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Islamic State territory: Easy to slip in, harder to get out (+video)

Even as aspiring jihadis flock to Syria, a raft of desertions has spurred the Islamic State to clamp down on internal travel in the heart of the militant group's 'caliphate.'

Islamic State checkpoints have sprouted like mushrooms in its Syrian strongholds over the past month, residents say, as the militants clamp down on fighters’ movements in a bid to halt a wave of defections.

The defections have been fueled by IS's high-profile defeat in the Kurdish enclave of Kobane; infighting among jihadis; qualms about killing fellow Muslims; and a backlash against the recent burning of a captured Jordanian pilot.

Even as IS strives to keep the jihadists in place, European countries are trying to stop their nationals from going to live and fight in Syria and Iraq, where the group has declared a "caliphate" and urged Muslims worldwide to join its cause. 

Yet while the group is spreading to other countries like Libya, desertions in its Syrian heartland appear to have picked up pace. They come amid other signs of internal dissent in IS, also known as ISIS or ISIL, including outspoken opposition to some of the group’s harsher tactics from imams who were subsequently executed or removed.

According to residents, the entrances and exits to Raqqa and Tell Abyad – the group's Syrian strongholds – are tightly controlled, with militants inspecting all vehicle contents, scrutinizing ID cards, and poring over photos and messages in the cellphones of passengers. Any reference to Daesh, an Arabic term for IS that the group considers pejorative, in a found e-mail or text message is enough to land a person in detention, say residents. 

“It is clear that they are stressed out,” says Abu Omar, a Syrian smuggler based in the border town of Tell Abyad who has working ties with the group. “They slapped a night-time curfew two weeks ago, and now there are checkpoints and [mobile] checkpoints everywhere in the heart of the city and on all the roads leading out.”

Travel in Tell Abyad is banned from 11 p.m. to 6 a.m. The measure, activists say, was introduced to curb defections and prevent dissidents from crossing into Turkey under the cover of night. The group is also looking for violators of their hardline interpretation of Islamic law, and traitors – individuals who may be cooperating with rival militias or the international coalition. 

IS-controlled smuggling activities, however, are said to continue as normal. Three Syrian men who recently left IS-held territory and entered Turkey via Tell Abyad with the help of smugglers say they had to register their departure with IS militants. Their fingerprints were scanned electronically at a stand near the Syrian side of the border gate.

“They use the fingerprints to find men wanted by IS. If they catch anyone trying to cross without registering, they detain them for three days and beat them up proper,” explains the smuggler in a phone interview. Since their livelihood depends on cooperation with IS, smugglers now refuse to take anyone who fails to abide by the new rule.

Defections and executions

The three men, who traveled separately to Turkey, say they were given paper slips to present to smugglers before crossing the border. “Entering the Islamic State is easy, but leaving is hard," says Ahmed, who paid $50 and crossed with the help of Abu Omar. "There are long lines at checkpoints. They do meticulous checks.”

Syrian activist Abu Mohammed, who has been documenting IS abuses in Raqqa, says there have been up to 150 defections in the past month. The most prominent defector was Abu Talha al-Kuwaiti, the head of the IS Al-Hisba security force in Raqqa, who reportedly fled to Turkey with $1 million and his men in late January.

“Others joined Jabhat al-Nusra and Ahrar al-Sham,” two homegrown jihadist groups at odds with IS, says Abu Mohammed, a member of the network Raqqa Is Being Slaughtered Silently, which documents IS abuses. Other local outlets reported that IS executed at least 60 foreign militants who defected in Raqqa and Deir Ezzor. 

Residents and activists – all using pseudonyms for their safety – attribute the defections to growing rivalries between local and foreign fighters, as well as discouragement after the months-long siege of Kobane ended in defeat. Other reasons given are distaste at the group's bartering over Japanese hostage Kenji Goto, who was later executed, and disgust over the killing of Jordanian pilot Muath Kassasbeh.

Footage showing the burning of the pilot, a Muslim, was screened repeatedly in Raqqa’s public spaces. The harrowing sight drew cheers from diehard IS supporters and children who have become desensitized to violence, but shocked other residents in the city. 

“Not even one percent of the population supported that act,” says Naeem, a civilian from Raqqa, visiting relatives in Turkey. He uses a pseudonym because he plans to return to IS-held territory. 

Dissenting imams executed

Abu Mohammed says this incident led to defections “first, because there is no such thing as burning (someone to death) in the religion (Islam). And secondly because members feared the losses ahead for IS. They feared the reaction of Jordan and the reaction of the coalition.”

The video of Lt. Kassasbeh alight in a cage drew rebukes from Muslim leaders worldwide and criticism from clerics in IS-held towns of Syria and Iraq, in some cases with fatal consequences.  

The UK-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights reported Feb. 6 that militants executed an imam in the IS-held town of Al-Bab for condemning the execution method. Another imam who criticized the group was dismissed from his post in the northern city of Aleppo. Two other critical clerics were executed in the Iraqi city of Mosul, Kurdish media reported.

Defectors in Raqqa, says Naeem, have been executed on the basis of unrelated charges in order to mask divisions in IS ranks. Chopped heads and crucified bodies have become a permanent fixture of public squares, the alleged offense scrawled on the victims’ foreheads. 

“Defections are covered up,” explains Naeem. “But it always comes up in small talk. Every IS member knows at least one person who has fled. They call them traitors.”

Caliphate still under firm control

While there are growing signs of distress, no one expects IS to collapse any time soon. Raqqa and Tell Abyad are both firmly under its control, their authority buttressed by a regime of terror and network of informants.

IS has secured a local support base, winning people over with religion, power, and money. And despite the controversies, which true believers dismiss as aberrations to be phased out, many are genuinely committed to the utopian enterprise of establishing an Islamic state. The group continues to paint roads and public buildings, signaling its intention to stay in power. 

Hassan, a resident of Raqqa who returned two weeks ago from Europe, says Syrians are more worried about putting food on the table, keeping warm, and avoiding air strikes than resisting IS. “Whether you agree with them or not, it is a functional regime, a state with a law that everyone must follow,” says Hassan.

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