Life in a Jihadist Capital: Order With a Darker Side
In a Syrian City, ISIS Puts Its Vision Into Practice
RAQQA, Syria — When his factory was bombed in the northern Syrian city of Aleppo, the businessman considered two bleak options: remain at home and risk dying in the next airstrike, or flee like hundreds of thousands of others to a refugee camp in Turkey.
Instead, he took his remaining cash east and moved to a neighboring city, Raqqa, the de facto capital of the world’s fastest growing jihadist force. There he found a degree of order and security absent in other parts of Syria.
“The fighting in Syria will continue, so we have to live our lives,” said the businessman, who gave only a first name, Qadri, as he oversaw a dozen workers in his new children’s clothing factory in Raqqa.
Long before extremists rolled through Iraq and seized a large piece of territory, the group known as the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, or ISIS, took over most of Raqqa Province, home to about a million people, and established a headquarters in its capital. Through strategic management and brute force, the group, which now calls itself simply the Islamic State, has begun imposing its vision of a state that blends its fundamentalist interpretation of Islam with the practicalities of governance.
In time, it has won the surprising respect of some war-weary citizens, like Qadri, who will accept any authority that can restore a semblance of normal life. Rebel-held areas of Aleppo, by comparison, remain racked with food shortages and crime. But there is a darker side to Islamic rule, with public executions and strict social codes that have left many in this once-tolerant community deeply worried about the future.
In the city of Raqqa, traffic police officers keep intersections clear, crime is rare, and tax collectors issue receipts. But statues like the landmark lions in Al Rasheed Park have been destroyed because they were considered blasphemous. Public spaces like Al Amasy Square, where young men and women once hung out and flirted in the evenings, have been walled off with heavy metal fences topped with the black flags of ISIS. People accused of stealing have lost their hands in public amputations.
“What I see in Raqqa proves that the Islamic State has a clear vision to establish a state in the real meaning of the word,” said a retired teacher in the city of Raqqa. “It is not a joke.”
How ISIS rules in Raqqa offers insight into what it is trying to do as it moves to consolidate its grip in territories spanning the Syrian-Iraqi border. An employee of The New York Times recently spent six days in Raqqa and interviewed a dozen residents. The employee and those interviewed are not being identified to protect them from retaliation by the extremists who have hunted down and killed those perceived as opposing their project.
To those entering Raqqa, ISIS makes clear, immediately, who is in charge.
At the southern entrance to the city, visitors were once greeted by a towering mosaic of President Bashar al-Assad and Haroun al-Rasheed, the caliph who ruled the Islamic world from Raqqa in the ninth century. Now there is a towering black billboard that pays homage to ISIS and to the so-called martyrs who died fighting for its cause.
Raqqa’s City Hall houses the Islamic Services Commission. The former office of the Finance Ministry contains the Shariah court and the criminal police. The traffic police are based in the First Shariah High School. Raqqa’s Credit Bank is now the tax authority, where employees collect $20 every two months from shop owners for electricity, water and security. Many said that they had received official receipts stamped with the ISIS logo and that the fees were less than they used to pay in bribes to Mr. Assad’s government.
“I feel like I am dealing with a respected state, not thugs,” said a Raqqa goldsmith in his small shop as a woman shopped for gold pieces with cash sent from abroad by her husband.
Raqqa is a test case for ISIS, which imposed itself as the ultimate authority in this city on the Euphrates River early this year. The group has already proved its military prowess, routing other militias in Syria as well as the Iraqi military. But it is here in this agricultural hub that it has had the most time to turn its ideology into reality, a project that appears unlikely to end soon given the lack of a military force able to displace it.
An aid worker who travels to Raqqa said the ranks of ISIS were filled with volatile young men, many of them foreigners more interested in violence than governance. To keep things running, it has paid or threatened skilled workers to remain in their posts while putting loyalist supervisors over them to ensure compliance with Islamic rules.
“They can’t fire all the staff and bring new people to run a hospital, so they change the manager to someone who will enforce their rules and regulations,” the aid worker said, speaking on the condition of anonymity so as not to endanger his work.
Raqqa’s three churches, once home to an active Christian minority, have all been shuttered. After capturing the largest, the Armenian Catholic Martyrs Church, ISIS removed its crosses, hung black flags from its facade and converted it into an Islamic center that screens videos of battles and suicide operations to recruit new fighters.
The few Christians who remain pay a minority tax of a few dollars per month. When ISIS’s religious police officers patrol to make sure shops close during Muslim prayers, the Christians must obey, too.
The religious police have banned public smoking of cigarettes and water pipes — a move that has dampened the city’s social life, forcing cafes to close. They also make sure that women cover their hair and faces in public.
A university professor from Raqqa said ISIS gunmen recently stopped a bus heading to Damascus when they found one woman on board insufficiently covered. They held the bus up for an hour and a half until she went home and changed, the professor said.
More pragmatically, ISIS has managed to keep food in markets, and bakeries and gas stations functioning. But it has had more trouble with drinking water and electricity, which is out for as much as 20 hours a day.
Perhaps realizing that the young extremists most attracted to its sectarian violence lack professional skills, the leader of ISIS, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, asked in a recent audio address for doctors and engineers to travel to places like Raqqa to help build his newly declared Islamic State. “Their migration is an obligation so that they can answer the dire need of the Muslims,” Mr. Baghdadi said.
Hints of this international mobilization are already apparent in Raqqa, where gunmen at checkpoints are often Saudi, Egyptian, Tunisian or Libyan. Raqqa’s emir of electricity is Sudanese, and one hospital is run by a Jordanian who reports to an Egyptian boss, according to Syrians who work under them.
After ISIS’s advance into Iraq last month, the Jordanian went to Mosul to help organize a hospital there before returning to Raqqa.
“He talked with an eager shine in his eyes, saying that the caliphate of the Islamic State that began in Raqqa would spread over the whole region,” one of his employees said.