Inside the Islamic State ‘capital’: no end in sight to its grim rule

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US air strikes have damaged morale in Raqqa, Syria, but a local anti-Isis activist says no one is expecting the group to be driven out
Paqqa airstrikes Iraq Isis
People inspect a site after it was hit by what activists said were air strikes by forces loyal to Syria’s president, Bashar al-Assad, in Raqqa, Syria. Photograph: Nour Fourat /Reuters
Abu Ibrahim al-Raqqawi
When Isis took over Raqqa, a wave of black swept over the city. The group’s dark flags were raised where its members lived or worked, women were required to shroud themselves in black, and black paint was daubed on buildings and in public spaces.

When US air strikes started, though, activists warned families not to dry dark clothes outside or on their roofs, in case they were mistaken for Isis flags. Perhaps Isis was worried, too, as it has started repainting everything. One central square, where crucifixion and other gruesome punishments are carried out in public, has been decked out in candy colours – pink, green and white. Another is golden.

Apparently, the pressures of publicity and the mundane and expensive business of ruling a city have pushed even Isis to make some compromises.

Last summer, crimes like smoking or failing to shutter a shop during prayer time would have earned transgressors several dozen lashes, but some religious police have started to accept fines in place of punishment from those who can afford it. There are even reports that they have been forcing traders to stay open through prayers, so that they can collect more money from them – around 1,500 Syrian pounds (around £5) each time.

It is not just money that they are short of. They lack blood for fighters injured in air strikes or on the frontline. People don’t want to donate, so they compel them. Anyone with business at the Islamic court is told first to go to a certain hospital, donate a pint of blood, then return with the receipt. Only then will the case be processed.

You can’t pay your way out of that donation, even if you do have money, which not everyone does. They have shut down many companies, including legal firms, for instance. Isis doesn’t believe in the old legal system, claiming that it tries to replace Allah’s law with the law of men.

Isis doesn’t want people to work, it just wants them to suffer, so that the men will join the group, and the women will marry Isis fighters. The Isis men seem to be sex-mad. They are always confiscating Viagra from pharmacies, which people think they use themselves. Many take several wives and are still looking for captives to take as concubines, like the Yazidi women.


The city has become a prison for women under 45. The regime says they cannot leave because they may be raped in areas held by Isis or other rebel groups, but most people inside Raqqa think that it is because they are desperate for more wives for the fighters.

The female brigades have put out a notice saying that anyone who wants to marry an Isis fighter should wear a white veil under their black one, and they will be contacted. Girls don’t really like them, and don’t want to marry them, but some families have economic problems.

But when the women do marry they have other problems. Some don’t even know the true identity of their husbands, only the nom de guerre; one woman’s husband was killed in battle but all she knows is that he came from Tunisia. She has no way of contacting his family, or even finding out where they are.

Isis has banned men born after 1992 from leaving the city for regime areas, to take exams, collect salaries or anything else. That means that no one can go any more, because who wants to flee to Turkey without their wife or daughters and sons?

Also, people don’t want to leave because as soon as anyone goes, Isis seizes their house. It has confiscated many homes from Christians, members of the Free Syrian Army and any activists it has caught.

Before Isis took over, the population of Raqqa was 1 million; now it is 400,000. But people say, ‘Where will I go? What will I do? I have no money to live in Turkey. And they will take my house.’ So they just stay here, waiting for an unknown tomorrow.

With no work, they mostly just stay at home watching television or using the internet. Ordinary people cannot live without internet and Isis cannot live without the internet; it’s like the heroin trade here, everyone is addicted.

They just go on Facebook or WhatsApp, since they can’t really watch videos or Skype, and in any case people worry about causing trouble with Isis. They sometimes inspect your phone at checkpoints, and if they find un-Islamic pictures or messages, you are in trouble.

People are worried about their children. No children are being forced to join up, but they are bored. They have no school, and Isis bans anyone under 13 from working. All day children are surrounded by fighters with Kalashnikovs. It’s like the movies – they see these things and eventually they want to go to the recruitment camps, so it’s very dangerous.

After being closed for a year, the schools reopened this month, but teachers had to go and denounce themselves for using “infidel” textbooks in the past. No one is happy about the new Isis ones they have been given.

School goes only up to ninth grade (middle school) and parents are so worried that their children will be brainwashed that they mostly keep them at home. A few people run small schools at home to teach their children, but it is extremely dangerous. Isis says it will kill any teachers who it catches running private schools, particularly ones for girls.

No one thinks that Isis will be forced out soon, because there are so many of them. The number of foreign fighters in the city is shocking. There is no neighbourhood without them and dozens of houses have been taken over.

People don’t look at Kobani and see a defeat, because everyone had to leave and the Americans bombed it to rubble to win. There are too many people in Raqqa to leave, and Isis knows that no countries want to send in troops to fight on the ground.

The jihadis from other countries tend to stick in groups by nationality or language – the British together, the Dutch together – and they don’t have much to do with ordinary people here. Both sides are afraid of each other.

If someone tries to talk with the foreigners, the Islamic police are likely to turn up and ask why he is bothering them, or perhaps accuse him of being a spy. But the foreigners are also nervous, perhaps because their families or governments in their countries don’t know they are here. Maybe they are worried that their photos or real names might be published, and that this will cause problems if they want to go home.

In fact, though, there is little chance of them going back. It’s easy to get into Raqqa, but very hard to get out. When foreign fighters go to Raqqa the first thing they do is confiscate their passports, and in sermons at the mosques Isis has warned people against giving foreigners new IDs.

Some of them just get bored when they arrive here from London or New York. Raqqa was never an exciting city and now there is nothing to do at all, so they lose enthusiasm. Others just came to live a good life under the caliphate, but they don’t really want to fight, so when Isis needs men and tries to take them to the frontline they are unhappy.

Isis can’t afford news to get out of people defecting, so anyone attempting to sneak out is executed in secret. They killed several people in the west of the city and just dumped their bodies in a hole until the smell got so bad that they had to bury them.

? As told to the Observer. Abu Ibrahim al-Raqqawi is an activist with the group Raqqa is Being Slaughtered Silently