‘Long live death!’ - Inside the caliphate - Empire of Fear: Inside the Islamic State (2015)

Empire of Fear: Inside the Islamic State (2015)


‘Long live death!’ - Inside the caliphate


We know a lot about the Prophet Muhammad’s vision for an Islamic state because he described it in a document called the Constitution of Medina. Exiled from his home city of Mecca by his own Quraysh tribe, the Prophet was given refuge by the people of Medina, a town little more than two hundred miles directly north up the Hijaz peninsula of what is now Saudi Arabia. In 622 ce, the people of Medina asked Muhammad to write the constitution. The result was a social-military contract for the city’s population, a third of whom were Jews.

The constitution was drawn up to recognize the rights of the city’s minorities, namely the Jews, as well as to deal with the military threat posed by the bellicose Quraysh from Mecca. The document consisted of sixty-three articles, of which ten specifically related to the religious rights of the nine main Jewish tribes of Medina. Article 30, for example, stated, ‘The Jews of Banu Awf shall be considered a community among the believers [Muslim]. They shall be guaranteed the right of religious freedom among the Muslims.’1 The Jews were required to pay a ‘proportionate liability of war expenses along with the believers’ in the ongoing struggle against the Quraysh, ‘so long as they [the Jews] continue to fight in conjunction with them’.2

As an Islamic scholar, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi would know a great deal about the Constitution of Medina; his Islam-based cult purports to recreate the earliest days of the Prophet and the two golden generations that followed him. So it seems curious that the apparent vision of tolerance and inclusion incorporated in the Constitution of Medina more than 1,300 years ago should be so at odds with the misery and destruction that Islamic State has inflicted on the territories it has controlled.

Baghdadi’s caliphate is not a static creation. Islamic State seeks to conquer what it sees as the Muslim world before the ‘caliph’ eventually turns his full wrath on the lands of the kuffar, the hated apostates. However, in Iraq at least, in the year following the fall of Mosul, IS already started to yield some of the towns and territory it had captured to Iraqi militias and military only to conquer elsewhere, such as Ramadi in the west of the country. In 2013-14, its campaign of conquest and even its war crimes were familiar and recognizable enough to most people with a little knowledge of warfare. However, as this military campaign appeared to stall, the expansion of Baghdadi’s Islamic State took unorthodox and unfamiliar forms, as IS suddenly appeared in other troubled lands.

In March 2015, the Islamist group in Nigeria known as Boko Haram pledged allegiance or bay’ah to Baghdadi, therefore recognizing him as caliph.3 Boko Haram, also known as Jama’at Ahlis-Sunnah, has almost equalled IS in brutality and ferocity. The group acquired worldwide opprobrium in April 2014 when it kidnapped more than two hundred schoolgirls during an attack on a secondary school. In the eyes of Baghdadi, this crime was something to be applauded: a 2015 edition of his propaganda magazine Dabiq says, ‘They [Boko Haram] did not fear the blame of any critic when they captured and enslaved hundreds of Christian girls, even as the Crusader media machine put the brunt of its strength into focusing the world’s attention on the issue.’4

Elsewhere, in late 2014, IS announced its presence amid the chaos of Libya in the country’s eastern city of Derna, not far from the Egyptian border and just a 200-mile boat ride across the Mediterranean to Crete and Europe.5 In early 2015, IS suddenly appeared hundreds of miles to the west, in Colonel Muammar Gaddafi’s hometown of Sirte, fighting militias, and carrying out the gratuitous beheadings of twenty-one innocent Egyptian Coptic Christians6who happened to be working in Libya as builders.7 Thirteen were from one village in Egypt, el-Aour, a majority Christian village in the Nile valley.8 After the beheadings on a beach near Sirte, the masked leader of the killers pointed his knife towards the freshly bloodied waters of the sea and said, ‘We will conquer Rome, by Allah’s permission.’9 In April 2015, IS murdered another thirty Christians in Libya, this time from the Ethiopian Church. IS footage showed one group of men being shot in the desert and another group being beheaded on a beach.10 The post-revolutionary chaos provided the ideal opportunity for IS to establish a small but menacing presence in both eastern and western Libya.11 It was textbook ‘management of savagery’ stuff. IS boasted pledges of allegiance from affiliate ‘mujahidin’ in Algeria, the Sinai in Egypt, Yemen and the ‘Arabian peninsula’.12

Islamic State’s reach proved to be long and deadly. In September 2014, the IS franchise in Algeria decapitated its French hostage, the tourist Hervé Gourdel, after the expiration of its ultimatum to France to halt air strikes against IS in Iraq.13 In April 2014, Baghdadi engaged in more aggressive poaching from his humbled jihad competitors when he received pledges from nine former al-Qaeda emirs from Afghanistan, Turkmenistan and Iran, an area IS calls ‘Khorasan’ and hopes one day to conquer.14 Again the world was taken by surprise when IS gained control over the Palestinian refugee camp at Yarmouk just six miles from the centre of Damascus. A supposed haven became a deadly killing ground as the jihadis terrorized the camp’s remaining 16,000 or so inhabitants and beheaded captives.15

To write a definitive account of this Islamic state, Baghdadi’s ‘caliphate’, feels rather like building a house on foundations of jelly. Very few reporters have been allowed into the caliphate to describe what they see, and even then their movements have been tightly controlled by IS. The boiling ferocity, which initially sustained the caliphate’s giddying expansion, may burn itself out; the ‘state’ may suddenly collapse under the onslaught from land and air by the global coalition arrayed against it. It may expand its territories in ways that cannot be predicted. The group has always taken the world by surprise and few people can say with any confidence what will happen next. However, most governments and experts think IS will not disappear any day soon and that its virulent and intolerant form of Islam will prove extremely difficult to eradicate.

By July 2014, the IS caliphate stretched approximately 415 miles from northern Syria to the town of Sulaiman Bek not far from the Iranian border. Its mainly captive population was numbered at anything between five and six million; around two million lived in Mosul alone. It has often been stated in the media that IS occupied an ‘area larger than the United Kingdom’.16 By the spring of 2015, it had shrunk somewhat since those heady days and may shrink significantly further should it lose Mosul and other towns. Whatever the reality on the ground, Islamic State continued to portray its caliphate as inevitable and enduring.17

Digitally, the caliphate stretches as far as the eye can see, from Twitter to Tango, and on to Snapchat. It projects an image of invincibility through ‘Muja tweets’, ‘Facebooking’ and ‘Whatsapping’, and even when it leaks, it does so through Wikibaghdady. IS uses terror to control its temporal caliphate and seeks to intimidate a vastly more powerful outside world via the Internet with its many snuff movies depicting its massacres and decapitations of innocent journalists and aid workers, and even the burning to death of a Jordanian pilot. The public ‘executions’ - whether they are women stoned to death for adultery or men beheaded for ‘sorcery’ - are designed to terrorize the group’s captive millions into submission, and cow the rest of the world into leaving the caliphate alone.

The second part of the strategy proved to be an abject failure, because all it did was provoke the coming together of an unlikely coalition of more than 60 nations including Iran, Syria, Saudi Arabia and United States, Albania and even Switzerland18 which is determined to destroy Islamic State. To many experts, this demonstrated a lamentable misunderstanding of the West. There are also signs that the first part of the strategy, of subjugating its captive population, may start to unravel. IS faces its own internal insurgency from a number of small groups, including the Raqqa Rebels Brigade, or also known as Thuwar Raqqa. In late January/early February 2015, IS killers publicly ‘executed’ five men and a seventeen-year-old youth who had confessed to having links to the Raqqa Rebels.19 Naturally the murders were videoed by IS and the film posted on the Internet with the title ‘The Liquidation Process of a Sleeper Cell’. This ‘process’ involved handcuffing the six and gunning them down in front of a large crowd. They had been accused of attempting to bomb IS headquarters in Raqqa. In October 2014, IS attempted to kidnap the leader of the Raqqa Rebels, Abu Issa, in Turkey and smuggle him across the Syrian border into the caliphate. IS militants ambushed Abu Issa in the Turkish town of Urfa, which lies not far from the Syrian border. Eventually the jihadis realized they were not going to get past the Turkish border guards, abandoned the attempt to get Issa into Syria, and decided not to kill him. Instead they dropped him off at a Turkish hospital with a gunshot wound in his side.20

In Anbar, IS has faced uprisings from old Awakening enemies. The Albu Nimr tribe, also Sunni, desperately fought IS in October 2014 but ran out of ammunition, food and fuel. Eventually, IS captured their village of Zauiyat Albu Nimr and carried out a general massacre in which an estimated 322 men, women and children died.21 There have been frequent reports from Anbar of Sunni tribesmen, many of them former Awakening members, courageously fighting IS. On 10 December 2014, IS captured twenty-one former Awakening fighters near the town of Baghdadi and shot them two days later.22

Islamic State has fondly portrayed the caliphate as the land of plenty. Happy pastoral scenes of people gathering fruit and vegetables from their fields or cheerfully shopping in the markets are plentiful on its websites and elsewhere. The truth on the ground is somewhat different. By April 2015, images of long food queues began to emerge from Raqqa,23 as did reports of epidemics, including five hundred cases of the flesh-eating disease leishmaniasis,24 spread by a type of sandfly and often symptomatic of poverty, pollution and malnutrition. The pictures of deprivation and poverty25 were completely at odds with the portrayal of the caliphate by the supposedly slick propaganda machine of media ‘sheikh’ Abu Mohammed al-Adnani. Hunger has proved a powerful threat to tyranny down the ages, as many a toppled dictatorship or monarchy could confirm.

The terror and cruelty experienced by ordinary people in the ‘Islamic State’ will come as no surprise to anyone with knowledge of the group’s previous attempts at a caliphate. The horror stories of murder and mayhem sound depressingly similar to those emanating from areas of Iraqi Kurdistan terrorized by Abu Musab al-Zarqawi and the group Ansar al-Islam in 2001,26 and from Anbar when it groaned under the tyranny of Zarqawi and Abu Omar al-Baghdadi in 2006 and 2007.27 Each time, the story was the same, a macabre farce where savagery and fear constitute the weft and warp of the so-called ‘state’.

The caliphate announced in July 2014 was unquestionably on a greater scale than its nasty and pathetic predecessor regimes. After all, there are an estimated five to seven million people said to be living under IS, far in excess even of the one million Anbaris the group terrorized in 2006-7. However, the one defining achievement of each ‘caliphate’ or ‘emirate’ has been the same - death, and plenty of it. The caliphate has not delivered security, human dignity, happiness and the promise of eventual peace, let alone basic services, but it has produced piles of corpses and promises to produce piles more. The IS factory line of death is the one piece of machinery that manages to work through the many electricity stoppages experienced on a daily basis by the caliphate’s population.

In that sense, IS is immediately recognizable as one of the ‘apocalyptic and death-obsessed’ mass movements described by the American writer Paul Berman in his book Terror and Liberalism, written not long after the 9/11 attacks. He included both the Islamists and the Ba’ath Party on his list, and it is hard not to think of ‘Khalifah’ Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi in Berman’s description of the typical leader of such a movement:

The Leader was a superman. He was a genius beyond all geniuses. He was the man on horseback who, in his statements and demeanour was visibly mad and who, in his madness, incarnated the deepest of the anti-liberal impulses, which was the revolt against rationality.

For the Leader embodied a more than human force. He wielded the force of History (for the Bolsheviks and Communists); or the force of God (for the Catholic fascists); or the force of the biological race (for the Nazis). And, because his person exercised a power that was more than human, he was exempt from the rules of moral behaviour, and he showed his exemption, therefore his divinelike quality, precisely by acting in ways that were shocking.28

This also works as a description of Saddam Hussein, and it is worth remembering that the violent Islam-based takfirism of Islamic State is only one side of the IS coin. The former Ba’athist army officers and intelligence officials were always on the flip side and if anything, they and their methods became more prominent with the setting up of the caliphate. Both the Ba’athists and the jihadis know how to terrorize people and how to spy on them. Totalitarianism comes naturally to both wings of Islamic State. Insidiously, their ‘state’ has infiltrated family life, forced women into marriage and taken away children and turned them into killers.

‘Raqqa is being slaughtered silently’

Baghdadi believed that all Muslims had a duty to come to the new caliphate, ‘And we call on every Muslim in every place to perform hijrah [to journey to a place of refuge] to the Islamic State,’ implored Baghdadi in his audio message released in May 2015, although he never explained how all 1.6 billion of the Ummah were going to fit into his still modestly sized caliphate.29 Mosul was Islamic State’s greatest prize, but its de facto capital was always Raqqa. Raqqa was the first city to fall under the sway of IS and the group battled to prevent it falling into the hands of its opponents, including Nusra Front.30 It was the fall of Raqqa initially to Nusra in late March 201331 that inspired Baghdadi to travel to Syria and make his ill-fated attempt to take back control of Nusra. In all likelihood, if and when it happens, the last stand of Islamic State will take place in Raqqa.

Raqqa is situated in northern Syria on the north bank of the river Euphrates and has a population of around 220,000. One of the best sources for what has been happening in the city under IS control is a website called Raqqa Is Being Silently Slaughtered (RBSS). Communicating with the outside world has proved to be an extremely hazardous business for anyone living in the caliphate. For example, in April 2015, a Facebook page called Mosul Eye issued a dire warning to the people of Mosul: ‘You are advised to totally avoid using the social networking platform “Line” in your social communication as this networking platform is penetrated by ISIS. A man was beheaded recently [after being] accused with treason for using this software for communicating with government forces and exchanging information with them.’32

RBSS has been run by a group of extraordinarily brave young people. IS has murdered at least one of the team for working for the site. I have been in contact with one of the site’s most important founders and writers. He likes to be known as Abu Mohammed, but of course that is not his real name. He comes from Raqqa and lived there when Baghdadi seized control in the autumn of 2013. Abu Mohammed remembered the city before IS:

My family was just like any other family from the city of Raqqa; we had our own customs and traditions, all of us were studying in schools and universities. We are not secularists, we are moderate Muslims, we are not militants.

I smoke, as does my father too, but we do not drink alcohol. Sometimes I’d go dancing and of course I listen [to] music. We dressed in normal clothes and our women did not cover their faces. Most of them did not like to wear the burqa or anything like that. Life was good.33

Obviously, life in Raqqa worsened rapidly with the onset of the Syrian civil war. Abu Mohammed said, ‘Raqqa changed a lot. There has been so much damage. Bashar al-Assad’s forces made random arrests; there was a lot of injustice.’ First Raqqa fell to Nusra.34 ‘Al-Nusra resembled ISIS a lot,’ said Abu Mohammed, ‘but they were less brutal in Raqqa.

‘ISIS first arrived in Raqqa on 4 September 2013, and later lost it. When it retook the city on 12 January 2014, it was brutal. They executed approximately two hundred people and after that exercised indiscriminate arrests, kidnapped activists and carried out beheadings and hand amputations.’

Abu Mohammed said the city’s women had probably suffered more than anyone else since the occupation by IS, ‘The situation of women in Raqqa has been very bad. Many of them were forced to marry ISIS fighters. In at least one case, a woman has committed suicide. ISIS also took a decision preventing any woman under fifty from leaving Raqqa except in serious medical cases.’ Again, as in Anbar in 2006 and 2007, the group was seeking to insinuate itself in the fabric of Raqqa and throughout the caliphate through forced marriage.35

Women were the subject of constant harassment and arbitrary arrest, according to Abu Mohammed, who added, ‘A woman friend of mine was arrested and tortured. She was detained for fifteen days and suffered beatings and humiliation. Other Syrian women and even some immigrant women tortured her. After her release, she bore the marks on her body for months and for a long time afterwards she would wake screaming and terrified every night from her nightmares.’ In April 2015, in the town of Tabaqa, not far from Raqqa, women were effectively prohibited from receiving dental treatment, by official decree. IS raided dental clinics to prevent male dentists treating women patients, which the militants considered ‘contrary to Islam’.36

In particular, Yazidi women captives have suffered grievously at the hands of IS since the group’s invasion during August 2014 of their homelands in Iraq’s Nineveh province. Around 200,000 Yazidis managed to escape Baghdadi’s genocidal onslaught37 but the United Nations later confirmed that around 5,000 mainly male refugees were massacred and bulldozed into mass graves while around 7,000 Yazidi women were literally enslaved and many were used for sex.38 In late 2014, IS distributed a pamphlet entitled Su’al wa-Jawab fi al-Sabi wa-Riqab, or ‘Questions and Answers on Taking Captives and Slaves’. It is little more than a justification for systematic rape and paedophilia in a series of rhetorical questions and answers. For example, question 5 asks, ‘Is it permissible to have intercourse with a female captive immediately after taking possession [of her]?’ The answer is, ‘If she is a virgin, he [her master] can have intercourse with her immediately after taking possession.’ Question 13 asks, ‘Is it permissible to have intercourse with a female who has not reached puberty?’ The answer is, ‘It is permissible to have intercourse with the female slave if she is fit for intercourse; however, if she is not fit for intercourse, then it is enough to enjoy her without intercourse.’39

Like the Christians and the Shia, the Yazidis had suffered years of murder and persecution at the hands of the group, including the devastating bomb attacks on their villages in August 2007.40 Following the tragedy it inflicted at Sinjar IS boasted about its horrendous treatment of Yazidi women in Dabiq, the glossy periodical produced by ‘Sheikh’ Adnani. In an editorial entitled ‘The Revival of Slavery before the Hour’, Dabiq described the Yazidis as a ‘pagan minority’ and their creed as ‘deviant’. ‘Even cross-worshipping Christians for ages considered them devil worshippers and Satanists,’ Dabiq claimed.41

The Yazidis were given an ultimatum: ‘repent or face the sword’.42 The article continued: ‘Also their women could be enslaved…After capture, the Yazidi women and children were then divided according to the Shari’ah amongst the fighters of the Islamic State who participated in the Sinjar operations, after one fifth of the slaves were transferred to the Islamic State authority to be divided as khums [a traditional Islamic twenty-percent tax on war booty].’43The Yazidi women were to be used as concubines in perpetuity, but any offspring would be free, unlike their mother, so ‘the slave girl gives birth to her master’.44

In April 2015, a report by the charity Human Rights Watch detailed the systematic rape and sexual violence committed by IS jihadis against Yazidi women. The report was based on interviews conducted by the charity in the town of Dohuk in Iraqi Kurdistan with twenty women and girls who had escaped from IS. Half, including two twelve-year-old girls, said they had been raped.45 Separately, a local doctor said that of the 105 women and girls she had examined, 70 appeared to have been raped in IS captivity.

For the Human Rights Watch investigators, the rapes and abuses of Yazidi women captives went beyond just being ‘widespread’. This abuse was ‘systematic’, even a ‘methodical plan’. The report added, ‘ISIS public statements concerning enslavement, forced marriage, and abuse of captured women, as well as the organized sale of Yezidi [sic] women and girls, indicate a widespread practice and a systematic plan of action by ISIS.’46

After death, sex seems to be the next great obsession of Islamic State fighters. In February 2015, local doctors in Raqqa were reporting that IS fighters were demanding Viagra ‘to have more sex’. According to RBSS ‘the fighters take numerous wives to satisfy their demand for sex, and spend large amounts of time searching for “sabaya” - kidnapped women and children, some of them as young as nine, sold into slavery’. Doctors disclosed to the site’s reporters that ‘a large section of ISIS members suffer from sexual anomalies and [a] brutal instinctive desire for sex’.47 Many women in Raqqa dare not venture outside in case of falling into the hands of IS militants. If they do, they are forced to cover not only their body but their face and hands as well. The jihadis have taken advantage of the poverty sweeping Raqqa to force local families into effectively selling their daughters for between $2,000 and $5,000.48

There is a strange contradiction at the heart of the ‘state’. There are its many crimes and then there is the elaborate bureaucracy that commits them. Based on documents discovered at an IS hideout, the Telegraph website published what was then a definitive organization plan for the group in July 2014.49 For example, one Abu Suja (real name Auf Abdulrahman Elefery) was given the job of ‘coordinator of prisoners and women’s affairs’, an apposite and ominous-sounding portfolio if ever there was for the beleaguered women of Raqqa.50 One of the more curious IS job titles must surely be the position apparently held by Abdulla Ahmad al-Mishhadani as of January 2015, that of ‘coordinator of guest houses and suicide bombers’.51 Baghdadi’s chief adviser, Haji Bakr, also played an enormous role in drawing up the terror management blueprint of the caliphate, according to documents discovered at his house. Each district and region would have its own ‘security emir’. At a regional level, the emir would lead a team that would include two deputy emirs, a secret service boss, and separate departments for surveillance and security and training spies. At a district level, the emir would oversee a structure including heads of departments for weapons, prisons and interrogation, ‘economic targets’, ‘intelligence cells’ and the training of Sharia judges.52

Islamic State is undeniably ‘an impressively managed and obsessively bureaucratic organization’, as described by the terrorism expert Charles Lister.53 Hierarchical plans for IS tend to look rather out of date fairly rapidly because IS commanders have a habit of getting killed pretty often. Baghdadi lost several important lieutenants during 2014. In January, Haji Bakr, the old Ba’athist colonel who had acted as kingmaker to Baghdadi in 201054 and had helped eliminate any rivals, was himself assassinated probably by another jihadi group.55 The role of ‘coordinator of prisoners and women’s affairs’ fell vacant when Abu Suja was killed in a coalition air strike in November 2014.56Baghdadi was reportedly injured in the same attack.57 Former Ba’athist colonel Abu Muslim al-Turkmani (real name Fadel Ahmad Abdullah al-Hiyali) was deputy to his caliph58 and charged with overseeing the Iraqi provinces of IS until he was killed in a separate air strike in early December 2014.59

The head of IS controls its two powerful bodies, the cabinet, consisting of around seven members, and the war council. The war council, known as the shura, is made up of three senior IS commanders, responsible for everything from the management of warehouses where arms are stored, to the direction of suicide bombers and the planning of military operations, including bombings and assassinations. One deputy controls the twelve governors or wali in Syria, while the other is responsible for the twelve governors in the group’s Iraqi provinces. Then there are eight separate councils dealing with a plethora of other issues.

The group’s varied income streams, from hostage ransoms to the sale of black-market oil, are dealt with by the financial council, which also oversees the IS treasury department, known as the Bayt al-Mal, the ‘House of Money’. In November 2014, the Bayt al-Mal issued a statement announcing that the caliphate would soon be minting its own coins, at the demand of none other than the ‘caliph’ himself:

Based on the directive of the Emir of the Believers in the Islamic State, caliph Ibrahim, may Allah preserve him, to mint currency for the Islamic State, as it is far removed from the tyrannical monetary system that was imposed on the Muslims and was a reason for their enslavement and impoverishment, and wasting the fortunes of the Ummah, making it easy to fall into the hands of the Jews and Crusaders, the Treasury Department studied the matter and presented a comprehensive project, by the grace of Allah, to mint a currency based on the inherent value of the metals gold and silver.60

The new currency, called the dinar, would have seven coins, two gold, three silver and two copper. The largest-value coin, containing 21.25 grams of gold, would have been worth around $694 in mid-November 2014.61 The smallest copper coin would be worth a few cents.62 It was not entirely clear at the time where IS would get the precious metals from and the new coins had yet to make an appearance as of spring 2015.

The legal council administers what passes for justice in the ‘state’ while the security council manages internal policing and the many executions.63 Islamic State has made no secret of its killing; much of it has been done in public places in front of crowds and recorded for posterity. Men and children have been crucified and beheaded, homosexuals thrown to their deaths from high buildings and women stoned to death in main squares. Most of the terror is orchestrated by the IS ‘morality police’, the much-feared al-Hisbah, whose name is taken from the word hisbah, meaning the divinely sanctioned duty for Muslims to intervene when another Muslim is violating Sharia.64

Minor offences such as smoking in public can be punished with amputation or worse. In March 2015, IS made it clear that it considered professional soccer to be ‘a product of the decadent West’ and threatened to give eighty lashes to anyone caught watching a match between Real Madrid and Barcelona.65 In January 2015, the group caught thirteen teenagers in Mosul watching the Asian Cup match between Jordan and Iraq on TV and publicly executed them by firing squad.66 This massacre must have been approved by their football loving ‘caliph’, once considered a superb goal scorer, the ‘Messi of our team’.67 A recent United Nations report stated, ‘ISIS has committed torture and murder as part of an attack on a civilian population in Aleppo, Ar-Raqqah [Raqqa], Dayr Az-Zawr and Al-Hasakah governorates [all in Syria], amounting to war crimes and crimes against humanity.’68

Abu Mohammed witnessed many atrocities in Raqqa, including beheadings and the stoning to death of a woman accused of adultery. He told me, ‘It is difficult to talk about executions without mentioning the subject of the stoning of women. I saw this happen in the municipal yard in Raqqa. They threw stones at her until she died. Watching it, I felt my heart had stopped and I did not hear anything but the voice of the woman saying “I am innocent”.’69

The municipal yard in Raqqa is Islamic State’s favourite place for stoning women to death, and it was here that Abu Mohammed watched the killing of Faddah al-Sayed. On 18 July 2014, at around 11 p.m., a truck arrived at the yard and dumped a large pile of stones. A cleric read out the sentence and then the jihadis brought in Sayed, who was clad head to toe in black. The residents who gathered in the yard refused to help IS carry out the sentence so the jihadis, mainly foreign fighters, carried out the sentence themselves.70

Abu Mohammed added, ‘There are young people who have been crucified at the hands of ISIS. I’ve seen and heard them screaming with pain. ISIS always claims that they are infidels or apostates or working with Bashar al-Assad. But I knew some of them - they were good people.’ IS has also targeted the group behind RBSS. Abu Mohammed said:

My friend Mo’taz was executed because he was working with our team. They are killing anyone who disagrees with them. Anyone who says a word they do not like must be punished. People are living in fear even when they are in their own homes. ISIS does things you cannot imagine. They are just a group of criminals who have been trained to kill and intimidate people. There is nothing good in ISIS; everything about them is bad.

Everyone thinks of escaping but a lot of people cannot get out and do not have the money to live outside Raqqa.

The situation has been especially bad for the kuffar minorities. Abu Mohammed said, ‘Now there are approximately thirty Christian families in Raqqa and they are forced to pay ISIS a sum of money called a “tribute”, but if Shia and other minorities are caught then they are executed immediately on charges of blasphemy.’

The Lion Cubs of the Khalifa

Many of the most sinister images to emerge from Raqqa have been of children. In one video, a boy aged around eleven with black shoulder-length hair points a pistol at two suspected Russian spies, who are kneeling on the ground in front of him with their hands tied behind their backs, and shoots them in the back of the head. Shortly before the murders are carried out, a heavily armed jihadi announces that the suspects were now at the mercy of a new force in the caliphate, the caliph’s growing child army: ‘By Allah’s grace, they are now in the custody of the Lion Cubs of the Khalifa.’71

Images have also emerged of another young boy executing a third man accused of spying, this time supposedly for Israel’s Mossad intelligence network. One picture shows the dead-eyed child looking coldly ahead, with his victim lying at his feet.72 The child army known as the ‘Lion Cubs of the Khalifa’ is one of the most disturbing developments in the caliphate. In recent decades, the world has witnessed the phenomenon of child soldiers from South Sudan to Colombia. According to the charity War Child, children are used as soldiers because ‘they are easier to condition and brainwash’, adding, ‘They don’t eat much food, don’t need paying much and have an undeveloped sense of danger so are easier to send into the line of fire.’73

Baghdadi started to meddle with Raqqa’s education system from the beginning of his occupation. Schools and universities were closed and Islamic State started to enrol a large number of the children into boot camps. Some were simply kidnapped while others joined the Lion Cubs as a result of the widespread poverty, either for food or in return for money paid to their parents. According to sources within Raqqa, more than thirty children and forty-five young men from Raqqa were killed in Islamic State battles in the three months between early October 2014 and early January 2015.74 ‘As the mujahidin of the Islamic State continue their march against the forces of kufr [non-belief],’ proclaimed Dabiq, ‘there is a new generation waiting in the wings…these are the children of the Ummah of jihād, a generation raised in the lands of malāhim (fierce battles) and nurtured under the shade of Sharī’ah.’75

The children have been taken to the Sharia training camp outside Raqqa for one of two types of training. The slow training course includes an initial forty-five days of indoctrination followed by three months of military training in the use of bombs and guns. The children are then considered to be battle ready. They are then segregated into separate groups, including the suicide bombers cadre and the bomb-making department.76 Some children are used in supportive tasks, such as delivering food and medicine to IS fighters. On 28 August 2014, IS decided to murder 420 Syrian soldiers it had captured from three Syrian military bases.77 Approximately one hundred of the soldiers were handed over to the Cubs for beheading, a precondition of their graduating, and they did not disappoint their caliph. The severed heads were later taken to Raqqa and displayed all around the city on walls, on pavements and even on spiked railings.

So-called ‘flash training’ is held when IS needs fighters quickly during major battles, such as the group’s attack, beginning in mid-September 2014, on the Kurdish town of Kobani in the far north of Syria on the Turkish border. IS has also attempted to press-gang captured Yazidi children into joining the Cubs. Two boys, Habib Kalajasa and his brother Farage, aged fourteen and eleven in April 2015, survived and escaped IS to tell their tale to the BBC World Service. Habib said:

They took us to a school and they took us to the top floor. Boys and girls. Small ones like us. They began to teach us religious and military lessons.

First thing in the morning, whoever didn’t wake up was beaten with a black stick. They saw that we didn’t learn and they got angry and said we were laughing at their religion. After three days, they thought it was useless and [they said] ‘You’re not capable children.’ They separated the younger and older boys and took them to do fighting and left us younger kids at school.78

Both boys spoke to the BBC from the sanctuary of a refugee camp in the Iraqi Kurdistan capital of Erbil, but hundreds of others suffered the loss of either their life or their childhood.

Another of the more disturbing images to emerge from Raqqa appeared in February 2015. At first sight, there is nothing remarkable about it. Again the picture is of a boy, this time aged around eight or nine, and it was taken at night. He is wearing a blue woolly hat and a wide rapturous smile, as he looks skywards.79 It is just the sort of expression you see when children are looking up at a fireworks display…but the boy was not watching a fireworks display. He is staring up at a huge screen of the image of a pilot being burned alive in a cage. The IS propaganda film in which the boy appeared was called The Muslims’ Delight at the Burning of the Pilot. It purports to shows the people of Raqqa looking up at big screens erected in the city showing the footage of the immolation of the pilot. The lovingly produced film of the murder, that was watched with such apparent joy by the people of Raqqa, was called Healing the Believers’ Chests.80

The twenty-six-year-old pilot, Moaz al-Kasasbeh, had been captured by IS after his F-16 jet developed mechanical problems and crashed near Raqqa on 24 December 2014.81 Kasasbeh had parachuted out in time but was quickly captured by the militants. At one time there was a proposal to trade Kasasbeh and a Japanese journalist also kidnapped by IS, Kenji Goto, for Sajida Atrous al-Rishawi, the Zarqawi woman terrorist who had helped carry out the bombing on the Radisson SAS Hotel in the Jordanian capital, Amman, in November 2005.82 In a strange twist of fate, the original mentor of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, Abu Muhammad al-Maqdisi, was employed by the Jordanians as a negotiator to try to negotiate the release of Kasasbeh. At the time of his involvement in the talks, the influential cleric was in a Jordanian prison on charges of inciting terrorism.83

Apparently Maqdisi’s jihadi contacts were so formidable that he was able to reach intermediaries of Baghdadi and his media sidekick Adnani in an attempt to broker Kasasbeh’s release.84 In his letter to Baghdadi, Maqdisi begged the caliph - who he addressed as ‘Emir of the Islamic State’ - to show leniency to Kasasbeh in order to save Rishawi, ‘one of our sisters, a fellow monotheist and jihad fighter’, adding, ‘I ask you, oh Sheikh, in the name of Allah the Almighty, who suspended the heavens without support, not to squander this opportunity to save your and our sister and not to throw away this tremendous chance that [if acted upon], will cause the Muslims to praise you in prayer, in thanks, and in gratitude.’85

However, both the cleric and the world were cruelly hoaxed. Baghdadi held out the hope of a swap with Rishawi, who after all had once been an a willing servant of his old friend and leader Zarqawi, but in fact the ‘caliph’ had ordered the burning of Kasasbeh some weeks earlier, shortly after the pilot’s capture. Abu Mohammed of RBSS told me, ‘We had information about the burning of the pilot at the beginning of 2015.’86

On 3 February 2015, IS posted its grim film of Kasasbeh’s burning, which was every bit as ritualistic as the horrifying defining scene of the cult movie The Wicker Man. Kasasbeh was filmed walking among the ruins of Raqqa, apparently caused by coalition air strikes against IS. The pilot, dressed in an orange jumpsuit soaked in fuel accelerant, was then placed in a cage. A jihadi in khaki brown with a blazing torch lit a fuel trail to the cage and Kasasbeh was swiftly engulfed in flames. His last moments were spent on his knees gripping the bars of the cage. A bulldozer then appeared and buried his charred remains beneath a pile of rubble, to re-enact the death of someone in an air strike, burned and buried, alive or dead. At dawn the day after the film was posted, the Jordanians hanged Sajida al-Rishawi along with an Iraqi al-Qaeda operative called Ziyad Karboli.87 Rishawi had hoped to escape the noose and had appealed against her death sentence long before the capture and murder of Kasasbeh.88 In the end everyone died horribly, Kasasbeh, Rishawi, and the courageous Japanese war reporter Kenji Goto, who was beheaded.89

It is difficult to know what to make of Maqdisi’s television performance in the wake of the tragic fiasco. The cleric, who had helped to inspire Zarqawi on his path of terror, appeared on Jordanian television spluttering with indignation. He fulminated:

They came up with the practice of immolation. People will now follow them in this practice. Immolation? The Prophet Muhammad said, ‘Only the Lord of Fire torments with fire.’ Is this Jihadi Salafism?! Jihadi Salafism has nothing to do with such practices. The Prophet Muhammad considered immolation to be reprehensible. He said, ‘Only the Lord of Fire torments with fire.’ What interest did the burning of the pilot serve? Did they think this would bring an end to the bombardments and the war?

Maqdisi also demonstrated his obvious distress at the damage IS was doing and had already done to the one thing he really cared about, jihad. He said, ‘They have painted Islam, the jihadi movement, in red. They have made people think that jihad can be waged only by killing and slaughter…If anyone purports to have a caliphate but cannot provide the fruits of a caliphate he leads the Muslims to dispersal. They have presented Islam in the image of slaughter and immolation.’90

Maqdisi had exposed the painful truth behind the jihad to which he had devoted his life. The cleric had warned Baghdadi that failure to heed his advice and save the life of the failed suicide bomber Rishawi would ‘damage your prestige and that of your state’91 but the ‘caliph’ had played him for a fool. Baghdadi was convinced that his vision of the ‘state’ was the only one and he probably thought that Maqdisi would have been wiser to have addressed him in his pointless begging letter as ‘caliph’ rather than as a mere emir.

Thousands of desperate or desperately committed or confused would-be jihadis would continue to make their way to the ‘state’ despite its excesses but Maqdisi had been forced to recognize Baghdadi’s caliphate for the disaster it was. Maqdisi and Salafi clerics like him had failed to control the dogs of holy war they had unleashed, and they had ended up with Baghdadi and his vision of an Islamic state with its systematic rapes, its slaves and concubines, child soldiers, murder, torture and genocide. This was not the return of the golden days of the Prophet and his Islamic state but a charnel house containing the remains of many innocent victims as well as the dreams of Sheikh Abu Muhammad al-Maqdisi.