Raqqa is perhaps the most isolated, repressed city on earth. Now, more than three years after it was captured by ISIS, chilling new details of the militant stronghold in Syria have emerged.
Satellite images provided to CNN by McKenzie Intelligence Services (MIS) show a city held hostage by terror. The aerial shots show checkpoints, ISIS flags dominating the skyline and bridges cut off from the world by US-led coalition airstrikes, among other intriguing details.
Stuart Ray, an MIS analyst, said the satellite images, taken on March 26, showed signs of normal daily life in Raqqa, and not as much destruction from the airstrikes as might have been expected.
He said the buildings that had been hit seemed to remain relatively intact, as did some of the infrastructure, although that doesn’t mean the infrastructure is necessarily working. Ray added that from what can be seen in these snapshots, it did not look like a city damaged by battle, or under siege – even though the latter is increasingly true.
What the images show
1. Checkpoints in front of reported ISIS HQ: The images clearly show two checkpoints in the main road outside a key governate building, which ISIS have reportedly used as a headquarters. To the left, the remains of a building targeted in a precision coalition airstrike can be seen – this is believed to be the previous ISIS command center.
2. ISIS colors: The shadow on the ground confirms the presence of a large ISIS flag next to the governate building, near the city’s clock tower square.
3. Bridge to nowhere: The old bridge in Raqqa has been severed at one end, likely the result of a precision coalition airstrike that targeted the bridge’s end nearest the bank – perhaps to make it easier to rebuild in the future. The image also shows a series of slipways, making access for cars to the river and boats easier.
4. Tarpaulins shield militants from drones: All along the length of al-Mansour street in central Raqqa is a blanket of massive tarpaulins strung up from the buildings. The tarpaulins are designed to obscure ISIS fighters from coalition drone surveillance.
Coalition net slipping over the city
Raqqa is almost entirely encircled by coalition-backed fighters called the Syrian Defense Forces, an alliance of mainly Kurdish fighters with some Arab Syrian rebels in tow.
The group have been moving fast in the flatlands around the city to seal it from the west, north and east, and are due, in the coming weeks, to move in from the south.
This will up the pressure on ISIS in the city, where recent escapees reported food shortages, and even problems with water.
The fight for Raqqa, heavily assisted by US and other Western special forces, may mark the last major battle to remove the group from its self-declared caliphate in Iraq and Syria, as the fight to oust them from Mosul in Northern Iraq continues to progress.
And while Raqqa is a smaller city than Mosul, ISIS are expected to fight hard to prevent its symbolic defeat.