Ghosts of Islamic State Still Haunt Raqqa

The water near the edge of the Euphrates River in downtown Raqqa reflects a strange mix of blues, like a tropical sea rushing through an urban riverbed.Men and boys splash near a bridge, newly built almost two years after the battle with Islamic State militants that left the city in ruins.This was the epicenter of the self-declared “Caliphate” that ruled parts of Syria and Iraq for three years, imposing their harsh version of Islamic law and attracting devotees from around the world.But as Raqqa slowly revives, emerging from a brutal war after years of extremist rule, an ever-present fear is growing. Will hiding militants return? Sleeper cells awake? Will supporters take their revenge on those that live in peace under the enemies of IS?“We are scared,” Abdullah, a 33-year-old father of five tells us, still dripping from his dip in the river. “If IS comes back they will kill us all.”The speaker of Raqqa’s Parliament, Khalid Borkal, says ISIS members and sleeper cells are still operating in Raqqa, Syria, Aug. 25, 2019. (Yan Boechat/VOA)A few blocks away, behind heavy cement walls, officials say attacks in the city are increasingly common, with four or five this month.Many other attempts were thwarted, says Khalid Barkal, Raqqa’s speaker of Parliament. After years of IS rule, he explains, devotion to the group runs deep among some people, and trauma and fear are widespread.“My greatest happiness,” Barkal tells us in his Raqqa office, “Will be when the IS supporters forget about that black flag.”Haunted by terrorBut for Raqqa residents, forgetting can seem like a far away dream.Na’eem Square, or Heaven Square, was nicknamed “Hell Square” under IS, because the severed heads of accused spies or criminals would be spiked on the fence for days in the center of town. The fence has been replaced, but residents say memories of extreme violence have not faded.The old bridge of Raqqa over the Euphrates River is still cut in the middle since the battle with IS in 2017, Aug. 25, 2019 in Raqqa, Syria. (Yan Boechat/VOA)As we travel the city, soldiers, shopkeepers and government workers quietly tell us there are many secret IS supporters in Raqqa. At a fish restaurant in a garden near the city’s other main bridge that’s still destroyed from the battle, a 24-year-old waiter appears nervous when asked about the difference between now, and the time of IS.“I only care about taking care of ...