Heard at Syria's border: Life in the Islamic State is orderly, but brutal

Along the Turkish border, residents of Raqqa, Syria, offer a window into life in an Islamic State-administered city, a place of swift, brutal justice where death and loss are experienced daily.

An Islamic State policeman controls traffic in Raqqa, Syria, Sept. 18, 2014.

Three women line up at Turkey’s Kilis border gate waiting to enter Syria. They are headed home to Raqqa, a city on the Euphrates River that is a bastion of the self-styled Islamic State (IS), the Sunni jihadist group that the United States and its allies have vowed to stamp out.

The mother and her two daughters fear Western bombs will cut short their lives. But after a month trying unsuccessfully to make ends meet in Istanbul, they simply have no choice.

“We must go back because we can’t survive here,” the youngest, Lina, says. 

At the crossing, they discreetly search for a male resident of Raqqa. They need someone who could act as their escort on the long – more than 200 miles without detours – and uncertain road home, where IS militants impose a radical and unforgiving interpretation of Islamic Law. 

“Before Daash (IS), I was able to travel to Denmark and Beirut and all over Syria on my own. Now I can’t even go around the corner in Raqqa without having a male escort,” says the 60-year-old matron, Alaa. She keeps an eye on her eldest daughter, who tries to persuade a border guard to allow them to pass with an undocumented baby and two toddlers.

The women and other Raqqa residents who regularly come in and out of Turkey spoke to The Christian Science Monitor at the Turkish border cities of Kilis, Akcakale, and Gaziantep, as well as in Istanbul. Their accounts offer a window into life in an IS-administered city, a place of swift, brutal justice, where death and loss are experienced daily. The names of some of those interviewed were changed at their request to protect their identities.

The Al Qaeda offshoot, which seized large chunks of Iraq at lightning speed this summer and threatened religious minorities in its path, is well entrenched in Syria. In Raqqa, which IS took over in January, the militant group enjoyed almost free rein to forge a microstate. It is now a top destination for jet-set jihadists.

'20,000 Assads'

Syrian residents of Raqqa tend to view with distrust the foreign jihadists that the Islamic State ushered in, although few dare speak up out of fear of reprisal. While Raqqa long adhered to conservative Muslim values, most find the group’s harsh interpretation of Islam alienating rather than inspiring. None would condone the killing of fellow Muslims. Many feel that slicing and dicing between unbelievers and apostates is something best left to God, rather than new converts or ex-drug addicts, who they say populate the IS ranks.

“We got rid of [Syrian President Bashar] Assad in Raqqa but now we have 20,000 Assads,” complains Aisha, who crossed into Turkey with the help of a smuggler and now lives in the dusty town of Akcakale. The CIA estimates that the Islamic State, which has battled both the Syrian regime and more moderate anti-Assad groups in its rise to prominence, boasts between 20,000 and 30,000 men in its ranks.

“The worst is their women – they walk about carrying guns, grenades, and suicide belts. You are always worried that one of them will go off by accident,” says Aisha. She now feels safe enough to chuckle at the memory of a jihadist’s wife who scolded her at the gynecologist’s office for lifting her face veil for a quick breather. The woman was so adamant that Aisha deemed it best to cover up, despite the suffocating heat and absence of men.

Other Raqqa residents, however, credit IS with running an effective Islamic court, settling local disputes fairly and introducing mechanisms to right their own wrongdoings. There is a complaints office for those who have been treated unfairly, maktab al-madhalim.

“This sort of thing was unheard off under Assad,” says Rabia, a teenager living in Raqqa who was wrongly accused by rivals of pocketing oil revenue, a main source of income for the Islamic State. He was released after a few hours of questioning and the man responsible for the false charges was later detained.

Justice is swift and severe

But those who pay for their alleged crimes in blood don’t have the luxury of appeal.

Justice in Raqqa is delivered swiftly and severely – often on Na’im Square, where crowds of children and men converge to watch the medieval spectacle. Thieves who are repeat offenders have their hands cut off.

The more serious the charges, the more sensational the punishment.

“The killer is killed and left to rot on a cross for three days. They only cut off the heads of captured regime soldiers,” says Umm Khaled, a native of Raqqa now in Turkey, half condoning the brutal end of men she blames for the disintegration of her country. IS militants, she admits, execute rebels fighting Assad with equal gusto.

Mahmoud, a young man who left Raqqa this month to join his friends in Istanbul, sums up the situation: “Killings have become normal. Everyday you leave your house in Raqqa and you see death. Everyone has lost someone.

“Assad bombs and kills civilians,” he says. “Daash [IS] executes regime troops and rebels, but they brought security. Few people join IS out of religious belief. Most are in it for power, money, and recognition, or simply to have their backs covered if they have problems in the community. The tragedy is that the youth and children are easily brainwashed, so this will be a long-term problem.”

For impact, he shows a video of a crucified cat, killed and skinned by his nephew.

The first public crucifixion in Raqqa took place March 22, 2014. Raqqa Is Being Slaughtered Silently, an activist group with members inside and outside the city, documented seven crucifixions this year along with many summary killings. A member of the group said he witnessed but could not film the stoning of Fidha Sayyed Ahmad, executed near the football stadium on July 18, 2014, on charges of extramarital sex. Another woman, 26-year-old Shamsa Mohammed al-Abdullah, met the same fate less than 24 hours earlier in IS-held Tabqa.

Not of all these acts are documented or leaked to the world. Activists sneak out videos and photos captured on their cell phones. But lately jihadist media units have been cranking out the graphic images for broad dissemination on social media. And in Raqqa, IS military victories and suicide missions are screened to the public.

Micromanaging life

IS militants have taken a special interest in running the economy and micromanaging all aspects of people’s lives in the areas they control, whether in Syria or Iraq. In Raqqa, a special unit patrols the streets to ensure that people wear appropriate Islamic dress, shops close during prayer time, smoking and drinking bans are observed, and that sexy lingerie is not displayed on storefronts. Merchants pay a monthly tax of 1,500 Syrian pounds, or $8 according to the local exchange rate,

The group recently introduced export taxes for those taking goods out of their self-styled “caliphate.”

One major disagreement in Raqqa is the subject of marriage. While most Syrian families and girls reject the idea of wedding foreign jihadists, according to residents, some enter such unions out of necessity.

"If someone has been detained by the Islamic State, they might buy the freedom of the person by marrying one of the girls in the family. There are some very poor people, so when a foreigner is willing to pay up to $10,000 as dowry, this is a golden opportunity," says Syrian refugee Abu Radwan, in Gaziantep.

The group's female Al-Khansa Brigades have instructed Syrian women wishing to marry IS expats to identify themselves by wearing a white fabric under a transparent black veil. While the union might follow Muslim tradition, few expat jihadists turn around to register their marriages with state authorities back home, and Damascus certainly doesn’t recognize paperwork issued in Raqqa. With such marriages inevitably putting the Syrian women on the fast track to widowhood, they are left extremely vulnerable.

The lot of children in Raqqa isn't much better.

“The Islamic State wants to put together a new curriculum and open up schools,” says an activist versed on the new institutions of Raqqa. The next curriculum promises to be thin. Nationalism, religion, history, music, and the theory of evolution are out. The laws of physics and chemistry are allowed as long as they are framed in terms of divine design. When it comes to mathematics, the module of probability was axed. You can’t hedge your bets in life. Everything is determined, or written, by God. Co-ed classrooms are strictly forbidden.

Expected to toe the line, educators were convened for teacher training late August.

“The only thing my children learned in the past year in Raqqa was Quranic verses taught at the local mosque,” says Alia, a mother of three who has settled in the Turkish town of Akcakale. “When the regime was in control, the curriculum was renewed every year. Now all that the students can aspire to is private tutoring sessions that get raided to make sure that the two sexes don’t mix and that the content matches Islamic State ideology.”

“When it comes to women rights, life in Raqqa is zero,” Alia says. “But when it comes to children’s rights, it is two zeroes.”

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