GAZIANTEP, Turkey — In the Syrian capital of the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant’s self-declared caliphate, Raqqa, the group’s extreme interpretation of Sharia law is enforced through extraordinary punishments, including death. The list of potential violations is long and reminders of the consequences of crossing the groups are on constant display, with executed and beheaded men displayed in public squares and roundabouts, their crimes often detailed in notices pinned to their corpses.
And even so, some say the chaos and destruction that characterizes most of Syria after four years of war is such that the comparative calm in Raqqa resulting from ISIL’s strict governance actually offers a respite.
Those who recently fled from Raqqa to Turkey describe a new form of governance taking root as ISIL, also known as ISIS or Daesh, continues its effort to entrench itself into the social fabric of the capital. Despite daily bombardment from U.S.-led coalition airstrikes on the city, ISIL has managed to expand its reach both geographically and socially, taking control of even the minute details of everyday life.
The group has restored electricity supply, painted road signs, imposed taxes, implemented a new education system and operates a highly functional — albeit punitive and brutal — judicial system. The organization now controls about one-third of the country, and rules over millions of people across Syria and Iraq. The group has commandeered oil refineries and gas fields in the desert terrain, helping to finance its operations
ISIL police battalions made up of mostly foreign fighters patrol the streets in 4×4’s and on foot, also setting up checkpoints across the city to inspect identification documents and report any violations to the strict code. Residents must provide tax receipts, proving they have paid the mandatory portion of their agricultural or retail dividends to the state, in order to cross.
Billboards, road signs and administrative buildings have been painted with the black flag of the Islamic State. ISIL has issued new drivers licenses, with the black ISIL logo on the back, and conducts driving tests. Armed traffic police issue fines and penalties for traffic violations.
Dress code is strict. Police inspect the length of men’s beards, with violent penalties including public lashings, or imprisonment enforced for those that are too closely shaved.
“They will stop you in the street and tell you your beard is too short. They will even demand to know where you shaved, and may go and arrest that barber!” said Sarmad Al-Jilane, an anti-ISIL activist with the Raqqa is Being Slaughtered Silently group, who is now living in Gaziantep.
Women must wear the full-length black burqa, complete with niqab and gloves. Female ISIL battalions are deployed to streets and schools to monitor and report any violations of the dress code. Many women have ceased to leave the house.
“My wife didn’t leave the house for six months,” said Mohammed Khedr, now an activist with the Turkey-based Sound and Picture Organisation, which documents human rights violations committed by the group through a network of activists and reporters on the ground.
A graphic designer and advertising professional, Khedr risked his life to print and distribute anti-ISIL leaflets and posters around Raqqa before being forced to flee after the group attempted to co-opt his skills for its propaganda newspaper in April.
“They broke into my house and basically arrested me, telling me I must design a logo for their new news agency, ‘Euphrates News Agency,’ Khedr said. “They offered me a lot of money.”
“I asked for three days to consider it and in that time I arranged to flee to Turkey. I was afraid of retribution against my family once they discovered I had escaped.”
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