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