all forbidden by the terrorist organization.

Their sketches make a mockery of the ISIS organization and its gang of throat cutters. And they upload their schoolboy humor to YouTube, Facebook and HalabToday — "Aleppo Today," a rebel television network broadcast on the Internet.

These expand=1] two- and three-minute videos are designed to explode in the enemy's face, just like landmines. "We're fighting ISIS in its most efficient field: the media, with the only weapon we have, humor," explains Muhammad Damlakhy.

With a tall, skinny body, goatee and slicked-back hair, 27-year-old Maen Watfe has always been inclined to theater. "My parents thought it wasn't serious enough and forced me to study electronics," he says with regret.

Youssef Helali, 31, round faced with a dark beard, learned photography. When he's not acting out in the videos as either jihadist or victim, he's the one holding the camera. Meanwhile, 22-year-old Muhammad Damlakhy is a sound engineer.

Bashar al-Assad's jails

All three young men come from Aleppo, the northern Syrian city that has become little more than a mass grave over the past two and a half years. When the uprising broke out in March 2011, they participated in every march.

As we know now, the peaceful demonstrations were quickly repressed in blood. The wounded were arrested and, often, executed by the security forces and their auxiliaries. With others, Helali created an underground clinic. "Most people who were part of our team have been assassinated," he says. "I myself am on the regime's blacklist."

Actively wanted by authorities, he crossed the border at the end of 2011. Watfe, who also campaigned in the "coordinating committees," spent six months in President Bashar al-Assad's jails, including four months in Damascus at the air force intelligence headquarters, one of the country's most feared torture centers. When he was released, he went into exile in neighboring Turkey.

Damlakhy was also detained — for a shorter period, 65 days — by the same security service, before fleeing like his two companions.

Citizen journalism

Now refugees in Gaziantep, they decided to venture together into citizen journalism. But they returned to their hometown, where entire neighborhoods are now out of Assad's grasp, to film a documentary.

They filmed volunteers of the civil defense who, after every bombing by the regime, go to look for survivors and bodies in the rubble. They called their documentary Beroea's Doves, a title that uses the Greek designation of Aleppo in the Antiquity.

They founded a production company, Daya al-Taseh, and established their makeshift studio in a modern Gaziantep building. The first sketches targeted Assad and his squadrons of assassins. But very soon, they witnessed the rise in power of a new player.

"Today, in Syria, the most dangerous people are those from ISIS," Helali says. "They are killers hiding behind religion. Many friends of ours joined them because they were lost or appealed to their message. That's why we need to show them its real face."

They create their videos with bits and pieces. A camera, a bright green curtain, a computer. Not forgetting the panoply of the perfect terrorist: a plastic Kalashnikov, fake knives, beards, and dynamite sticks. Jihad, in its prank version.

Death threats on Facebook

Since January, they have posted a new sketch every Friday. A dark background, macabre titles, Hollywood-like music, their opening credits spoofing the propaganda films of the Al-Hayat Media Center, the communications department of ISIS. Their logo shows a blindfolded hostage.

The rest is of the same kind. A suicide bomber vainly attempting to set off his belt of explosives. Fighters who think they become invincible every time they pronounce the name Al-Baghdadi, their caliph. "ISIS has taken our country," Watfe says. "We don't have rifles. This is why we need to fight in another way. This weapon is efficient. The threats we receive prove it."

Death threats posted on their Facebook page read, "We'll kill you!" or more recently, "We've hit France. We can easily strike you here."

A visit from ISIS

After receiving a visit from ISIS supporters, the owner of the apartment, a Turk from Gaziantep, told them to run. The three friends filmed the exchange with a hidden camera. It shows a man with white hair, distraught, begging them to leave the premises. "They come every day by car," the man says. "They're watching the house. I'm scared. These guys are built like tanks and they speak with a Syrian accent. I told them you left. Don't ever come back! It's too dangerous for you."

Since then, the three humorists have signed a new lease but know they're still under threat. "Even in Turkey, the people of ISIS are everywhere," Helali says. "They can enter and leave the country very easily. Here, you can find them near the university. They barely hide."

They haven't filed a complaint for fear of retribution and because they don't trust the Turkish state, which has been quite accommodating towards jihadists. "We would risk a lot by alerting authorities," Helali says. "ISIS doesn't care about the police. We're maybe going to have to leave the city and live somewhere else."

They're determined to keep fighting. Helali repeats, "Between us, it's war. We want to re-establish the media balance."

They condemn the Charlie Hebdo attacks in France without hesitation. "Those who committed these acts are terrorists. They don't represent Islam," Watfe insists.

With no phones or electricity, reduced to a state of refugees, very few of their fellow citizens have access to the Internet. But they claim they have between 40,000 and 60,000 viewers per video.

Even in their country in ruins, they know humor is more efficient that any speech. Says Damlakhy, "Because Syrians will always prefer comedy to tragedy."

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Art installation "Greetings From Giza" by French artist and photographer JR faces the pyramids of Giza in Egypt

Anne-Sophie Goninet, Jane Herbelin and Bertrand Hauger

👋 你好*

Welcome to Tuesday, where violence erupts after Sudan's military coup, Australia finally gets onboard with climate change goals, and Harrison Ford stars in Raiders of the Lost Credit Card. From Bogota, we also see what the capture of drug kingpin Otoniel means for Colombia, a country long stained by cocaine trafficking.

[*Nĭhǎo - Mandarin Chinese]

💡  SPOTLIGHT

Saving the planet is really a question of dopamine

The elite of the ecologically minded are set to descend on Glasgow next week for the Cop 26 conference on climate change. But beyond debating policy prescriptions, French daily Les Echos explores the role our own brains have on making the right choices for the planet:

Almost every week, a new scientific study alerts us to the degradation of the environment. And yet, we continue not to change anything fundamental in our systems of production and habits of consumption. Are we all suffering from blindness, or poisoned by denial?

In his popular books Le Bug humain (The Human Bug) and Où est le sens? (Where is the Sense?), Sébastien Bohler, a journalist in neuroscience and psychology, provides a much more rational explanation: The mechanism responsible for our propensity to destroy our natural environment is in fact a small, very deep and very primitive structure of our brain called the striatum.

This regulator of human motivation seems to have been programmed to favor behaviors that ensure the survival of the species.

Since the dawn of humanity, gathering information about our environment, feeding ourselves, ensuring the transmission of our genes through sexual intercourse and asserting our social status have all been rewarded with a shot of dopamine, the "pleasure hormone."

Nothing has changed since then; except that, in our society of excess, there is no limit to the satisfaction of these needs. This leads to the overconsumption of food and addictions to everything from sex to social media — which together account for much of the world's destructive agricultural and energy practices.

No matter how much we realize that this is leading to our downfall, we can't help but relapse because we are prisoners of the dopamine pump in the striatum, which cannot be switched off.

According to Bohler, the only way out is to encourage the emergence of new values of sobriety, altruism and slowness. If adopted, these more sustainable notions could be recognized by the striatum as new sources of dopamine reward. But there's the challenge of promoting inspiring stories that infuse them with value.

Take the photo-collage exhibition "J'agis ici... et je m'y colle" ("I'm taking action here... and I'm sticking to it"), a collection of life-size portraits of residents committed to the energy transition, displayed on the walls of the French coastal city of La Rochelle.

Backed by the French National Center for Street Arts, photographer Martin Charpentier may be employing artistic techniques, but he's also tinkering with neuroscience in the process.

Stefano Lupieri / Les Echos

🌎  7 THINGS TO KNOW RIGHT NOW

• Sudan in chaos following military coup: After Sudan's military seized power from the transitional government, defiant anti-coup protesters have returned to the streets of the capital city Khartoum, for a second consecutive day. At least seven people have been killed and 140 injured. Coup leader General Al-Burhan has announced a state of emergency across the country, while the military cut off access to the internet and closed roads, bridges, and Khartoum's airport. Washington condemned the coup and suspended aid, and the U.N. Security Council was expected to discuss Sudan behind closed doors later today.

• Egypt lifts state of emergency in force since 2017: Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, announced the end of a four-year-old state of emergency, undoing powers that had given the government sweeping authority to quash protests, make arrests, search people's homes without warrants, and control everyday life in the most populous Arab country.

• Platforms take down Bolsonaro video linking vaccine and AIDS: Facebook, Instagram and YouTube have removed an anti-vaccine video from their respective platforms posted by Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro. Beyond blocking the video, in which Bolsonaro falsely linked the COVID-19 vaccine with developing AIDS, YouTube went further and suspended the far-right leader for a week.

• COVID update: The U.S. will launch a new travel system on November 8, imposing new vaccine requirements for most foreign national travellers and lifting severe travel restrictions over China, India and much of Europe. Meanwhile, authorities in northern China are reimposing lockdown, and other emergency measures as COVID-19 infections spread to 11 provinces.

• Australia pledges net zero emissions by 2050: As one of the world's largest emitters of greenhouse gases per capita and a major exporter of fossil fuels such as coal, Australia has finally committed to becoming carbon-neutral by 2050. This is a target already adopted by most nations heading to next week's COP26 international climate conference, but that Australia had so far refused to pledge.

• Japanese princess loses royal status over wedding: Japan's Princess Mako married her boyfriend Kei Komuro, giving up her royal status. Under Japanese law, female imperial family members lose their status upon marriage to a "commoner" although male members do not.

Raiders of the Lost Credit Card: A tourist returned the credit card of American actor Harrison Ford, who had lost it in Sicily while shooting scenes for the latest Indiana Jones movie.

🗞️  FRONT PAGE

"Out of control," titles German daily Süddeutsche Zeitung, reporting on the release of a series of articles by a consortium of 17 U.S. news outlets, called the "Facebook Papers," that reinforce whistleblower Frances Haugen's claims that the social media giant is prioritizing profits over the well being of its users and society.

#️⃣  BY THE NUMBERS

$1.01 trillion

After striking a deal to sell 100,000 electric vehicles to car rental firm Hertz, Elon Musk's Tesla has joined Apple, Microsoft, Amazon and Google's Alphabet in the club of companies that have reached a $1 trillion valuation.

📰  STORY OF THE DAY

What the capture of a drug kingpin means for Colombia

While the capture of Otoniel, Colombia's most wanted drug trafficker, made global headlines, Bogotá daily El Espectador writes about the significance of the news for a country that has battled narcotrafficking for decades.

👮 The arrest of the Colombian mobster Dairo Antonio Úsuga David, a.k.a. "Otoniel," is a victory for Colombian intelligence, law-and-order forces and the broader fight against crime. Details of the eight-year-long pursuit of the head of the Gulf Clan, of the tireless and meticulous work, testify to the capabilities that the police and army have managed to develop in the fight against the narco-trafficking that has long been a stain on Colombia.

🇨🇴🇲🇽 Otoniel is responsible for a criminal organization with more than 3,800 members and influence on 12 departments and 128 districts in Colombia (though data from the Bogotá-based Peace and Reconciliation Foundation counts 211 districts). The Gulf Clan sends half the drugs going out of Colombia, and is the main exporter to Mexico. Its ties to the Mexican cartel chief Joaquín "el Chapo" Guzmán are well-documented — and Otoniel had aspired to fill the power vacuum left by Guzmán's capture.

⚖️ Some have observed that the ensuing power vacuum will engender more violence, which is true. But we are, in any case, far from eliminating drug trafficking in Colombia or cutting its tentacles across public life. That shows the limitations of the hard-line response to drugs, when we have seen it is not enough. Still, it is essential in any fight against crime for the state to show its operational capabilities. The message is clear: not even drug overlords are above the law in Colombia.

➡️ Read more on Worldcrunch.com

📣 VERBATIM

"I love Mako. I would like to spend my one life with the person I love."

— Kei Komuro said during a news conference after his wedding with Japan's Princess Mako, the niece of the current emperor and the sister of the likely future sovereign. The princess lost her royal status as a result of her marriage with Komuro, a "commoner."

📸  PHOTO DU JOUR

An art installation "Greetings From Giza" by French artist and photographer JR faces the pyramids of Giza in Egypt, as part of the 2021 exhibition "'Forever Is Now," the first international art exhibition to take place there — Photo: Balkis Press/Abaca/ZUMA

✍️ Newsletter by Anne-Sophie Goninet, Jane Herbelin and Bertrand Hauger

Send all commoner and royal well wishes to Mako and Kei — and let us know what the news looks like from your corner of the world! info@worldcrunch.com

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