ESKI MOSUL, Iraq – Inside the Islamic State’s realm, the paper testifying that you have “repented” from your heretical past must be carried at all times. Many people laminate it just to be safe. It can mean the difference between life and death.
Bilal Abdullah learned that not long after the extremists took over his Iraqi village, Eski Mosul, a year ago. As he walked down the street, an Islamic State fighter in a pickup truck asked directions to a local mosque. When Abdullah didn’t recognize the mosque’s name, the fighter became suspicious.
“He told me my faith is weak and asked, ‘Do you pray?’” Abdullah recalled. Then the fighter asked to see his “repentance card.” Abdullah had been a policeman until the IS takeover, and policemen and soldiers are required to have one. So are many other former government loyalists or employees — even former English teachers, since they once taught a “forbidden” language and tailors of women’s clothes because they once designed styles deemed un-Islamic.
Abdullah had left his card at home. Terrified, he sent his son running to get it.
“They are brutal people,” he told The Associated Press. “They can consider you an infidel for the simplest thing.”
The Islamic State’s “caliphate,” declared a year ago, stretches across northern Syria through much of northern and western Iraq. Untold numbers have been killed because they were deemed dangerous to the IS, or insufficiently pious; 5-8 million endure a regime that has swiftly turned their world upside down, extending its control into every corner of life to enforce its own radical interpretation of Islamic law, or Shariah.
The Islamic State’s domain is a place where men douse themselves with cologne to hide the odour of forbidden cigarettes; where taxi drivers or motorists usually play the IS radio station, since music can get a driver 10 lashes; where women must be entirely covered, in black, and in flat-soled shoes; where people are thrown to their deaths off buildings on suspicion of homosexuality; where shops must close during Muslim prayers, and everyone found outdoors must attend.
There is no safe way out. People vanish— their disappearance explained by a video of their beheading, an uninformative death certificate, or nothing at all.
“People hate them, but they’ve despaired, and they don’t see anyone supporting them if they rise up,” said a 28-year-old Syrian who asked to be identified only by the nickname he uses in political activism, Adnan, in order to protect his family still living under IS rule. “People feel that nobody is with them.”
The AP interviewed more than 20 Iraqis and Syrians who survived life under the group’s rule. One AP team travelled to several towns in northern Iraq, including Eski Mosul, north of Mosul, where residents are just emerging from nearly seven months under IS rule. Another AP team travelled to Turkish cities along the border, where Syrians who have fled IS territory have taken refuge.
What follows is based on their accounts, many of which were verified by multiple people, as well as on IS social media and broadcast operations and documents obtained by the AP, including copies of repentance cards, weapons inventories, leaflets detailing rules of women’s dress and permission forms to travel outside IS territory — all emblazoned with the IS black banner and logo, “Caliphate in the path of the prophet.”
The picture they paint suggests the Islamic State’s territory, now an area roughly the size of Switzerland, has evolved into an entrenched pseudo-state, one based on a bureaucracy of terror.
In January 2014, when the Islamic State group took over the Syrian city of Raqqa, Adnan fled, fearing his work as a political activist would make him a target. But after a few months of missing his family, he returned to see whether he could endure life under the extremists.
Adnan found Raqqa transformed from a once-colorful cosmopolitan city into the Islamic State’s de facto capital. Women covered head to toe in black scurried quickly to markets before rushing home, young men avoided the cafes they once frequented. IS fighters turned the city soccer stadium into a prison and interrogation centre, known as “Point 11.” One of the city’s central plazas was now referred to by residents as “Jaheem” Square — Hell Square.
He soon learned why. He heard celebratory gunshots one day and saw the bodies of three men dangling from poles in Hell Square. The corpses were left there for three days, he told AP as he chain-smoked in a cafe in Gaziantep, a town on the Turkish border filled with Syrians living in exile.
The reign of terror he had fled had gotten only worse, he said.
Each time the Islamic State group overruns a community, the pattern has been roughly similar, AP found — as methodical as it is bloody.
First comes an initial wave of killings of police and troops. Then the fighters often seek to garner support by quickly repairing electricity and water lines. They call on bureaucrats to return to work. Government employees and any former troops or policemen sign their “repentance” papers and must hand over their weapons or pay fines sometimes amounting to several thousand dollars.
In loudspeaker announcements, mosque sermons and leaflets, new regulations are laid out: No smoking, no alcohol, and no women working except as nurses or in women’s clothing shops, where even mannequins in store windows are covered. Residents said they were required to build walls outside their homes so women would never be seen.
In each district, an “emir” — often a local militant — is appointed to govern. Schools close, then reopen with IS-written curricula. Taxes are imposed on businesses. Pharmacies are given Shariah courses and banned from selling contraceptives. In most locations, tribes or families declare loyalty to the group and gain positions or perks, several interviewees told AP.
Adnan stayed in Raqqa for almost a year, watching the extremists pervade nearly every aspect of life. IS authorities came to his family’s car parts store and demanded taxes — the equivalent of $5,000. The group was clearly flush with money from taxing businesses, confiscating lands from those who fled and sales from oil fields captured further east in Syria, Adnan said.
The group encourages commerce across the “caliphate,” he said — for example, cement supplies and vegetables moved from Turkey, through Raqqa to Mosul, Iraq’s second-largest city
Then Adnan’s one-time activism in support of Syrian rebels caught up with him. In January, a patrol raided his family home, confiscated his laptop and arrested him for publishing online articles they said encouraged secularism. “Such a pretty house,” a patrol member said before smashing two glass water pipes. “This pollutes the environment,” he told Adnan.
For the next 55 days, Adnan was held in Point 11, the soccer stadium.
He was interrogated three times in the initial days, beaten with a green plastic pipe. Then he was moved out of isolation into wards with other prisoners.
Soon after came another gruesome moment. One of the top Islamic State judges in the area, a local man known by the pseudonym Abu Ali al-Sharei, dropped by in early February to teach another lesson in Islamic law to the prisoners. He made small talk with a roomful of them. Then he grinned and said, “Listen, I haven’t told you yet, but today we made al-Kaseasbeh crispy.”
He took a flash drive out of his pocket, Adnan said, and, to the prisoners’ horror, played them footage of captured Jordanian Air Force pilot Muath al-Kaseasbeh being burned alive in a cage by his IS captors.
Adnan’s account is just one example of how IS uses the execution videos that it broadcasts to the world online to also intimidate people under its rule.
In Raqqa’s prison, Adnan’s job of distributing food to other inmates gave him a broad view of operations.
He saw two Kurdish prisoners and overheard wardens saying the pair would likely be used in Kurdish-language propaganda videos before being released. Adnan said he also saw several foreign Islamic State fighters being held — three Turks, an Uzbek, a Russian and a Yemeni — apparently on suspicion of spying. Two other IS fighters were brought in for stealing booty looted from the Syrian Kurdish town of Kobani rather than sharing it with other fighters. Kobani was the scene of the biggest defeat of IS in Syria, when Kurdish forces backed by U.S. airstrikes drove off the militants after months of heavy fighting.
“We gave up 2,200 martyrs in Kobani, and you go and steal?” Adnan said he heard the interrogator shouting at the two detained militants.
Adnan met Palestinian prisoner Mohammed Musallam, whom IS accused of being a spy for Israel. Musallam told Adnan his captors were repeatedly filming him in his own execution video. Each time, he said, they would video a child shooting him in the head — but each time the gun would be empty.
“Then one day, they executed him for real,” Adnan said.
In March, the Islamic State group released a video showing Musallam’s death. Kneeling in a field, he is shot in the head by a young boy wearing military camouflage.
Adnan said he believes that is why many victims in the execution videos appear so calm. “They repeat the thing with them like 20 times. So when the real one comes, the prisoner will think it’s just another mock execution,” he said.