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AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Audie Cornish.

ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

And I'm Roberts Siegel. We begin this hour with a new twist in the war in Syria. Rebels are now fighting other rebels in the north of the country. A fractious collection of rebel groups has come together to challenge Islamist extremists who are linked to al-Qaida. Those extremists, many of them experienced fighters, were once welcomed by rebels and civilians alike in the revolt to unseat Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.

But their brutal tactics have instilled fear and resentment. As NPR's Deborah Amos reports, this rebel on rebel fighting has now spread to Raqqah, a provincial capital and extremist stronghold.

DEBORAH AMOS, BYLINE: To understand why Syrian rebel groups turned against the al-Qaida affiliate known as ISIS, or the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, you just have to talk to Syrian activists. They were the first victims of al-Qaida's ruthless ways, says journalist Adnan Haddad(ph) who fled Syria after the group targeted him.

ADNAN HADDAD: I think it's about, you know, feeling afraid of being tortured and feeling afraid of getting kidnapped.

AMOS: You were kidnapped.

HADDAD: For three days, yeah.

AMOS: Why do you think they kidnap journalists?

HADDAD: Just, you know, a typical al-Qaida kind of thinking, you know. They just don't want activists and journalists to cover the violations they commit.

AMOS: But the violations became well known after ISIS took over Raqqah, the only major city in rebel control, pushing other rebels out of the city last May. Chris Looney(ph), a Washington-based Syrian analyst, says ISIS made a dramatic gesture on the first day of its rule.

CHRIS LOONEY: On May 14, when ISIS came and took control of Raqqah, it executed three men in the town square in front of hundreds of people. And that really announced its presence in a very brutal way and set the tone for how ISIS would govern in Raqqah.

AMOS: Back then, ISIS allowed a Syrian media center to post a video of the execution, when armed fighters in face masks forced their captives to their knees and shot them at point-blank range.

(SOUNDBITE OF GUNSHOTS)

AMOS: Soon after this event, ISIS created its own media organization, publishing a newspaper and releasing videos on YouTube. That's when local journalists started to disappear, kidnapped by ISIS, says journalist Rami Jarah(ph). He operated a radio station in Raqqah until ISIS seized the broadcasting equipment and arrested one of his reporters last seen in ISIS custody.

RAMI JARAH: He was badly beaten and bruised from head to toe and that he was left only in his underwear and he'd basically been tortured.

AMOS: ISIS moved swiftly to end any dissent in Raqqah and across northern Syria, he says, kidnapping more than 60 citizen journalists.

JARAH: I can tell you that Raqqah now there's a total absence of any activism or real citizen journalists.

AMOS: Everybody's gone.

JARAH: Everybody's gone from Raqqah.

AMOS: Now, Jarah and other activists have set up media outlets across the border in southern Turkey.

(SOUNDBITE FROM RADIO BROADCAST)

JARAH: R-A-D-I-O A-M-A-S-Y (foreign language spoken)

AMOS: This is Radio ANA, broadcasting news and call-in shows from a studio near the Syrian border.

(SOUNDBITE FROM RADIO BROADCAST)

JARAH: (Speaking foreign language)

AMOS: Jarah and his co-hosts tell listeners they're reporting the real news inside Syria. This is a media battle for hearts and minds in territory controlled by ISIS. But they're up against a well-funded transnational organization, says Chris Looney. These are Sunni extremists from Iraq, later joined by thousands of radicals from around the world.

The war in Syria, he says, has given ISIS renewed strength and safe havens along the Syrian/Iraqi border. Looney and other analysts say that ISIS funds its Syrian operation from money collected in Iraq. Estimates vary from 5 to $8 million every month.

LOONEY: It's mostly through extortion, also criminal activity.

AMOS: And Looney adds what ISIS has done with that cash is ensure its control of Raqqah's economy.

LOONEY: Citizens have become dependent on ISIS for the provision of goods and services. They feel like if they can provide for the community and establish themselves as the only group that Raqqans are able to turn to, it will generate some support for them among the community.

AMOS: Much of that support vanished this week as the new rebel coalition challenged ISIS.

In the first days of the fighting, rebels captured an ISIS prison in Raqqah and released 50 captives posting this video. But in recent days, ISIS has mounted a counterattack to defend their most important base of operations and today, residents report a city without power or water, the hospital abandoned and bodies lying in the street. Deborah Amos, NPR News.

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