spoils for the rulers, terror for the ruled

De­spite pro­pa­ganda, life un­der the mil­i­tants is filled with vi­o­lence, short­ages and terror

The Washington Post Sunday - - FRONT PAGE - BY KEVIN SUL­LI­VAN PHOTOS BY CHARLES OMMANNEY

The white vans come out at din­ner­time, bring­ing hot meals to un­mar­ried Is­lamic State fight­ers in the city of Hit in western Iraq.

A team of for­eign women, who moved from Europe and through­out the Arab world to join the Is­lamic State, work in com­mu­nal kitchens to cook the fight­ers’ din­ners, which are de­liv­ered to homes con­fis­cated from peo­ple who fled or were Yassin al-Jassem fled to Jor­dan from mil­i­tant-con­trolled Tibni, Syria. Now liv­ing in the Azraq refugee camp in Jor­dan, he says, “I’m never go­ing back to Syria.” killed, the city’s for­mer­mayor said.

The Is­lamic State has drawn tens of thou­sands of peo­ple from around the world by promis­ing par­adise in the Mus­lim home­land it has es­tab­lished on con­quered ter­ri­tory in Syria and Iraq.

But in re­al­ity, the mil­i­tants have cre­ated a bru­tal, two-tiered so­ci­ety, where daily life is starkly dif­fer­ent for the oc­cu­piers and the oc­cu­pied, ac­cord­ing to in­ter­views with more than three dozen peo­ple who are now liv­ing in, or have

re­cently fled, the Is­lamic State.

For­eign fight­ers and their fam­i­lies are pro­vided free hous­ing, med­i­cal care, re­li­gious ed­u­ca­tion and even a sort of mil­i­tant meals-on-wheels ser­vice, ac­cord­ing to those in­ter­viewed. The mil­i­tants are paid salaries raised largely from taxes and fees levied on the mil­lions of peo­ple they con­trol in an arc of land as big as the United King­dom.

Those whose cities and towns are held by the Is­lamic State said they face not only the ca­sual sav­agery of mil­i­tants who be­head their en­e­mies and make sex slaves out of some mi­nor­ity women but also se­vere short­ages of the ba­sics of daily life.

Many res­i­dents have elec­tric­ity for only an hour or two a day, and some homes go days with­out run­ning wa­ter. Jobs are scarce, so many peo­ple can’t af­ford food prices that have tripled or more. Med­i­cal care is poor, most schools are closed, and bans on most travel out­side the Is­lamic State are en­forced at gun­point.

Over the past two years, the mil­i­tants have pro­duced a tor­rent of star­tlingly so­phis­ti­cated online pro­pa­ganda that has helped per­suad eat least 20,000 for­eign fight­ers, many with fam­i­lies, to come from as far away as Aus­tralia. The cam­paign, largely dis­trib­uted on YouTube and so­cial media, de­picts a place filled with Fer­ris wheels and cot­ton candy, where lo­cal fam­i­lies cheer­fully min­gle with heav­ily armed for­eign­ers.

But lo­cal peo­ple in­ter­viewed said their daily lives are filled with fear and de­pri­va­tion in the Is­lamic State “caliphate,” gov­erned by the mil­i­tants’ ex­treme ver­sion of Is­lamic sharia law.

“We went back to the Stone Age,” said Mo­ham­mad Ahmed, 43, a for­mer Arab League worker from Deir al-Zour, a town near Raqqa, the mil­i­tants’ self-pro­claimed cap­i­tal in north­ern Syria.

“We used to have a beau­ti­ful house with mar­ble and ce­ramic floors,” said Ahmed, who fled his homein June and now lives along­side 20,000 other Syr­i­ans in Jor­dan’s Azraq refugee camp. “All our lives, we had ev­ery­thing we needed. Then, when they came, we were cook­ing over a fire out­side and wash­ing our clothes in a bucket.”

Sev­eral of those in­ter­viewed said the Is­lamic State was ac­tu­ally less cor­rupt and pro­vided more ef­fi­cient gov­ern­ment ser­vices, such as road con­struc­tion and trash col­lec­tion, than the pre­vi­ous Syr­ian and Iraqi gov­ern­ments. In Iraq, some said, the Sunni Is­lamic State mil­i­tants treated them bet­ter than the Shi­ite-dom­i­nated cen-tral gov­ern­ment in Bagh­dad. But none of those in­ter­viewed said they sup­ported the mil­i­tants, and all said ef­fi­cient gov­ern­ment did not ex­cuse the group’s bru­tal and fa­nat­i­cal be­hav­ior.

“We hate them,” said Hik­mat al-Gaoud, 41, the for­mer mayor of Hit, who fled in April and now di­vides his time be­tween Bagh­dad and Amman, Jor­dan.

The Is­lamic State came to power in the wake of years of fight­ing in Syria and Iraq that al­ready had shat­tered many public in­sti­tu­tions. But peo­ple in­ter­viewed said the Is­lamic State had made the dam­age worse, in ways that could be felt for decades to come — re­vers­ing gains in public ed­u­ca­tion, ru­in­ing the med­i­cal in­fra­struc­ture, es­tab­lish­ing a jus­tice sys­tem based on terror, and ex­pos­ing a gen­er­a­tion of chil­dren to grue­some and psy­cho­log­i­cally dev­as­tat­ing vi­o­lence.

For­women, liv­ing in the Is­lamic State home­land of­ten means be­ing sub­jected to a vir­tual assem­bly-line sys­tem for pro­vid­ing brides to fight­ers, or some­times be­ing ab­ducted and forced into un­wanted mar­riages.

Many who were in­ter­viewed gave only their first name or de­clined to be iden­ti­fied at all, for their own safety and the se­cu­rity of their fam­ily mem­bers still liv­ing un­der Is­lamic State con­trol. They were in­ter­viewed via Skype or tele­phone calls from Syria and Iraq, or in per­son in Iraq, Tur­key and Jor­dan.

Those who spoke from in­side ar­eas con­trolled by the Is­lamic State did so at great peril, say­ing the mil­i­tants closely mon­i­tor In­ter­net ac­cess. They agreed to speak so that they could tell their story of life in­side the Is­lamic State caliphate.

Nearly ev­ery­one in­ter­viewed said they had wit­nessed a be­head­ing or another sav­age pun­ish­ment. It is vir­tu­ally im­pos­si­ble to in­de­pen­dently ver­ify these ac­counts, just as it is im­pos­si­ble to ver­ify the claims in much of the pro­pa­ganda ma­te­rial put out by the Is­lamic State. The mil­i­tants al­most never al­low jour­nal­ists or other observers in­side their ter­ri­tory, and they have posted video of the be­head­ings of sev­eral they have cap­tured.

The in­ter­views, con­ducted over sev­eral months, were ar­ranged largely at ran­dom or through long es­tab­lished con­tacts in the re­gion. Although sev­eral ac­tivists were among those in­ter­viewed, The Washington Post did not rely on ac­tivist groups to pro­vide in­ter­view sub­jects. At the Azraq camp, Post re­porters re­viewed records of ar­rivals and sought out those who re­cently came from mil­i­tant-con­trolled ar­eas. Many of the in­ter­views lasted two hours or longer.

The mil­i­tants con­trol small farm­ing com­mu­ni­ties and large ur­ban ar­eas, in­clud­ing Mo­sul, an Iraqi city with a pop­u­la­tion of more than 1 mil­lion peo­ple. The Is­lamic State’s poli­cies dif­fer some­what in each area, so there is no sin­gle, uni­form way of life; but in the in­ter­views, con­sis­tent themes emerged about women, health, ed­u­ca­tion, jus­tice and the econ­omy in the Is­lamic State.

Women must be fully veiled and can be whipped for leav­ing the house with­out a male-rel­a­tive es­cort. Many sim­ply stay at home for fear of be­ing picked up on the street and forced to marry a for­eign fighter.

Hos­pi­tals are usu­ally re­served for for­eign fight­ers and are staffed by doc­tors who have come from as far as Bri­tain and Malaysia. Lo­cal peo­ple are forced to seek care in ill-equipped clin­ics, which have ex­pired med­i­ca­tions and poorly trained staff.

In some places, the Is­lamic State has shut down cell­phone ser­vice and In­ter­net ac­cess. Where it still ex­ists, the mil­i­tants try to con­trol it closely. They have set up In­ter­net cafes that have be­come cen­ters for pro­pa­ganda, where re­cruiters en­cour­age young peo­ple around the world to leave their homes and come to the Is­lamic State. They have per­suaded about 200 Amer­i­cans— some still in their teens — in Chicago, Den­ver, Min­neapo­lis and other U.S. cities to try to come to Syria. Most were ar­rested be­fore reach­ing their des­ti­na­tion, ac­cord­ing to U.S. lawen­force­ment of­fi­cials.

Ex­cept for re­li­gious schools for the chil­dren of for­eign fight­ers, schools are gen­er­ally closed. Mil­i­tants have con­fis­cated col­lege diplo­mas and burned them pub­licly.

“Life un­der Daes his a night mare each day,” said a fe­male math teacher who lives in Mo­sul, us­ing an Ara­bic name for the Is­lamic State.

“We have an un­known fu­ture,” she said, ask­ing that her name not be used. “Maybe Daesh will kill us or maybe we will die in the war, or maybe af­ter. What we are go­ing through right now is a slow death.”

The mil­i­tants have es­tab­lished check­points to pre­vent peo­ple from flee­ing. But those in­ter­viewed said a grow­ing net­work of smug­glers is help­ing peo­ple flee, and they are en­ter­ing Jor­dan, Tur­key, Le­banon and non-mil­i­tant­con­trolled ar­eas of Iraq in in­creas­ing num­bers. U.N. of­fi­cials said that 60 per­cent of refugees who have crossed the Syria-Jor­dan bor­der re­cently were es­cap­ing ar­eas con­trolled by the mil­i­tants.

The Is­lamic State’s pro­pa­ganda por­trays the mil­i­tants as lib­er­a­tors; one re­cent video showed armed fight­ers de­liv­er­ing sweets to a home for the el­derly. But ac­cord­ing to those in­ter­viewed, the ma­jor­ity of res­i­dents view the mil­i­tants as a mer­ci­less oc­cu­py­ing force, and they stay away from them as much as pos­si­ble.

“Even if we see them in the streets or in the shops, there is no min­gling,” said an ac­tivist who calls him­self Abu Ibrahim al-Raqqawi, a na­tive of Raqqa who runs a so­cial media site called Raqqa Is Be­ing Slaugh­tered Silently.

Peo­ple in Raqqa, he said, “feel like strangers in their own city.”

Why peo­ple join and stay

The Is­lamic State has had some suc­cess re­cruit­ing lo­cal peo­ple. Those in­ter­viewed said many of their friends and neigh­bors in Syria and Iraq have cho­sen to join the Is­lamic State, be­com­ing fight­ers, teach­ers or work­ers in their gov­ern­ment of­fices.

Some do so be­cause they be­lieve in the mil­i­tants’ goal of unit­ing the world un­der their ex­treme in­ter­pre­ta­tion of Is­lamic law.

But most of the peo­ple who work for the Is­lamic State do so out of eco­nomic des­per­a­tion, ac­cord­ing to those in­ter­viewed. In places where the cost of food has sky­rock­eted and where many peo­ple are liv­ing on lit­tle more than bread and rice, some men have con­cluded that be­com­ing an Is­lamic State war­rior is the only way to pro­vide for their fam­ily.

“There is no work, so you have to join them in or­der to live,” said Yassin al-Jassem, 52, who fled his home near Raqqa in June. “So many lo­cal peo­ple have joined them. They were pushed into Daesh by hunger.”

Peter Neu­mann, di­rec­tor of the In­ter­na­tional Cen­ter for the Study of Rad­i­cal­iza­tion and Po­lit­i­cal Vi­o­lence at King’s Col­lege in Lon­don, said that although for­eign fight­ers have given the Is­lamic State a boost, “in the long term, they will turn out to be a bur­den.” He said that lo­cal tribes rose up

against al-Qaeda in Iraq in the mid-2000s partly be­cause that group was per­ceived as a for­eign or­ga­ni­za­tion. He said peo­ple now un­der Is­lamic State con­trol could do the same— es­pe­cially in Iraq.

But those in­ter­viewed who had lived un­der the Is­lamic State said it has gone to great lengths to sup­press any po­ten­tial up­ris­ings, killing any­one sus­pected of dis­loy­alty.

Faten Hu­mayda, 70, a grand­mother who fled her town near Raqqa in May and now lives in the Azraq camp, said the vi­o­lence in­creases lo­cal anger at the mil­i­tants, but it also cre­ates sus­pi­cion among lo­cal peo­ple. It is harder for any kind of re­sis­tance move­ment to form when peo­ple think their friends and neigh­bors might be in­for­mants for the mil­i­tants.

“They have turned us against each other,” she said.

Ahmed, who fled his town near Raqqa in June, said some of the Arab fight­ers would try to mix with the lo­cal pop­u­la­tion, but the Euro­peans and other non-Arabs never did. He said that although the Is­lamic State mil­i­tants claimed they were there to cre­ate a bet­ter life for Mus­lims, they seemed mainly fo­cused on bat­tles with other rebel groups and gov­ern­ment forces.

“They were al­ways very ag­gres­sive, and they seemed an­gry,” he said. “They are there to fight, not to gov­ern.”

In­ter­viewed in his bak­ing-hot me­tal hut in the Azraq camp, Jassem re­called that while he was liv­ing un­der Is­lamic State con­trol, his 2-year-old grand­son de­vel­oped a brain tu­mor. Doc­tors wanted $800 to re­move it.

Jassem, a farm hand, hadn’t worked since Is­lamic State mil­i­tants took over his home town. He was des­per­ate, so in late May he went to the mil­i­tants to beg for his grand­son’s life, and they of­fered him a choice.

“They said to me, ‘If you give us your son to fight with us, we will pay for your grand­son’s treat­ment,’ ” he said.

The idea of one of his sons be­com­ing an Is­lamic State fighter turned his stom­ach, and the thought of los­ing his grand­son broke his heart. So Jassem took his fam­ily and es­caped in the back of a smug­gler’s truck. He said his son is now ask­ing Jor­da­nian author­i­ties for med­i­cal help for the lit­tle boy.

“I am never go­ing back to Syria,” Jassem said, look­ing out from his 12-by-18-foot hut at the bleak ex­panse of empty Jor­dan desert. “It’s not my Syria any­more.”

CHARLES OMMANNEY/THE WASHINGTON POST

PRO­VIDED BY CHAR­LIE WIN­TER, QUIL­LIAM FOUN­DA­TION

TOP: A young boy in the Azraq refugee camp in the Jor­dan desert, where about 20,000 Syr­i­ans have taken shel­ter. ABOVE: The Is­lamic State pro­duces so­phis­ti­cated pro­pa­ganda por­tray­ing life in its ter­ri­tory as happy, peace­ful and plen­ti­ful, as in this screen shot from a re­cent video. In­ter­views with those who live there, or who have re­cently fled, re­veal a much more dire sit­u­a­tion.

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