The Trans-Border Fight Against ISIS

RAQQA, SYRIA, JULY 9, 2013: A women covers her face as she waits in line to buy bread at a bakery run by the Islamic Movement Ahrar al Sham in Raqqa city during the holy month of Ramadan.

©Alice Martins

RAQQA, SYRIA, JULY 9, 2013: A women covers her face as she waits in line to buy bread at a bakery run by the Islamic Movement Ahrar al Sham in Raqqa city during the holy month of Ramadan.

©Alice Martins

AR RAQQA, SYRIA, 10 AUGUST 2013. The bodies of six members of the same family killed during an air strike are prepared for burial in Raqqa city. Over a dozen civilians were killed, six of them members of the same family. Dozens of people were injured in three separate attacks in residential areas.

©Alice Martins

RAQQA, SYRIA, AUGUST 10, 2013: Six young siblings, victims of an attack where a bomb was dropped from a Syrian army helicopter, are buried in Raqqa city. Relatives held up mobile phones to provide light for the burial, which was made during the night and in a rush amid fears of another attack.

©Alice Martins

RAQQA, SYRIA, AUGUST 23, 2013: A Syrian rebel fighter ducks to avoid sniper fire amid fighting against militants of the YPG, a Kurdish militia, in the Raqqa countryside.

RAQQA, SYRIA, AUGUST 25, 2013: A member of the Islamic armed group Ahrar al Sham uses a night-vision scope to watch Kurdish YPG positions during clashes in the countryside of Raqqa.

MT. SINJAR, NOVEMBER 12, 2015: A member of a Kurdish special forces regiment watches from a hilltop as US-led coalition airstrike targets an Islamic State position while a large convoy of Peshmerga forces drives towards Sinjar city during a major offensive to expel Islamic State militants.

©Alice Martins

ERBIL, IRAQ, JANUARY 24, 2016: Wedding dresses are seen on display at a makeshift bridal shop at Kawergosk refugee camp for Syrians in northern Iraq.

©Alice Martins

OUTSIDE MAKHMOUR, IRAQ, ON MARCH 25, 2016: A rocket is fired from a grad rocket launcher in an Iraqi army position ©Alice Martins

RAMADI, IRAQ, SEPTEMBER 20, 2016: Tribal leaders from Anbar province participate in a meeting with the local governor to discuss security in areas recently recaptured from ISIS militants.

©Alice Martins

FALLUJAH, IRAQ, SEPTEMBER 20, 2016: A damaged building is seen at night in Fallujah. The city was known as a stronghold for the resistance against the US invasion in 2003, and more recently was part of the vast territory controlled by ISIS.

©Alice Martins

ERBIL, IRAQ, OCTOBER 19, 2016: A young barber works at a camp for Iraqi Christians displaced by war. Christian towns outside Mosul were overtaken by ISIS militants in 2014 and the vast majority of the population was displaced.

©Alice Martins

QAYYARAH, IRAQ, OCTOBER/20/2016: The body of three-year-old Sadan lies covered by a blood-stained blanket at a clinic in Qayyarah. She was killed while fleeing Islamic State captivity alongside her family when an improvised explosive device planted by IS militants was detonated.

©Alice Martins

QAYYARAH, IRAQ, OCTOBER 20, 2016: Family members grieve while the body of a three-year-old girl is prepared for burial in Qayyarah. She was killed while fleeing ISIS captivity alongside her family when an improvised explosive device planted by the militants was detonated.

©Alice Martins

Qayyarah, IRAQ, OCTOBER,20,2016: Three brothers executed by ISIS militants are buried at the Qayyarah graveyard. Their bodies were found when Iraqi forces entered the town of Hod, while militants fled taking with them civilian hostages to be used as human shields further north.

©Alice Martins

QAYYARAH, IRAQ, OCTOBER 20, 2016: An elderly man stands at the Qayyarah graveyard. Islamic State militants destroyed all tombstones, which they considered “unislamic”, while they controlled the city.

©Alice Martins

QAYYARAH, IRAQ, OCTOBER,23,2016: Civilians from the town of Qayyarah sit waiting for food donations.

©Alice Martins

AL QAYYARAH, IRAQ, OCTOBER 24, 2016: A member of the Iraqi security forces wears a gas mask while carrying a box of ammunition at Qayyarah military base as the area was covered by a thick cloud of Sulphur dioxide from Mishraq plant.

©Alice Martins

NINEVEH COUNTRYSIDE, IRAQ, OCTOBER 21, 2016: A man is blindfolded and handcuffed before being placed on the back of a pick-up truck by members of the Iraqi security forces to be questioned. The detention of local residents in areas recently recaptured from ISIS was widespread during the military operation to push the militants out of Mosul city and surrounding villages.

©Alice Martins

LOCATION UNKNOWN, IRAQ, OCTOBER 21, 2016: An Iraqi soldier displays a stain on his bulletproof vest he claims is the blood of an Islamic State militant he killed on the previous day.

©Alice Martins

MAKHMOUR, IRAQ, OCTOBER 21, 2016: A humvee part of an Iraqi army convoy drives through an area contaminated by smoke from oil wells set alight by Islamic State militants as they fled Iraqi security forces in Qayyarah.

©Alice Martins

SUFAYA, IRAQ, OCTOBER 23, 2016: Members of a Shia paramilitary group pray in the town of Sufaya as Iraqi federal police members advance towards ISIS positions over the hill in the background.

©Alice Martins

QAYYARAH, IRAQ, OCTOBER 24, 2016: Members of the Iraqi security forces at Qayyarah military base prepare for a mission as the area was covered by a thick cloud of sulphur dioxide from Mishraq plant, set alight by fleeing ISIS militants.

©Alice Martins

MOSUL, IRAQ, NOVEMBER 8, 2016: A man, blindfolded and handcuffed, kneels on the ground between two members of the Iraqi security forces after being accused of having links to the Islamic State group, being beaten and detained.

©Alice Martins

MOSUL, IRAQ, NOVEMBER 8: A small group of civilians walks carrying a white flag and few belongings to escape fighting between Islamic State militants and Iraqi security forces in the city of Mosul.

©Alice Martins

HASANSHAN CAMP, IRAQ, NOVEMBER 10, 2016: Women and children who fled fighting in Mosul stand in line to receive a food package at a displacement camp in northern Iraq.

©Alice Martins

AIN ISSA, SYRIA, NOVEMBER 22, 2016: A shepherd walks by a sign indicating the direction to Raqqa city during the early stages of the military operation to expel ISIS militants from their de-facto capital.

©Alice Martins

AIN ISSA, SYRIA, NOVEMBER 22, 2016: Civilians fleeing fighting between US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces and ISIS militants in the countryside of Raqqa gather on the yard of a screening center in Ain Issa.

©Alice Martins

AL ABYAD, SYRIA, NOVEMBER 24, 2016: Syrian Democratic Forces recruits share a meal at the school where they attend classes on political ideology before going through military training.

©Alice Martins

ALEPPO COUNTRYSIDE, SYRIA, NOVEMBER 27, 2016: Manbij Military Council recruits stand at a graduation ceremony after completing military training provided by US special forces in the countryside of Aleppo province.

©Alice Martins

ALEPPO COUNTRYSIDE, SYRIA, NOVEMBER 27, 2016: Manbij Military Council recruits stand at a graduation ceremony after completing military training provided by US special forces in the countryside of Aleppo province.

©Alice Martins

IRAQ/SYRIA BORDER, NOVEMBER 29, 2016: A Syrian family rides a boat across the Tigris river en route to Iraq.

©Alice Martins

HASIMA, SYRIA, MAY 23, 2017: A mural depicting the ISIS flag is seen in the Hasima, north of Raqqa city, where US-backed SDF fighters faced heavy resistance from the militants before capturing the village.

©Alice Martins

TABQA, SYRIA, MAY 24, 2017: A woman walks by a building targeted in a US-led coalition air strike where several civilians were killed during the operation to expel ISIS militants from Raqqa province.

©Alice Martins

ALEPPO COUNTRYSIDE, SYRIA, MAY 25, 2017: Manbij Military Council recruits rest during combat training exercise.

©Alice Martins

RAQQA, SYRIA, JUNE 12, 2017: A member of the Syrian Democratic Forces looks through a hole on the wall towards a position held by ISIS militants.

©Alice Martins

RAQQA, SYRIA, JUNE 22, 2017: A member of the Syrian Democratic Forces uses a radio in a position on the eastern edge of Raqqa city during the operation against ISIS.

©Alice Martins

RAQQA COUNTRYSIDE, SYRIA, JULY 15, 2017: Members of the Syrian Democratic Forces and civilians bury the bodies of two soldiers killed in action in Raqqa city.

©Alice Martins

MOSUL, IRAQ, AUGUST 12, 2017: Aya weeps while sitting next to the bags containing the remains of her sister and two nephews that were retrieved from the site of an airstrike in the Old City of Mosul.

©Alice Martins

RAQQA, SYRIA, MARCH 8, 2018: Members of the civil defense in Raqqa city write information on a bag containing the remains of a body at their headquarters. On this day alone they retrieved 11 bodies from the rubble, 8 of them unidentified.

©Alice Martins

RAQQA, SYRIA, MARCH 10, 2018: Workers straighten reinforcement bars collected from the rubble in Raqqa city to be re-used in construction.

©Alice Martins

RAQQA, SYRIA, MARCH 8: Destruction seen in an affluent neighborhood of Raqqa. The central area of the city was the most heavily damaged as the military operation to expel the militants last year surrounded the city from all sides, gradually pushing the remaining militants to the center.

©Alice Martins

RAQQA, SYRIA, MARCH 10, 2018: Salim, 56, gestures as he describes what happened to his home that he found destroyed upon returning to Raqqa city following the military operation.

©Alice Martins

AIN ISSA, SYRIA, MARCH 10, 2018: A section of a camp reserved for foreign wives of ISIS militants is seen on the foreground with the main camp for displaced civilians on the background.

©Alice Martins

RAQQA, SYRIA, MARCH 11, 2018: Members of Raqqa’s civil defense carry a body they retrieved from the site of an airstrike.

©Alice Martins

RAQQA, SYRIA, MARCH 11: Members of Raqqa’s civil defense bury 11 unidentified bodies on a mass grave on the outskirts of the city.

©Alice Martins

HASAKA COUNTRYSIDE, SYRIA, OCTOBER 12: A member of the Sanadid forces, a Shammar tribe militia, drives a pick-up truck near their base in the countryside of Hasaka province during a sandstorm.

©Alice Martins

RAQQA, SYRIA, OCTOBER 16: A member of the Raqqa civil defense stands on the site of an airstrike in the Bado neighborhood as a team searches for human remains.

©Alice Martins

RAQQA, SYRIA, OCTOBER 16: A member of the Raqqa civil defense stands on the site of an airstrike in the Bado neighborhood as a team searches for human remains.

©Alice Martins

ROJ CAMP, SYRIA, OCTOBER 19: A woman and children walk in a camp where the families of foreign Islamic State militants are held in northeast Syria.

©Alice Martins

Currently viewing slideshow. View photo gallery.

The Trans-Border Fight Against ISIS

Share

Territory has long been the motivation for war and controlling a geographic area has been the ultimate index for winning and losing. The rise, fall, and persistence of ISIS, however, at once reinforces but complicates the centrality of territorial conquest to warfare. Born out of the same genealogy that gave rise to Al-Qaeda, going back to Soviet-occupation Afghanistan, ISIS, which was born of subsequent rivalries between jihadist factions, illustrates the logic of viral mutation so central to the war on terror in the increasingly digital age. There can be no doubt that this mutation was catalyzed by the fateful U.S.-led invasion of Iraq in 2003; but how it will end is impossible to tell.

As many observers have noted, mediation plays a pivotal role for ISIS as it seeks to mobilize the disaffected and aggrieved from across the world through online recruiting. Yet the group’s project is deeply cartographic, its ambitions laid out in black maps that project fantasies about a future Caliphate, roughly akin to the Roman Empire at its height. But what does this look like on the ground? Alice Martins is one of the few intrepid photographers to track the multi-actor battles across eastern Syrian and western Iraq.

As Martins documents the trans-border fight against ISIS, she gives us a sense of the fluidity of a conflict that is charged by a multiplicity of state and non-state actors that are gaming fickle alliances as they fight. She does so with great sensitivity to the people stuck in this conflict zone and an eye for the subtle ways that everyday life becomes infused with the conflict. Take, for example, her image of a refugee tent converted into a shop window for wedding dresses. In Martins’s images, the war is inescapable. It infects the air. Iraqi soldiers wear gas masks, men working to dig graves shovel up clouds of dust, the Civil Defense of Raqqa wear face masks as they write on body bags, and women and children cover their mouths in horror. Simply put, Alice Walker, has walked through hell and documented its fury, but has been sure to leave us with glimpses of humanity. She shows us a conflict in continual motion, as complex as it is tragic.

— Alexander L. Fattal
Assistant Professor
University of California, San Diego

Copyright information: Photos are copyright © Alice Martins.